Americans Are Running Out of Water. A Towering Iceberg Could Be the Answer

The world is suffering from a freshwater crisis, including many parts of the United States that are experiencing prolonged drought. But could a bizarre potential solution—towing icebergs—help address the problem?

That question is explored in an upcoming book, Chasing Icebergs: How Frozen Freshwater Can Save the Planet, by Matthew Birkhold, a professor at Ohio State University who focuses on law, environmental humanities, intellectual property and Indigenous studies.

Large swaths of the western United States are facing a water crisis because of a megadrought that has lasted more than two decades. Water stress is affecting a number of communities in the country amid drought conditions, and some are being pushed to the brink. One small town—Coalinga in California—is expected to run out of water by the end of the year, while hundreds of homes in the Arizona desert community of Scottsdale could run out by December 1.

Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country in terms of water capacity—has shrunk to record lows this year amid the ongoing megadrought.

Land reemerging at Lake Mead
Land that was once underwater has reemerged because of the unprecedented drought that has reduced water levels at Lake Mead. The lake is the largest reservoir in the country in terms of water capacity. David McNew/Getty Images

And the problem is certainly not limited to the United States. Cape Town, South Africa, drew significant attention in 2018 when it calculated that it eventually would run out of water—an event referred to as Day Zero.

By 2030, global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent, United Nations estimates suggest. And even in places with adequate fresh water, millions do not have basic water security because of pollution and poor infrastructure.

Figures from the World Health Organization indicate that 2 billion people use a source of water that is contaminated with feces. As a result, every five minutes a child under 5 dies.

Two-thirds of the world's countries do not have sustainable water sources, and the situation is set to worsen as climate change affects access to water and the regularity of rain while the global population increases.

"We're going to have a 5 percent increase in demand for water because of a growing population, at the same time that climate change is going to make those sources more polluted and less stable," Birkhold told Newsweek.

Despite the scale of the crisis before us, Birkhold argues that towing icebergs and harvesting them for drinking water could be among the potential solutions, although this one raises a number of legal, ethical and environmental questions.

"It is really a bizarre, almost divine, gift that our planet has locked away fresh water for us," he said. "Two-thirds of fresh water is frozen. It's frozen in the poles. It's frozen in ice caps and glaciers. And because it's been frozen for so long, it's pure. There's no pollution in this water, it's just sitting there perfectly packaged to be sent into the ocean for people to collect.

"So in absolute terms, we have no shortage of fresh water, we just don't have access to the fresh water that we need. The problem then becomes how do we access this water. And for me, the bigger question is: Who gets to access this water?" Birkhold said.

drought and iceberg
Images show California Aqueduct Vista Point and an iceberg in Greenland. A megadrought has meant that many people in the country's Western states are facing water scarcity. Getty Images

Harvesting icebergs for drinking water is not a new idea. The first serious proposals came in the 1970s, when plans were put forward to tow icebergs to such places as Los Angeles, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Australia.

The idea never got off the ground and was long considered fantastical, impossible even. But now the technology has arrived to make such efforts feasible, in theory.

"Based on the people I've talked to—glaciologists, entrepreneurs, engineers—we already have the technology, everything's set," Birkhold said. "People have been working on this since the 1970s. And they haven't stopped even though the public has forgotten it. It's very much within our capabilities—from an engineering perspective, from a glaciological perspective—to tow icebergs long distances."

Oil companies already regularly tow icebergs in the Arctic and off the coast of Canada for a different purpose—to protect their wells—and have been doing so for decades. They do this by lassoing the icebergs with rope, attaching the rope to a ship and dragging them away, albeit very slowly—at the speed of around 1 knot. But these icebergs tend to be relatively small and are not towed long distances.

Now, though, the technology is available to tow larger icebergs longer distances. In a recent demonstration of developments in this field, a Russian oil company managed to tow a 1 million metric tons iceberg over 50 miles in 2016.

In addition, an organization known as the International Ice Patrol, which monitors icebergs, has sophisticated satellite technology to map these giant hunks of ice with great precision.

Icebergs in the Arctic
A stock image shows icebergs in the Arctic.

"So not only do we have the physical technology to lasso an iceberg but we have the technology to identify appropriate icebergs to tow and then get to them efficiently," Birkhold said.

The potential for harvesting fresh water from these icebergs is clear given the enormous size of many of them. An average-sized iceberg floating off the coast of Canada would be able to supply water to more than 200,000 people for a year, Birkhold said.

"These chunks of water are just unfathomably big, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. So there's a tremendous amount of water," he said.

The idea, then, is that this water could be pumped into municipal systems or bottled for drinking purposes.

Icebergs are already being harvested for water on a much smaller scale in some places in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, a town in Greenland called Qaanaaq uses dump trucks to pick up relatively small icebergs before dropping them into a melter. The resulting water then feeds into municipal systems.

Birkhold also cited an entrepreneur in Norway who harvests icebergs using a crane that lifts them out of the water. The water harvested in this case is then sold as a luxury product at a price of $150 per bottle.

But when it comes to towing large icebergs huge distances around the world to harvest them for drinking water, three main efforts are underway: the Southern Ice Project, which is based in South Africa; Polewater, in Berlin; and the UAE Iceberg Project, based in Fujairah.

All of these projects have said that once they have raised enough money they are going to start towing icebergs for this purpose. But Birkhold has some concerns about the precedent these private initiatives may set.

"The folks in Germany, Polewater, have very clear humanitarian aims," he said. "So it's great if these guys want to go into the high seas and collect an iceberg and then bring it to people in need, I'm all for that.

"Part of my hesitation, though, is the underlying principle that they are confirming, which is these objects indeed are free for the taking. And do we really want to let a private corporation decide who gets to use this, even if these guys have good aims? It makes me a little uncomfortable to give that much power to individual corporations," Birkhold said.

While the UAE is helping to fund the project in Fujairah and Cape Town is willing to support the Southern Ice Project, the cost risks are considered too high for most governments to pursue towing and harvesting icebergs.

"That's part of the mission of my book. If you do the math—we don't have any firm numbers because we don't know for sure how big of an iceberg they could collect and how much of it would melt—but there's so much water in there, even if they sell it cheaply, the cost would be easily recouped," Birkhold said.

"Part of the problem, I contend in my book, is conceptual—that we tend to think about icebergs as these rare gems. Most people haven't seen icebergs, so we tend to think of them as rare and special. In reality, icebergs are extremely ubiquitous. So we need to shift the way that we think about icebergs."

The Southern Ice Project has offered to drag an iceberg to the city, but the costs are proving to be too high to inject the water into municipal sources. A solution is still being sought.

Many people are skeptical of the idea of harvesting icebergs for water. One of the biggest concerns is how to actually harvest the water.

"You can bring an iceberg to Cape Town, but if all the water is going to melt in five days, what are you possibly going to do with all this water?" Birkhold asked.

Cape Town refilling water bottles
Cape Town, South Africa, residents refill water bottles at Newlands Spring on January 31, 2018, amid diminishing water supplies. By 2030, global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent, United Nations estimates say. Morgana Wingard/Getty Images

He said there are some patents for technology that involves wrapping icebergs in materials that reflect the sun to prevent this from happening. Meanwhile, Polewater has developed a solution that involves water bags.

"So basically you let the sun do all of the work of melting an iceberg and collect the water into these mobile bags that float on top of the ocean," Birkhold said. "Then you can use these mobile bags to drag them to wherever you need. I think this is a better solution."

One aspect of this practice that concerns Birkhold is that there are no laws regulating who gets to own an iceberg once it reaches the high seas.

"In theory, everyone in the world owns the resources in the high seas, right? You can go in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, catch a fish and no one's going to stop you," he said.

"Icebergs in the high seas are considered res nullius objects, so 'no one's thing' if you're a lawyer. Typically, what happens to these res nullius objects is countries or corporations with deep pockets go collect these resources and use them for themselves without thinking about who's in dire need of these resources," he said.

Aside from the legal, ethical and technological questions that towing icebergs raises, there are some potential environmental drawbacks. Dragging huge icebergs around the world is going to create large amounts of carbon emissions. In addition, icebergs also have an ecological role—for example, they release minerals that feed phytoplankton (which are food for zooplankton) that are then eaten by larger creatures like whales. Furthermore, icebergs play a role in carbon sequestration.

"If a whole bunch of people start collecting icebergs, we're going to see negative consequences to the environment," Birkhold said. "Talking to glaciologists today, they say taking one iceberg is no big deal—there are between 15,000 and 20,000 icebergs calved every single year. Taking one of 10,000 of anything isn't going to make a difference."

But if iceberg harvesting is shown to be feasible and affordable, it's possible that several large companies or organizations could start doing it. And if there are no laws, there won't be any limitations on how many can be taken.

"There is a potentially huge downside to the environment of this project if it's not regulated by the law," Birkhold said. "I see the solution as developing through something like the United Nations that says you can only take one at a time. Or we need to do more studies and figure out what is the tipping point."

Despite this, Birkhold said he believes the benefits can outweigh the potential drawbacks, although he thinks the practice should be regulated.

"It should happen responsibly, but we're not set up to do that right now, which is why I've written this book to ring an alarm bell of sorts. The future is here. This sci-fi idea from the 1970s is now a reality. But our laws haven't been set up, and our cultural ideas about icebergs haven't caught up to make sure that this resource is distributed equitably."

Solving the global water crisis will require several different solutions, not just one, Birkhold said. These solutions may include reclaiming wastewater, desalination efforts, and newly developed hydro panels that draw water from the air—all of which come with their own set of benefits and drawbacks.

"We don't need to put all of our eggs in one basket," Birkhold said. "I think the best solution is pursuing all of these things so that no individual water source has too much pressure put on it."