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An African pipe dream

The Sahel region – which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean through parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea to the Red Sea – often struggles with droughts and other dryness-related crises. But  a project in the making – the TAP water pipeline – could helps save lives and provide safe drinking water to millions of people.

The idea for the TAP project began in the summer of 2005 as Rod Tennyson, an emeritus professor of engineering and former director of the University of Toronto’s institute for aerospace studies, with his wife Daphne Lavers, a freelance journalist, watched Live-8 concerts by Bob Geldof and others to promote the goals of that year’s G8 conference, one of which was combating water scarcity and drought.

“Why can’t large-scale pipelines be used for water instead of just gas and oil?” Daphne asked Tennyson as they talked about the Sahel region which has experienced some of the most consistent and severe droughts in Africa since 1951. The region has at its western and eastern extremities the Atlantic Ocean and the Red sea respectively. “Thus was born the genesis of the TAP project: a water pipeline traversing the Sahel region of Africa providing potable water for millions of people,” said Tennyson. Following that conversation, the couple added a new vocation to their lives, the Trans Africa Pipeline.

The Project

The whole Trans Africa Pipeline project is centred on a gigantic pipeline known as the Grand Trunk, which will stretch 8 000km through the Sahel region carrying water from the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea and distributing it via secondary pipelines into communities, densely populated areas and farmlands.

Given the high salinity of the waters from the Atlantic and the Red Sea – and its unsuitability for human consumption – the TAP will have a desalination plant at the two coasts of the Sahel. Both plants will each have an output of 400 000 cubic meters of safe drinking water a day, providing a total capacity of 800 000 cubic meters of potable water daily.

Located along the TAP route will be water storage tanks and large solar-powered pump stations in villages and towns that will ensure more than 12-million people get at least 40 litres of water a day for their domestic use. There will be enough water to sustain at least 2.5-million chickens, 400 000 dairy cattle and 480-million kilograms of agricultural produce in newly formed or expanded farming oases adjacent the pipeline.

The TAP will traverse 11 countries bordering the Sahel, all of  which are members of the pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAGGW): Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Niger, Nigeria and Djibouti.  The PAGGW, headquartered in Mauritania, is an organisation representing the Sahel countries and formed to provide a united front against the increasing desertification and drought faced in the region. The body became an official partner of the TAP after it reviewed the project at a technical session in March 2015. TAP is also in partnership with the Great Green Wall Initiative, which aims to line the Sahel with more than 2-million trees in the hope that they will stall and reverse desert encroachment. Some of the TAP water will also go to planting and caring for the trees.

A Pipe Dream

“The TAP is wonderful idea, but unfortunately that is still what it is at the moment,” said Ehidiamhen Okpamen, a journalist specialising in business and development in sub-Saharan Africa. “The fact is that it will require momentous breakthroughs to overcome many challenges before such a grandiose project can be built, especially access to funds, requisite government support and desperately needed – but largely lacking – intra-regional co-operation.”

There are more than enough reasons on the ground to generate such scepticism about the success of the TAP. Six of the 11 TAP countries are among the 20 poorest countries in the world when rated by gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which highlights the major issue of funding for a scheme projected to cost $14.7-billion.

However, Tennyson does not expect TAP to be funded by the Sahel African countries. He has set his sight on the wealthy nations of the world. He argued that while the TAP price tag may seem huge, it is well within what the wealthy nations can afford and the project is itself a better channel for largely ineffectual aid money.

“USAID contributed aid to the PAGGW countries in the amount of $1.3-billion in 2014. Only 7% was allocated to water-related projects which amounted to $91-million, Tennyson said. “Nine other Western countries donated about $537-million in 2014. Assuming that 7% is related to water projects this amounts to an additional $38-million. Based on this data, it is clear that about $129-million is earmarked for water-related projects. This does not address the basic cause of food shortages, which account for most of the aid given. A sustainable supply of water to the estimated 28-million people who are classed as lacking “food security” in the Sahel is the key to solving this problem. TAP is the answer.”

The Bigger the Better

While one of the main causes of the scepticism about the TAP project is its massive size and scope, but Tennyson argued that this is, in fact, its biggest advantage. “Why have we spent so much time on this project?” Tennyson asked – and then answered: “The reason is that none of the piece-meal solutions proposed over and over again throughout the years ever solved the primary problems on a sustainable scale that would make a real difference. It was a challenge to see if I could engineer the big solution and determine whether it was economically feasible.”

Tennyson believes he has now done both because all the technology in the TAP project is already developed, tested and in wide-spread use around the world.

Daphne said their project brings the kind of audacity that is necessary in the face of such a large-scale challenge. “TAP is not rocket science and Tennyson, as an aerospace engineer, knows a thing or two about rocket science to tell the difference,” said Daphne. “It is important to note that the desalination of ocean water is being done in at least 100 countries and the conversion of deserts into arable land is not an uncommon process, although its utilisation has been limited by cost and the availability of sufficient amounts of fresh water.” With a Direct Normal Irradiance of more than 2 800kWhm2/y, the Sahel is also one of the regions on Earth with the highest exposure of sunlight, making it a prime spot for solar-powered plants just as its plain landscape means the pipeline will not suffer much geographical hindrance.

But running desalination plants of such magnitude presents another unique challenge. Apart from its significant power demand, the membranes of the plants that filter the water quickly accumulate solutes, necessitating regular cleaning. This cleaning necessitates the treatment or disposal of the highly saline brine that is a by-product of the desalination process and which, if left untreated, poses serious risks to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Tennyson said his team has found a way to convert the brine challenge into a business potential. “A desalination plant with a production capacity of 500 000 litres a day would likely produce more than 6-million kilograms of high-quality sea salt – with a market value well in excess of $200-million – each year,” he said. “Harvesting this salt from ponds would thus serve the dual purpose of mitigating the environmental impact of the brine while bringing down the operating costs of desalination plants. Perhaps a portion of the extracted brine could be mixed back into the ocean-bound effluents from desalination plants to maintain local salinity levels. If ocean salinity continues to decline in the future, more brine could be mixed into effluents from desalination plants to maintain ocean salinity at levels that aquatic organisms are best-adapted.”

Proof of Concept

For all its planning and projections, the Trans Africa Pipeline needs a practical demonstration to show that it can deliver on its potential. This is what Tennyson is trying to prove through the Trans Africa Pipeline Incorporated (TAP Inc.), a firm he and Daphne founded and of which he is the President and she, the Director of Media. “TAP [Inc.] is negotiating with the governments of Mauritania and Sudan on Memorandums of Understanding to undertake a Phase 1 project that includes a solar-powered desalination plant on each coast, with initial capacity of about 50 000 cubic meters of water production a day to be connected to pipelines of about 700km,” Tennyson said.  “The purpose is to demonstrate that the system works, overcome technical problems that might occur, and to evaluate the amount of salt production that can be achieved using salt ponds for the brine from the desalination plants.”

There is also a funding challenge to sort out and there is some good news on that front too. The TAP project now has an international team of experts in project engineering and finance and funding has been secured for a large part of the costs for the Phase 1 TAP Inc from a Chinese state agency.

“We are presently reviewing possible contractors for the various infrastructure systems and costing out the project in more detail, Tennyson said. By his calculation it will take two years from kick-off to achieve the first phase of the TAP project. During that period he hopes to successfully have other Sahel countries on board, an aspect that is being handled through the PAGGW. Once the first phase of the TAP is completed, and other countries have signed the appropriate agreements, Tennyson said the final construction from both coastal regions’ pipeline segments will commence. “Using simultaneous construction in each country to complete their pipeline segments, the overall time line is projected to be about 6 years after phase 1.”

A long way from success

“The Trans Africa Pipeline is still a considerable distance away from fruition. These kinds of projects take a long time to accomplish,” said Ehidhiamhen Okpamen. “I suspect that if everything works out perfectly it would still take at least a decade or maybe even more to accomplish.”

For Tennyson, the worry is not so much in the timeline of the project as it is in not constructing the TAP. “With the effects of climate change upon us, it is clear that big solutions to the water crisis facing Africa will depend on new ways of using technology to meet demands,” he said. “Given that 80% percent of infectious diseases are water-related and desertification is contributing to the loss of agricultural productivity, economic downturns and forced migration, bold innovative projects like the TAP are desperately needed at the moment.”

Tennyson hopes that the first phase of the project will prove him right. “It will answer the following; does the economics work, does it function technically as projected and is the water sufficient for the people as well as for irrigation? When that’s done, we jump to Phase 2 and away we go!”

Words: Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu

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