Firm Sees Profit in Water Bags

OSLO, Norway -- Camels evolved humps, the Romans built aqueducts, but a Norwegian company believes the future of transporting water lies in mammoth ocean-going bags.

Nordic Water Supply reckons that demand for clean drinking water will surge and is seeking new contracts from Mexico to Iran on top of a deal towing fresh water in the world's biggest floating bags from Turkey to northern Cyprus.

"Water has to be transported further and further. That means that pipelines become so expensive that our bags are often cheaper," said Nordic Water Supply chief executive Jan-Otto Reimers.

And the sausage-shaped gray bags, about 200 meters long and containing 35,000 tons of water each, might help coastal areas recover after a disaster. A bag could be used, for instance, if water was infected after an earthquake or cyclone.

The World Health Organization has estimated that water consumption will have to be halved by 2025 if nations fail to address imbalances in global water supply and demand.

Nordic Water Supply also aims to build a new bag in coming years to carry 100,000 tons of water -- at 350 meters it would be the length of a supertanker. Its main competitor is Aquarius, which has tugged smaller bags to the Greek islands since 1997.

Under its main existing contract, Nordic Water Supply will transport about 2 million tons of water in 2001 to northern Cyprus, under Turkish Cypriot rule since a 1974 invasion.

It aims to expand to more than 6 million tons in 2002 in its gray bags -- one of the world's few cargoes where even a catastrophic spill causes no pollution.

The company's first commercial contract dates from 1997 in Turkey.

After the bags are emptied at a special terminal, they are winched round a giant spool on the tug, and the vessel, moderately powered at 800 horsepower, returns to Turkey.

Reimers says that rival ideas, like towing icebergs from the Arctic or filling bags in places where it rains a lot and then shipping them to other parts of the globe, are probably uneconomic.

"Water is often available; it's often a problem of distribution locally," he said. "The idea of moving water more globally, from Alaska, Canada, Norway or Scotland means long distances, and it's hard to earn any money from it."

A mounting problem is that tourists want to visit sun-drenched spots on their vacations where there is scant water.

"A hundred years ago, you couldn't live anywhere without water. Now, people choose where to live according to the setting. They don't even ask if there's water when they build a holiday home," he said.

Nordic Water Supply, listed on the Oslo stock exchange since 1998, hopes to build a 50,000-ton bag within two years before doubling to 100,000. Even the current bags, looking like a giant whale, can support many people walking around on top.

They are made of a polyester fabric coated with plastic and are 2 millimeters thick -- Reimers compared them to the fabric used in car seatbelts.

Nordic Water Supply's business is not without risks.

The company had to send up a plane to look for some missing water in the middle of the Mediterranean in December last year when a bag broke loose from the tug in the middle of the night.

It was eventually recovered. New bags are equipped with a radar beacon to help other ships avoid soft collisions.

Other bags have ripped open, especially at the unloading terminals -- probably doing little more damage than giving the Mediterranean fish a strange freshwater taste.

But water is not yet profitable. In the first half of 2001, Nordic Water Supply earned 5.7 million kroner ($647,200) from transporting about 1 million tons from Turkey to northern Cyprus. But costs were high and it had a net loss of 14.7 million crowns.