Auke Piek, a 44-year-old Dutch engineer, says he has a solution to the Caribbean’s worst drought in half a century –– and it lies hundreds of miles away in the tropical rain forests of Suriname.
This week, a boat will tow a giant bag made from PVC-coated fabric with enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool from Suriname to drought-stricken Barbados and Curacao. It will be a test run for a technology Piek said he wants to expand to other Caribbean islands, and, eventually, as far afield as the Middle East.
“Water is our blue gold,” said Erlyn Power, Suriname representative for Piek’s company, Amazone Resources. “I visit islands where people are having their water turned off and here we have so much of it that it’s just flowing into the sea.”
The drought that started early last year in the Caribbean shrank reservoirs across the region, forcing utilities from Trinidad and Tobago to Jamaica to ration water. For some islands, such as Cuba, it was the worst drought in more than 100 years. And this may just be the start.
The Barbados Water Authority, which signed a memorandum of understanding for the test run but is not buying the initial shipment, said in a statement that the accord it part of its long-term plans to tackle the impact of global warming.
Amazone has received the rights from Suriname’s government to pump water from the mouths of the Coppename and Suriname rivers, both of which meet World Health Organization standards, the company said. On Tuesday, the bag was being filled in the Suriname River, Piek said at a ceremony. The trip to Barbados was expected to take five or six days.
If the test run is successful, the company will order bigger bags, costing more than US$500,000 (BDS$1 million) each and capable of holding 16 times more water. The bags, which can be tethered together and pulled behind a boat, float near the ocean’s surface due to the difference in density between fresh and salt water.
“Drought is hitting these countries more and more. In Barbados, some people only have water for a few hours a day,” said John Goedschalk, executive director of environmental group Conservation International’s Suriname office. “Is this the solution? I think we’d be a fool not to at least try it.”
Still, moving fresh water around the globe to dry regions has been proposed before, including plans to tow icebergs from the Arctic to Africa, but mostly without success. Even versions of the bags Amazone is using date back decades, with failed proposals to use them to deliver water to southern California, Israel and the Gaza Strip, and Northern Cyprus.
Part of the difficulty is the question of control of water rights, said David Zetland, a professor at Leiden University College in the Netherlands who wrote Living with Water Scarcity.
“The problem with water is that it’s not managed through market mechanisms,” Zetland said. “It’s managed through the political process. Water is subject to uncertainty because some politician can come along and say ‘I’m just not going to do it this way’.”
Piek and private investors have spent around US$2 million (BDS$4 million) developing Amazone and plan to raise as much as US$60 million (BDS$120 million) next year when it wants to start making regular deliveries.
Although he declined to provide pricing and costs, Piek said it is cheaper than the desalination and water treatment plants governments in the Caribbean are considering building.
The Suriname government, which is trying to diversify a US$4.9 billion (BDS$9.8 million) economy that is forecast to contract this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, would make royalties off the water sales.
“We have a nearly unlimited source of fresh water in Suriname and at the same time the world’s population is growing and more people will be in need of fresh water,” Piek said. “And here, the water is just flowing into the sea.”