A PIPE DREAM
“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” is the most famous line from Samuel T. Coleridge’s 18th century poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and these words could not be truer today. It is said that in the future, wars will not be fought over oil and gas, but water, that vital substance that makes up 70% of our bodies.
According to the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 97% of the world’s water is saltwater or ‘brackish’ water. Of the 3% remaining, 99% is “in inaccessible polar ice caps, glaciers or deep aquifers”, leaving only 0.03% of all the water on earth accessible and fresh. Water is such an important base for all Earth’s ecosystems that when we look for life on other planets, the main indicator we look for is water. We cannot imagine a life form that exists without it, yet there are millions of people today suffering from a severe lack of fresh water.
Professor Rod Tennyson of the University of Toronto in Canada has a proposal that may change the fate of millions in the heart of one of the world’s driest areas: the Sahel region of Africa.
The idea is literally a pipe dream. A dream of constructing a water pipeline called the Trans African Pipeline (TAP), which would run 8,800km (5,500 miles) across the northern part of the Sahel desert, running east to west across the entire African continent to provide water for more than 28 million people. Linking 12 countries together, there would be two large desalination stations set up on each coast, one in Djibouti and the other in Mauritania that would pump desalinated water across the dry continent. Along the way, the pipeline would serve Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.
Along the pipeline would run solar panels to create renewable energy and sustainable power to drive the desalination plants, pumping stations and irrigation systems. The water would be a vital source of life for the communities along the way, with more than half of the water to be used in creating local farming oases.
The entire project is estimated to cost US$20.1 billion, which seems like a lot until you consider how many people could be saved, how many lives could be changed and how much could grow in the future. For example, it is estimated that in the Sahel region, more than 18 million people –including 1 million children — are directly at risk for food and water shortages this year. Eight million already require emergency assistance, according to Oxfam.
Tennyson, along with his wife, journalist Daphne Lavers, first came up with the TAP project while watching BBC coverage of the G8 summit and the rallies and concerts that were taking place to push the leaders to fund projects in Africa. Many of these projects funded the building of wells and distribution of food packages. At the time, Tennyson was involved in developing safety monitoring technologies for large-scale pipelines. “We developed and manufactured fiber optic sensing systems, and with the accumulated knowledge I had gathered about pipelines, it occurred to us that a water pipeline across Africa could solve the water problem for good, not these band-aid solutions,” Tennyson said.
Thus, the TAP project was born. Tennyson and his wife wrote their first feasibility study report and presented their paper at the international Water for Africa conference held in Hull, Quebec, to the large number of African attendees, many of whom were engineers and government officials. Happily, he “found that the TAP concept was very well-received. There were the standard questions about how difficult it would be to carry this off in many of the African countries, but one African member came to see me with tears in his eyes, and said this was the best idea he had heard of, and as far as he was concerned, this was the most important concept to emerge from this conference. I was hooked on making TAP a reality!”
The project is starting to gather a following. It has officially been incorporated as a not-for-profit in Canada and is made up of a team of professors of engineering and geography, lawyers, economists and agronomists from Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and China. The project is now moving quickly with a major benefactor on board to help promote awareness of the project and to initiate a formal study. TAP is working on raising $1 million in start-up funds from a private investor and will be applying to the G8 countries to cover the costs as part of their money pledged toward aid.