Navigant Research Blog

Water, Water Everywhere—But Not a Drop to Drink

— July 31, 2015

Floating islands are the stuff of fantasy novels, Kevin Costner movies, and Final Fantasy VI. They can also occur in nature, as a conglomeration of aquatic plants, mud, and peat. With current predictions by climate scientist James Hansen that the sea level will rise at least 10 feet in the next 50 years, living on floating islands might become a necessity sooner than we think.

Fortunately, manmade floating cities are becoming as vogue as tiny houses.  In fact, outside of Kampala, Uganda, a group of 10 artists have taken up chic residence on a chunk of land that broke away from the mainland and is floating around Lake Victoria. The artists have everything they could want—constantly changing scenery, serenity, grass huts, a fresh supply of lake water, and even some fairly soggy garden beds.

Not a Drop to Drink

When floating islands are in a lake, it’s easy to rig up a filter or a simple chlorination system to make water potable. But water supply is an extraordinary issue when living at sea. The Seasteading Institute, in partnership with the Netherlands’ DeltaSync, recently ended a contest for architectural designs of modular floating islands. Participants were encouraged to consider sources of energy, but the contest did not require a water treatment center. Unless the island is connected to a mainland water source, though, on-island treatment systems are necessary. Some private companies have already developed solutions to this salty problem. On a $6.5 million private floating island (really more of a yacht) made by the Austrian company, Orsos, water supply is guaranteed through an onboard reverse osmosis desalination system. But with current high energy demands of traditional desalination plants, and the high price of this private island, this doesn’t seem likely to be a sustainable solution.

Enter the DESalting Island on Renewable multi-Energy Supply, or DESIRES. DESIRES utilizes several renewable energy sources (eolian, solar, tidal, wave, and hydrothermal gradient) and large storage reservoirs to produce salt-free, potable water at a cost of $0.88-$1.32 per cubic meter. Even the largest, most efficient desalination plants running on shore cost around $1.62 to produce a cubic meter of fresh water. Further, the DESIRES system has a small footprint—a module between 0.06 square km and 0.65 square km can produce enough water to supply a city of about 105 inhabitants. Further still, the system utilizes enhanced energy during storms to pump water, reducing its impact even further. However, the system is only in research phases right now. Real-world implementation could lead to more expensive and less efficient operation. In addition, the sheer number of renewable energy systems aboard the system could make the commercial capital cost quite prohibitive. Only time will tell whether the DESIRES system will be far more sustainable than traditional desalination technology.

But in the meantime, future denizens of the floating island rejoice!


Aquifer Discovery Could Ease African Drought

— October 4, 2013

A major discovery of aquifers in North Kenya has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of people in the region ‑ and the underground reservoirs could become test beds for new smart water system technology.

A total of five aquifers have been located below the surface of the country’s drought-prone northern region.  The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, which is estimated to be about the size of Rhode Island, and the smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer were found by using advanced satellite technology and later confirmed with conventional drilling.  The other three aquifers still must be confirmed by drilling.

The five aquifers hold a minimum of 250 billion cubic meters of water, or roughly 66 trillion gallons, say officials with Radar Technologies International, the natural resource exploration firm that detected the aquifers.  Rainfall refills these aquifers with about 3.4 billion cubic meters (898 billion gallons) each year.

Windfall of Water

The water exploration project was a combined effort of the Kenyan government and the United Nations’ scientific and cultural agency, UNESCO, with financial support from Japan.  More analysis is needed to determine precisely how much water exists among the aquifers, as well as the quality.  If the amount is as abundant as first thought and the quality acceptable, the aquifers could support extensive irrigation systems and industrial development and provide drinking water for the region.

Officials are hopeful the find will become a boon to people in the area.  Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO’s assistant director general for natural sciences, said in an agency statement that the discovery “clearly demonstrates how science and technology can contribute to industrialization and economic growth, and to resolving real societal issues like access to water.”

One of the big challenges will be securing the investment money needed to build and maintain a distribution system that efficiently distributes the water to those who can use it.  Another hurdle involves geography and regional conflicts.  The aquifers lie in a remote area afflicted by tribal warfare where rival groups compete for scarce resources like water and cattle.

Although these newly discovered aquifers hold the promise of relief for the people in North Kenya, the government and water utility managers must now make sound investments in basic infrastructure and smart metering and monitoring technologies (as noted in Navigant Research’s Smart Water Meters report) to deliver on that potential while also sorting out tribal differences.  If the Kenyans can work out these difficult issues, the result could be a model for other regions where perhaps yet to be discovered aquifers exist that could help reduce the pressures of dwindling water supplies.


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