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A Canadian professor is developing a method of transporting ocean water across one of the driest regions on Earth, the Sahel in Africa. Writer Elizabeth Nelson shows us how he is making the dream a reality that could help millions of people.
Text by: Elizabeth Nelson

ater, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” : It is the most famous line from Samuel T. Coleridge’s 18th century poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and these words could not be truer today. It is said that in the future, wars will not be fought over oil and gas, but water, that vital substance that makes up 70% of our bodies.

According to the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 97% of the world’s water is saltwater or ‘brackish’ water. Of the 3% remaining, 99% is “in inaccessible polar ice caps, glaciers or deep aquifers”, leaving only 0.03% of all the water on earth accessible and fresh. Water is such an important base for all Earth’s ecosystems that when we look for life on other planets, the main indicator we look for is water. We cannot imagine a life form that exists without it, yet there are millions of people today suffering from a severe lack of fresh water.

Professor Rod Tennyson of the University of Toronto in Canada has a proposal that may change the fate of millions in the heart of one of the world’s driest areas: the Sahel region of Africa.

The idea is literally a pipe dream. A dream of constructing a water pipeline called the Trans African Pipeline (TAP), which would run 8,800km (5,500 miles) across the northern part of the Sahel desert, running east to west across the entire African continent to provide water for more than 28 million people. Linking 12 countries together, there would be two large desalination stations set up on each coast, one in Djibouti and the other in Mauritania that would pump desalinated water across the dry continent. Along the way, the pipeline would serve Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

Along the pipeline would run solar panels to create renewable energy and sustainable power to drive the desalination plants, pumping stations and irrigation systems. The water would be a vital source of life for the communities along the way, with more than half of the water to be used in creating local farming oases.

The entire project is estimated to cost US$20.1 billion, which seems like a lot until you consider how many people could be saved, how many lives could be changed and how much could grow in the future.

For example, it is estimated that in the Sahel region, more than 18 million people –including 1 million children — are directly at risk for food and water shortages this year. Eight million already require emergency assistance, according to Oxfam.

Tennyson, along with his wife, journalist Daphne Lavers, first came up with the TAP project while watching BBC coverage of the G8 summit and the rallies and concerts that were taking place to push the leaders to fund projects in Africa. Many of these projects funded the building of wells and distribution of food packages. At the time, Tennyson was involved in developing safety monitoring technologies for large-scale pipelines. “We developed and manufactured fiber optic sensing systems, and with the accumulated knowledge I had gathered about pipelines, it occurred to us that a water pipeline across Africa could solve the water problem for good, not these band-aid solutions,” Tennyson said.

Tennyson had travelled to South Africa and Lesotho in the past. “In my travels in those areas, I had seen much evidence of poverty, such as the huge numbers of people who lived on the streets of Durban where I had attended a conference on civil engineering structures. I realized that the TAP project was enormous in scope.”

He stated that, “It was clear to us that if we could provide millions of Africans living in the worst drought areas of the Sahel with a sustainable supply of clean water, then that would ensure their survival, reduce the deaths of millions of children who were exposed to contaminated water, reduce disease, and if enough water was available, we could grow crops in areas that I called ‘farming oases’. These farms could not only provide sufficient food to feed the millions of starving people, but at the same time, provide Africans with employment. This would of course reduce poverty.”

Thus, the TAP project was born. Tennyson and his wife wrote their first feasibility study report and presented their paper at the international Water for Africa conference held in Hull, Quebec, to the large number of African attendees, many of whom were engineers and government officials. Happily, he “found that the TAP concept was very well-received. There were the standard questions about how difficult it would be to carry this off in many of the African countries, but one African member came to see me with tears in his eyes, and said this was the best idea he had heard of, and as far as he was concerned, this was the most important concept to emerge from this conference. I was hooked on making TAP a reality!”

The project is starting to gather a following. It has officially been incorporated as a not-for-profit in Canada and is made up of a team of professors of engineering and geography, lawyers, economists and agronomists from Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and China. The project is now moving quickly with a major benefactor on board to help promote awareness of the project and to initiate a formal study. TAP is working on raising $1 million in start-up funds from a private investor and will be applying to the G8 countries to cover the costs as part of their money pledged toward aid.

In 2014, TAP plans to host an international conference on TAP management that will lead to the official presentation of TAP plans to the African Union. In 2014, the TAPs team also will work with the African Union to create an understanding among the 12 countries concerned. Then 2015 will see the formal contracts laid out for the first phase of TAPs: namely the route planning of the desalination plants, solar farms and stage one of the pipeline to be ready for the 2016 “Public announcement of the construction of the first phase of TAP”.

“Every talk I have given has generated great interest and support from volunteers who wish to help the cause. There are no downsides to TAP if we can implement it in a cost-effective way,” Tennyson said.

Drought in Africa, by the numbers:

About 230,000 children die each year from malnutrition and problems directly linked to lack of access to safe drinking water, according to Oxfam.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia as a result of 2010′s food crisis, according to Oxfam and Save the Children.

United Nations studies state that more than 2 billion people will suffer severe water shortages by 2050.



Professor Rod Tennyson came up with a great idea after seeing a BBC documentary about the lack of water in the Sahel region of Africa.. He wants to build a pipeline that will cross 12 countries and provide water to 28 million people. The project costs USD 20. 1 billion.

Today the project has 1 million dollars and TAP (Transnational Africa Pipeline) will ask the G8 member countries to contribute money for the project.

People from all over the world are working on the project which includes the creation of farms for local people, 2 desalination plants and pumping stations as well as solar farms to collect energy to make the project completely sustainable.

This project is very important because it can help to save millions of lives. Every year 230,000 children die because they don’t have drinkable water and by 2050 it is expected that 2 billion people will not have enough water to drink in Africa.



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