The Spragg Waterbag

by Robert Tulip

“To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life.” Rev 21.6

Let us pray. Creator God, you tell us in the second verse of Genesis 1 that your spirit moved across the face of the water. Jesus, we give you thanks for your integrity and passion and vision. Holy Spirit, we pray you may connect us to each other and inspire our thoughts. Amen

Today I have been invited by Gordon to talk with you about what I am passionate about, what makes me tick. There are actually a lot of things I am passionate about – my family, music, philosophy, theology, astronomy, and my work on poverty reduction at the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), where I have focussed on Papua New Guinea for many years and am now working on infrastructure. Today I am going to tell you about an interest that emerged from my work with PNG. Waterbags are a large scale new technology for transporting fresh water through the ocean. I am passionate about this idea because I firmly believe it can transform Australia’s water supply situation, opening up potential for all sorts of new ways of using water. Reform of water supply needs a range of options, including recycling, so I am just arguing that waterbags should be considered in the mix.

You may know that parts of PNG receive up to ten metres of rain per year. In my work with AusAID, I looked at whether there is any way that PNG could export this water to Australia. In 2004, a group of leading Australian businessmen called the Farmhand Group commissioned a report about the drought, and they discussed this question. They studied pipelines and tankers, and said that because water is so cheap, just one dollar a ton, transporting it long distances is not worth it. However, they mentioned that an American inventor, Mr Terry Spragg, had developed a new idea, that fresh water would float on the ocean if it is put in big fabric bags, and he had actually towed six megalitres of drinking water in two connected bags one hundred kilometres through Puget Sound to Seattle in Washington State. I contacted Terry Spragg to find out more about this idea, and have been working closely with him since. Here is a two minute video clip of TV coverage of his Seattle demonstration voyage from 1996.

Now Terry is something of a crazy guy, because he actually believes that this product has major transformative potential. He is working with Turkey to export water in bags to Gaza in Palestine, against the wishes of Israel, because he is mad enough to believe that economic development through improved water supply is a path towards peace in the Middle East. That is a tough vision, and Terry’s friends in the Middle East are working hard to make it happen. Terry also has high level support in California, but also faces opposition there. The current technologies of desalination, dams and pipelines are very big industries, and some people are actually not that keen to see this new technology enter the market. My hope is that we can demonstrate waterbags in Australia first.

Terry likes to say there are three factors to consider – technology, economics and politics. You may not believe me, but the technology is actually proven. Laboratory tests at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that the waterbag will become a part of the ocean wave, so will hold together even in a big ocean swell. Terry’s method of zipping together a string of bags like a railway freight train could enable one tug boat to tow up to a gigalitre of drinking water – a billion litres – in a single trip. Of course this is a completely new idea, much like flying aeroplanes at the time of the Wright brothers one hundred years ago, so we need to experiment and even make mistakes on the way to building a major new industry.

On economics, waterbags need to operate on a large scale to be profitable because water is so cheap. However, they use only a small fraction of the energy used by desalination, and the overall price will be much less than for desalinated water. With climate change and rising power prices, I am firmly convinced that waterbags will make desalination obsolete by competing on a commercial market basis. Waterbags also have the big advantage of enabling development in places where the main constraint is lack of water, for example the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

You may be wondering about the environmental impact. Desalination plants have harmful environmental impacts from carbon emissions and from brine disposal, whereas waterbags would take just a tiny fraction of the fresh water that flows to sea from rivers in Tasmania, North Queensland and elsewhere and increase the supply to big cities in a way that is good for the environment. By bringing in large new supplies, waterbags can free up existing water where it is needed, such as in the Murray River.

A submission to the Garnaut climate enquiry discussed these issues, and can be found here.

This brings me to the main reason why Terry Spragg has not been able to implement his waterbags after all these years – politics. After I contacted Terry in 2004, we agreed that such an innovative product is hard to introduce in a poor country like PNG, so it would be better to try to introduce it in Australia. I have been helping him do this in a private capacity, separate from my work at AusAID. Australia has the perfect combination of major need for new water, stable politics, and ability to support innovation, so there should be interest. I wrote to the then Federal Government and got positive initial responses from John Anderson and Malcolm Turnbull. [Added note: Mr Malcolm Turnbull, now Leader of the Opposition (Federal Parliament), wrote to me wishing me “good luck with this submission.”]

However, the National Water Commission refused to even meet me to discuss it, and in fact today is the first time I have ever spoken about this idea before a public audience. I lodged a submission to the Australia 2020 Summit, but they changed the rules after the submission went in and ruled it as ineligible. I also followed up in Queensland, where Dr Ian Edmonds wrote an article published in the Australian Water Association journal pointing out that pristine water from the Tully River could be transported in bags down the East Australian Current to the Gold Coast for a small fraction of the price of desalination. But the Queenslanders were not interested, although Premier Beattie wrote me a nice letter. I contacted the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists via John Williams, but got an email from Peter Cosier’s secretary saying he did not endorse products so he had no interest. John Williams has told me the hostile rejection is similar to the way his good friend Peter Andrews has been rebuffed for his work on fixing Australian creeks by restoring them to their former condition using leaky weirs.

The only person who has helped me take this idea forward, apart from John Williams, is Mrs Liz Penfold MP, the member of parliament for the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Liz has made two speeches in parliament in Adelaide specifically supporting Spragg Waterbags. With her help I have written to the South Australian government. At the moment, Adelaide pumps waste water into St Vincent’s Gulf, causing harmful environmental impact. This water could be bagged up and towed to the Coorong, for a big fast solution to the Murray River crisis. Down the track, Tasmania could supply a large quantity of drinking water to the mainland. Our proposal is to demonstrate waterbags again by towing six megalitres from Adelaide to Port Lincoln, and then heading around the country to major ports. We would like to get commercial sponsorship for this exciting venture.

In thinking about the basic principle that fresh water floats on salt water, I have developed a number of very interesting potential spin-off inventions which I would like to patent. Because I wish to protect my intellectual property I won’t tell you about them now, but I would be very happy to discuss with anyone who is interested.

So, this is what I am passionate about. Waterbags have potential to transform the Australian water industry, and could also be introduced around the world, potentially floating vast quantities of water around the major ocean currents, for example from New Zealand all the way around Antarctica to Perth and Adelaide, and to China and India to supply their vast populations. Waterbags are a way to provide abundant high quality low priced drinking and irrigation water.

My inspiration for this work arises from my Christian faith, considering that water is such a main theme in the Gospels. It is not just about walking on water as you saw in the video, but about the vision of a transformed planet. Initially we need to operate on a commercial market basis, but my hope and faith is that eventually we will provide water without price from the fountain of the water of life.

Thank you for listening.

Robert Tulip

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