Icebergs and droughts

Every good crisis is an opportunity for someone to try make money, so I note with approval that the old iceberg scheme has made a reappearance in Cape Town.

At the project cost of a mere $130 million (which for some reason is seldom rendered in rands in the news reports, possibly because 1.6 billion rand sounds like quite a lot) some chaps want to go down to Gough Island in the South Atlantic, lasso a 70-ton iceberg, tow it 2700 kilometres back to Cape Town and anchor it somewhere off the West Coast, possibly near Lambert’s Bay, where as well as being used for keeping crayfish fresh, some fellows with special tools will climb on top of the berg and turn the ice into slurry, like some supersized slush puppy, thus solving one third of Cape Town’s water needs for a year.

Personally, I think this is a terrific idea, although I am a little sad that it seems to have pulled ahead of the other equally terrific entrepreneurial proposals for solving the crisis. I liked the idea of catching a comet in a big butterfly net and bringing it close to a gigantic braai that would be lit on top of Table Mountain. As the icy core of the comet melts, Capetonians would be instructed to stand by with their buckets and Zozo tanks.

That was my favourite plan, although I do still have a soft spot for Operation Liquidate Your Assets. Not to bore you with the details, but did you know that the human body is made up of 70% water? Corpses are a resource we never run low on in the Western Cape, so all you would need is a very big squeezing device or rolling pin and a sturdy filter for keeping bits of matter out of your water supply.

But no, iceberg it is. I think all cunning plans should have a name so I like to call this one Operation Leonardo di Caprio’s Revenge, or, since it involves spending time in Cape Town with something cold, white, ungiving, implacable and hazardous to shipping, Operation Visit My Granny.

I see absolutely no reason why this plan should not succeed. There’s a long history of plans to tow icebergs northwards. In an early form of striking back against global inequality, a company was formed in London in 1825 with the stated purpose of towing icebergs closer to equatorial regions for the noble aim of “equalizing the temperature of the Earth”. In 1863 there was a patented plan to cut out the expense and impracticability of towing, and just attach a propeller to an iceberg.

Starting in the late 1970s there were a number of annual international iceberg conferences in which oil-rich bergophiles came together to discuss how best to harvest the frozen south for purposes of irrigating their sandy lands. The conferences were sponsored by Prince Mohammed al Faisal, nephew of the Saudi king, who in 1978 also introduced a plan to tow a 100-million ton iceberg to the Arabian peninsula. He estimated the journey would take about eight months, which really isn’t a long time when you consider how long it takes to turn trees into oil. How would he prevent the iceberg melting in the warm Indian Ocean? He had thought of that. He would wrap it in plastic.

Prince Faisal didn’t do all the engineering on the project himself – he hired a French engineer named Georges Mougin to do the maths and calculations and suchlike technical stuff. Mougin – it’s a small world when you’re an iceberg – is one of the partners in Southern Ice, the company trying to pitch on the West Coast iceberg, so at least we know there’s an expert involved.

For inspiration, I think we should turn our attention to a day in very early April 1978, when millionaire Aussie businessman Dick Smith (of Dick Smith Electronics and Dick Smith Foods fame) finally made good on his vow to tow an Antarctic iceberg into Sydney harbour. As the berg made its stately progress up the waterway it wasn’t perhaps as large as people had hoped – it wasn’t about to alleviate any drought – but Dick had done it to prove that it could be done. He would moor it beside the Sydney Opera House and sell ice cubes to the public at ten cents each so that Australians might taste for themselves the icy purity of the untouched and uncorrupted pole. He called them Dicksicles. It was a grey, heavy day and the berg gleamed white in the dim light like a bride. Phone calls flooded the radio stations, reporters were dispatched, people lined the harbour, cheering and marvelling at what might be accomplished by ingenuity and the can-do attitude.

Then it started to rain, but the people stayed to marvel, and to witness as the water slowly washed away the shaving cream and fire-extinguisher foam to reveal the white plastic sheeting on the white-painted barge, and Dick Smith standing on the tug, his little bar fridge still making ice cubes, waving and beaming and drinking a bottle of champagne.

Times, 24 May 2018