Is water export our next economic opportunity?

Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2010

In a climate-challenged world, fresh water is quickly becoming the new oil. This is the conventional wisdom of those who track global trends in resource consumption. As noted in Newsweek's Oct. 16th cover story on The New Oil, we are in the midst of a global freshwater crisis. Around the world, rivers, lakes and aquifers are dwindling faster that Mother Nature can possibly replenish them; industrial and household chemicals are rapidly polluting what's left. Meanwhile we have more than 6 billion people in the world and are headed toward 8.5 to 10 billion by 2050. By 2040 the United Nations estimates demand for freshwater will outstrip supply by more than 30 percent as global water consumption is doubling every 20 years.

Currently, the World Bank estimates that more than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water.

Many more struggle to meet their daily needs for water. Approximately, 27 percent of the rural population in the world do not have water piped to their homes and must rely on bottled water or alternative means of delivery. Looking at the 4 billion, low-income consumers in the world, the World Bank estimates that the total market for drinking water in countries throughout Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America is $20 billion.

So where will all the fresh water come from to meet these escalating demands and a growing market for bottled water? Sitka is leading the way in saying Southeast Alaska can be part of the answer. Every year, as drought-ridden regions struggle to meet basic water needs, 6.2 billion gallons of Sitka's water reserves go unused. That is about to change. True Alaska Bottling company has secured a contract from the city of Sitka to annually sell 3 billion gallons of water from Blue Lake, the city's abundant water reserve. Next, they will be using relined oil tankers to transport the water to a bulk bottling facility near Mumbai, India and from there it will be delivered to drought-plagued cities throughout the Middle East. Apparently, the global recession has reduced the tanker shipping rates enough to make this long-distance water shipment feasible.

The article in Newsweek goes on to note the biggest winners of a sophisticated water market are likely to be the very few water-rich regions of the global north. Last time I looked out the window, that would be Southeast Alaska. Imagine a world where a gallon of water costs as much or more than a gallon of oil. Imagine a world where we actually reduce our addiction to oil and more and more tankers get retrofitted for water transport. Until learning about the Sitka project to transport water to India, I would have put these musings in the same category as Gov. Wally Hickel's vision of a water pipeline to California - a pipe dream. But no more. If water is the new oil, does that mean Southeast can be the new Prudhoe Bay?

Certainly there needs to be much more research and analysis to vet the idea of Sitka's example becoming a template for Southeast's next economic boom, but why not think big? Can we be part of the solution to the world's water crisis and diversify our economy at the same time? Sitka and True Alaska Bottling company are telling us its possible.

• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy.

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