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Thirsty Lands
Photo by Lynsey Addario /Corbis

Thirsty Lands

Rod Tennyson’s dream of a trans-African pipeline would bring clean water to millions.

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.

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  1. 6 Responses to “ Thirsty Lands ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I think Rod Tennyson's proposal is a great idea and should be pursued further. Solar power could be used for pumping stations and for other demands for electricity.

    Daniel Jack Cox
    BASc 1954
    Haliburton, Ontario

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Yet another mega-project to ameliorate all the problems facing Africans? Poverty and political fragmentation in Africa are historically complex and deep-rooted problems that are unlikely ever to be solved by billion-dollar infrastructure investments.

    During my first visit to Africa I was shocked to learn that aquifers could lie beneath communities lacking simple wells or other means to access water. Meanwhile, foreign interests exploit African reserves of petroleum, precious metals and gemstones - sometimes at devastating human and environmental costs.

    We must ask ourselves honestly why such an arrangement exists and what our role in it is. I urge Professor Tennyson and others to read Africa’s Missing Billions (IANSA, Oxfam, Saferworld, 2007), which estimates that armed conflict in Africa between 1990 and 2005 resulted in destruction of $300 billion, an amount equal to development aid to Africa during that period.

    As long as foreign interests fuel conflict and instability in order to extract resources, programs that successfully address Africa’s problems are likely to be community-based, locally rooted, and entrepreneurial. E.F. Schumacher’s idea that "small is beautiful" stands to bring more meaningful improvements to the majority of Africans who are living in poverty than any trans-African infrastructure will, at least for now.

    Samer Abdelnour
    BA 2000 UTSC
    London, Ontario

  4. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Desalination plants and water pumped through a network of pipes, all powered by nuclear reactors, may solve the African water shortage.

    However, Africa is blessed with abundant sunshine, which could be used to evaporate water. The cool ocean is present to aid distillation. Is nuclear power really required?

    Rather than pumping water vast distances, I would suggest making the desert bloom around the distillation plants and distributing the water relatively short distances using pumps powered by solar power. Then bring the people to the water, not the water to the people.

    I was surprised that Tennyson advocates dairy farming. This sort of sophisticated western farming consumes huge amounts of water and is unneccessary in a warm country where crops grow all year. Better to grow food that requires little water and to plant trees that will provide timber and shade. Trees will anchor and improve the soil. This could be a long-term solution. Eventually, less distillation and pumping may be needed, as the desert starts to bloom and the local climate reacts.

    R. S. Osmaston
    BASc 1957
    Seaford, England

  5. Richard Driffill says:

    The River Nile (at least part of it) flows north 4,000 miles from Lake Victoria into the Mediterranean. What percentage is used along the way? Not much I imagine.

    If a pipeline could be built (and of course it could), why not use Lake Victoria as the "tap," and Isaac Newton's gravity as the "pump"? It's only about 600 miles from Lake Victoria to the junction of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.

    And would a pump be needed? As long as "where it is going" is a lot lower than "where it is coming from," then is "syphoning" such a silly idea? You know - like stealing petrol from a fuel tank?

    However the cost was estimated, this would amount to no more than a couple of per cent of that!

  6. tony maddox says:

    It's a great idea that requires action to turn it into reality. The time has come to end suffering in Africa caused by the lack of clean water. Could we have canals that stretch the width of the continent? The only way anything will happen is if someone has the determination to make it happen.

  7. Matthew Remedios says:

    It is much easier to use Lake Victoria and the River Nile as sources of water than to use ocean water converted into fresh water. Using ocean water costs more money. The fresh water does not need to be changed, and so it can go directly after purification to the people.