Water is the lifeblood for daily survival, from drinking and washing to growing food. But for many people in Africa, that lifeblood is a pitiful and dirty trickle. An estimated 700,000 African children die every year from diarrhea and related diseases that could be avoided with clean water.
Rod Tennyson sees a way to end that suffering. The professor emeritus from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies envisions building a mammoth pipeline to deliver water to 20 million residents of the parched nations that lie immediately south of the Sahara Desert. “It’s a megaproject but it’s doable,” says Tennyson, noting that his idea – he calls it the “greatest engineering and humanitarian project of the century” – would cost US$24 billion and use existing technology. The main challenge lies in inspiring the kind of leaders who could effectively champion such an audacious undertaking.
The spine of Tennyson’s trans-African pipeline features a reinforced concrete pipe two metres in diameter snaking 6,000 kilometres across the sub-Saharan region of Africa from Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean to Djibouti on the Indian Ocean. Two conventional desalination plants, powered by nuclear reactors, would feed a total of more than one billion litres a day into the pipeline from either end. This water would course through the spine to 60 or more mammoth holding tanks and then into smaller pipelines spreading out like branches from a tree.
“A lot of the focus has been on poverty in Africa, which is the wrong issue,” says Tennyson. “Once we provide clean water to this region we’re going to mitigate many other problems, such as poor health, disease, marginal agriculture, desertification.”
Tennyson conceived of the pipeline idea shortly after G8 leaders at the 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, promised US$25 billion in new aid to Africa on top of cancelling US$40 billion in debts, owed mostly by African countries.
Tennyson promoted his vision at a University of Ottawa conference in 2007 about water challenges in Africa. Many attendees told him that his presentation was the only one they saw that offered actual solutions. Tennyson says he needs to drum up more support from influential people if the pipeline is ever to reach the stage of a feasibility study, which would cost millions of dollars.
The study would examine Tennyson’s rough approximations that the pipeline could supply enough water to meet the hygiene, cooking and drinking needs of 20 million Africans (modest compared with North Americans’ profligate water use) and also sustain 2.5 million chickens and 400,000 dairy cattle in green agricultural oases. His assumption that revenue from salt collected at the desalination plants could cover much of the pipeline’s operating costs would also have to be tested.
Guaranteeing the security of any water pipeline across Africa is also a major concern, although Tennyson’s recent professional expertise lies in fibre optic sensors that can detect breaches or emerging structural weaknesses in pipelines.
“There is political instability in many of the countries along the pipeline route. But many of those problems emanate from a lack of water,” he says.