Water Supertankers
Miguel Simhon simhonm@uwec.edu
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.


The world supply of freshwater is abundant, and capable to meet human demands for many years. Yet regional water scarcity is becoming a major concern today. International water marketing is one method for improving the distribution problem, by transporting water to those areas experiencing shortages from places with a water surplus.

Countries such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and the United States are already involved in water markets. Transportation of bulk water outside political boundaries, which is very rare (with bottled water as an exception), is already taking place in certain areas. Austria and Turkey export water to Mediterranean countries, and Israel sells water to areas with extreme water scarcity problems. The Bahamas and Cyprus are other countries that import water from outside sources.

If enough customers can pay, corporations are willing to send vast amounts of water across the ocean. Massive pipelines, supertankers, and giant sealed water bags, that carry freshwater long distances for commercial sale, are being used. The World Bank says, "One way or another, water will soon be moved around the world as oil is now." The mass movement of bulk water could have catastrophic environmental impacts. Some proposed projects would reverse the flow of mighty rivers in Canada's north, the environmental impact of which would be greater than China's Three Gorges Dam (Who Owns Water, 2002).

Exporting bulk water by supertanker, especially from North America, is increasing. Water shipments are sent in huge supertankers, like the tankers used to ship oil. Supertankers can transport both water and oil. “As Canadian water specialist Richard Bocking explains, their tankers would empty oil on one leg of the trip and carry water home on the return voyage. The first tanker shipment of water out of the United States, says the assistant general manager of Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility in Alaska, may have been in a tanker leased by the Japanese trading conglomerate Mitsubishi. In 1995, this Mitsubishi-leased tanker shipping petroleum by-products overseas loaded a couple million gallons of water from Eklutna, Alaska, for transport back to Japan.” (The Global Trade in Water)
Environmental Implications
    Supertankers shipping bulk water would likely operate year-round, along the Pacific coast. They would move on tight schedules through untrustworthy seas and could leave serious ecological damage. “These huge tankers,” says Bocking, “would wind their way through tortuous coastal waterways, maneuvering around islands and reefs in an area where no well-developed marine traffic management system exists . . . Pods of killer whales move regularly through these waters. Along with commercial and sports fisheries, spawning for almost the entire commercial oyster industry of coastal B.C. is located here.” For Bocking, the danger lies in the fact that the massive fuel tanks of these supertankers “are full of bunker C fuel, the worst possible grade of oil in environmental terms. With currents, winds, rocks, and reefs intersecting with tight ship schedules, the stage is set for tragedy on a grand scale.” (The Global Trade in Water)

Bulk water exports are also an ecological threat. Ecosystems would be disrupted, the natural habitat would be damaged, biodiversity would be reduced, and aquifers and underground water system will get dry because of the draining of bulk water from lake and river basins. Also, supertankers would especially deplete water supplies along ocean coasts, since they cannot venture inland.

    Case Study: Turkish water exports to Israel

    Another example of water marketing through supertankers is from Turkey to Israel. Israel will be buying (for the next twenty years) 50 million cubic meters of water annually from Turkey. The water will be extracted from the Manavgat River. The Manavgat River can export 180 mcm of water using tankers. Turkey hopes that the Manavgat River project will eventually supply water to other eastern Mediterranean countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Greece, who also suffer from water shortages. But right now, they are no customers for Turkish water other than Israel. As a result, Turkey's expectations from Israel regarding previous trading commitments have intensified. On July 23, 2003, the Jerusalem Post reported that "Turkey threatened to call off military deals with Israel if the water deal was not signed, and at one time there was even concern in Jerusalem that Israeli firms would be frozen out of lucrative tenders in a massive development program in southeastern Turkey if the water deal was not finalized."
The Manavgat River basin is secure and all necessary measures will be taken to guarantee the safety and quality of water. A pipeline would be the most desirable way of bringing water from Turkey to Israel, but it is impossible politically because a pipeline would have to pass through Syria, which is an adversary of Israel.
    Purpose-built supertankers will be used to send the Turkish water to Israel. Even though the Turkish water would satisfy less than 5 percent of Israel's water needs, the water will be used for emergencies such as droughts. Israel has three immediate options to meet the problem of increasing water demand and irregular water supply. It can import water from Turkey, at a cost of 80 cents per cubic meter, it could desalinate seawater, at a cost of 52-55 cents per cubic meter, or recycle used water via wastewater processing plants, for 35 cents per cubic meter.
    Recycling wastewater is the option with the lowest cost. “Israeli water-processing plants have been operating for thirty years in the Haifa area and in Dan, south of Tel Aviv. The volume of recycled water is estimated at 270 mcm a year, and could reach 620 mcm by 2020” (Turkish Water to Israel, 2003 ). The problem with the recycled water is that it is not considered drinking-water quality and is used by Israel only for industrial purposes.
    Seawater desalination is done on a limited and local scale in Israel. Again, it can be cost-effective, but the desired drinking quality has not been reached and has environmental consequences such as leaving salt residue. “According to Shlomi Dinar, a Johns Hopkins University-based expert on international water issues, brackish water from boreholes is another viable option, as it can reach drinking quality when desalinated. At a cost of 33-42 cents per cubic meter, brackish water is relatively inexpensive to desalinate. However, Israel can at best procure 50 mcm drinking water annually through this method, and the country therefore has to look elsewhere to quench its thirst” (Turkish Water to Israel, 2003).
    “Some Israeli officials have long been skeptical of importing water from Turkey. Israel's Ministry of Finance, for example, has been opposed to it on grounds of cost. The Israeli Water Commission has been lukewarm at best to the idea, generally preferring desalination and recycling. According to rumors in 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at the time that Israel would not buy water from Turkey since it would cost Israel less to desalinate its own water -- instead offering Turkey $147 million compensation in installments for the investment it had already made in the water export project. Turkish officials refused the offer and repeated Ankara's position that the project was also a political matter. Now Israeli officials say the water desalination projects will continue and the imported water from Turkey will serve as an additional source for emergencies such as droughts” (Turkish Water to Israel, 2003).
    Corporations Using Supertankers
    If international water markets further develop, Canada would be a central subject of focus, with 20 percent of the world's freshwater. Canada could export huge quantities of freshwater around the world. Another huge focus would be Alaska. Corporations will be the ones responsible for transporting bulk amount of water to customers.
    Western Canada Water, Snow Cap Water, White Bear Water, and Multinational Resources were all companies who were planning to transport water by supertankers along the Pacific coast. Yet, they were banned by British Columbia in 1993. “One project was to involve a Texas company prepared to pay for a fleet of 12 to 16 of the world’s largest supertankers (500,000 deadweight tons) to operate around the clock. Under one contract, the annual volume to be shipped to California was equivalent to the total annual water consumption of the City of Vancouver in Canada.”(Who Owns Water, 2002) But the export ban may be reversed, and open the floodgates for bulk water shipments by supertanker down the Pacific Coast again, due to a change of provincial government in British Columbia.
    Global H2O is another Canadian-based company, which has signed a 30-year agreement to export 18.2 billion U.S. gallons (about 69 billion liters) of glacial water per year from Alaska to China. Global has formed a “strategic alliance” with the Signet Shipping Group, a U.S. company based in Houston, Texas, which has a fleet of supertankers in order to transport the bulk water to China. Each Signet supertanker (50,000 deadweight tons) is expected to carry over 330 million liters (about 87 million US gallons). Global also has a contract with Singapore. “But to supply Singapore on a regular basis,” said Global’s CEO Fred Paley in June 1998, “we are looking at converting single-hull supertankers which the oil industry will be decommissioning” (International Water Marketing, 2001).
    World Water S.A. is another company that has a fleet of supertankers. This company includes Japan’s NYK Line (Nippon Yusen Kaisha), the world’s largest shipping company, operating over seven hundred vessels.
    Both companies can use supertankers to ship Alaskan fresh water supplies to China and the Middle East, but they are not allowed to transport bulk water to Los Angeles or San Diego due to the Jones Act.
Water exports are related to the issue of to how water is viewed, either as a commodity or as a basic human right. Both extremes are difficult to analyze, since water tends to lead to wasteful and inefficient use if we disregard the monetary attributes. On the other hand, the increase in water’s economic value can result in exploitation by those concerned only with profiting from others' deficiencies. Supertankers can be very beneficial when exporting water to those countries in need, but it can be harmful to the environment.Corporations and different countries are starting to trade globally in water, and with freshwater shortages becoming common wil become more sensitive in the years ahead.


For more information:

International Water Marketing: http://www.waterbank.com/Newsletters/nws37.html

The Global Trade in Water: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Water/Global_Trade_BG.html

Who OwnsWater?:http://www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20020902&s=barlow

Turkish Water to Israel: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/watch/policywatch/policywatch2003/782.htm