Technical Fixes
Heather Eslinger
Part of Water is Life, a class website on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.


Due to the worldwide decline in freshwater availability, a need for a solution is imperative. Many experts believe they know the route that should be taken to solve the problem. As population increases so does the demand for freshwater, and despite the on-going hydrologic cycle, the replenishing rate cannot keep up with the rate of consumption. Water is being utilized for industries, agricultural uses, and the common household. This page examines the use of technology to increase the supply of freshwater. Some of the main methods that have been proposed include the towing of icebergs, seeding of clouds, and desalination.


    Iceberg Towing

    A longstanding proposal has been to tow icebergs from Antarctica to supply freshwater. In 1978 the idea of towing icebergs to the U.S. to provide freshwater was endorsed by the California State Senate. The plan was to have these 'iceberg trains' driven by electric propellers and powered by a floating nuclear plant (Redmond, 1993). A similar procedure had already been carried out in southern Chilean ports during the early 1900's. (Charlier, 1991). However, the extremely expensive costs, and 80% loss of volume during the towing route cast a shadow over the concept. In the late 1950's, a oceanographer named John Isaacs suggested the icebergs be brought into Los Angeles. The plan was never carried out. However, for almost the last 30 years, Terry Spragg has been working on the iceberg project. In 1991 he had planned a test run but was running into complications with funding and a lack of workers (Wohleber, 1991). Interest in iceberg towing has also been expressed by wealthy oil-rich desert countries such as Saudi Arabia.

    Cloud Seeding

    Cloud seeding is a process in which dry ice or potassium iodide particles are used to increase rainfall. Recent research has shown that hydroscopic salts have been the most successful in increasing the amount of rainfall. The chemicals are sprayed over a propane flame and float into the clouds. Although there was no scientific proof found by a national study that seed clouding works, the general public who are faced with water shortages are still willing to try it. In fact, the Denver Water Department in Colorado has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cloud seeding. In 2001, an estimated 66 cloud seedings took place (USA Today, 2003). Despite the current use of the cloud seeding process, many still feel that more research is essential. There is also some fear that mismanaged cloud seeding could backfire. Some South Dakota residents blame cloud seeding for a torrential rainfall and deadly floods in Rapid City in 1972.


    Desalination is the process of removing the salt impurities and other dissolved minerals from bodies of water. When it is removed from the oceans and has a high salt content it is called "seawater." When the water that is retrieved is less salty than seawater, but has a higher salt content than fresh water it is considered to be "brackish water." Desalination may be accomplished through the use of heat (thermal) or of a semi-impermeable membrane. Thermal desalination is a process in which the salty water is heated, the evaporation collected, and then allowed to cool and condense where it as pure water. The semi-impermeable membrane, also known as Reverse Osmosis (RO), is the primary choice for the desalination of brackish water. The process involves sending the salty water through a film membrane at a pressure of 1,000 to 1,500 per square inch, resulting in one-third of the water having a low salt content.



    Currently about 3,500 desalination plants dot the globe, with most located in higher developed countries. It is important to remember that all countries are being faced with water depletion and only a few are able to set funds aside for desalination research and technology.

    Israel has set up the Grand Water Research Institute (GWRI) which is funded by the American Technion Society. Israel, as well as neighboring countries and territories, has begun to feel the stress from the lack of water resources as populations continue to grow. Because of the over-pumping that has taken place in Israel, saltwater intrusion has occurred along the Mediterranean coast, resulting in a 20% loss of useable drinking water from the underground aquifer. The Rabin Desalination Laboratory, led by Professor Rafi Semiat and aided by Professor Emeritus David Hasson, has been set up by the GWRI to conduct research. The main objectives of this lab are to not only concentrate on reducing the high costs of (R.O.) technology, but to continue investigating techniques to raise the efficiency of all desalination methods. A promising step taken to reduce the amount of freshwater use has been to recycle wastewater through agricultural irrigation. However, the lack of freshwater is still a pressing problem.

    The United States, unlike many countries, has the resources and funds to investigate and research the water depletion problem. A federal agency called the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has a division called ‘The Water Supply, Use, and Conservation Group’ is in charge of the following technical related functions:

    1. Conducting hydrologic investigations and studies including participation on matrix and negotiation teams;
    2. Providing reclamation- wide technical guidance on hydrologic studies;
    3. Reviewing studies and reports containing hydrologic information to ascertain technical adequacy;
    4. Developing technical standards and guidelines for hydrologic analyses and studies;
    5. Developing and applying improved procedures for hydrologic data collection, retrieval, and analysis;
    6. Assisting other agencies and governments with technical training and conducting hydrologic investigations and studies; and
    7. Conducting research into new methodology for hydrologic investigations and analysis.

    The issues involved with the depletion of water will never be solved merely though a technical "fix." No matter how many technical advances are made (and resources are continuously being discovered), we cannot change our need for water. We have to share that need with many plants and animals that we depend upon, and people need to distribute water more equitably, prioritizing those who need it the most for their lives. Water is going to continue to disappear and the price of research is going to continue to be expensive. Sadly, we are going to continue to see many lesser developed countries become more deprived as the price for freshwater grows beyond their reach. Whatever the best solution is to the problem, and even if the price is attainable, the most advantageous goal would be to conserve what we already have.



For more information:

US Bureau of Reclamation

MSNBC article

Definition of Israel's Water Problems

The Stephen & Nancy Grand Water Research Institute: Israel Institute of Technology


Redmond, T., and Mowrey, M., October 1993, Unnatural Disasters: The ten worst environmental ideas in U.S. history: Omni, vol. 16, issue 1.

Charlier, R.H., 1991, Water for the desert- A viewpoint: International Journal of Environmental Studies, vol. 39, p 11-35.

Wohleber, C., 1991, L.A. Thaw: Omni, vol. 13, issue 11.

West seeks help in cloud seeding: USA Today, December 2, 2003, p. 3a.

Hecht, J.L., 2002, Salty Solution: Christian Century, vol. 119, issue 13.