Pipe dreams for water transfer

It is time to consider out-of-the-box solutions to take water from a point of surplus to one of deficit

Last month, the ‘Chennai water train’ made its poignant, slow arrival into the city, carrying 2.5 million litres of water for its parched residents. At the very same time, in another part of the country, unspeakable tragedy had unfolded, with Assam and Bihar getting ravaged by the monsoons. And just when it feels that the country has been through enough, rain batters Karnataka and Kerala, taking many lives and causing more misery.

It is a cruel fact that it doesn’t rain evenly across the planet. With the havoc that rapidly-intensifying climate change is bringing, one man’s drought could well coincide with another man’s deluge.

These climatically turbulent times beg the question of whether it would be too far-fetched to use the ‘water train’ model widely and set up infrastructure to transport water from areas with surplus to parched lands. Historically, this notion has been toyed with and abandoned, mainly owing to how expensive it is to ferry water through thousands of kilometres of pipelines and against gradients, often involving pumping stations requiring a lot of energy. Yet, it isn’t as much a technical problem as one of money, and perhaps politics.

The American, Greek examples

In the U.S., the city of Las Vegas planned to use excess water from the Mississippi river through a multibillion-dollar project, a proposal that has remained a pipe dream. French engineers have dreamed up plans to helping water-starved African nations by hauling icebergs to their shores. Some of these plans have succeeded; for example, Greece has used the mega Spragg trash bag and its ‘world’s strongest zipper’ to haul massive amounts of water.

These schemes have yielded another novel idea, which is to use water to transport water. This has been implemented with success in the Caribbean, especially during the drought of 1983-84 in Antigua. The advantages of transporting water over water include the fact that one Horsepower of energy can move 150 kg on road, 500 kg on rail and 4,000 kg on water. Similarly, one litre of fuel can move 24 tonnes per km on road, 85 tonnes on rail and 105 tonnes on inland water transport. The disadvantages are that the loading and unloading facilities are expensive to construct and, in India, most rivers don’t have the depth and breadth to accommodate large barges all through the year. It will also require the dredging of rivers, which is exorbitant and might destroy natural ecosystems. Finally, though India recently forged ahead with its inland waterways development plans by investing in the National Waterways in the Northeast, the bigger problem is that there are too few large industries located near river belts. The impetus for investment simply doesn’t exist.

Nevertheless, exciting and path-breaking innovations in technology and enterprise still hold out much potential to solve our world’s resource problems. Desilting of lakes and rivers (concomitant with effective garbage/plastic disposal); extensive, state-mandated rainwater harvesting; desalination and, finally, recycling of water — all these can make a considerable difference.

According to Magsaysay awardee P. Sainath, there have been five principal migrations of water in India: from agriculture to industry; rural to urban; food to cash crops; poor to rich; and livelihood to lifestyle. These are all independent of seasonal droughts and have to do with our poor water management strategies.

But, in a country of contrasts — where animals frantically try to save themselves from floodwaters in Kaziranga National Park while, at the same time, innocent children carry back-breaking quantities of water in the blistering Chennai sun — perhaps it is time to consider out-of-the-box technological innovations.

The writer is based in Chennai


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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 12:39:14 PM |

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