Waters of Patagonia – transforming the world's water supply

Shaun Weston25 May 2010

© Chico González/E185/Republik.cl

48°S 73°W Chilean Patagonia, S America, isn't exactly a normal company address, but there's nothing ordinary about Waters of Patagonia or the way it wants to transform the world's water supplies, as Medina Bailey finds out.

On 27 February 2010, central Chile was struck by an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8. I was on a flight en route to the capital Santiago to visit Waters of Patagonia when the plane turned around and went back to the airport from which we had departed hours earlier.

"Chile – shaken, not stirred," said my would-be host Ian Szydlowski (known as Raccoon) a couple of days later. Typical, I thought. I'd been in contact with the company for a few months and was familiar with the sense of optimism and perseverance that runs through its veins. It's a family run business, with JC and his sons Raccoon and Allen (or the Bear) at the helm. The animal nicknames merely hint at what life is like for them on their site on the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The landscape may look dreamlike and ethereal, yet the realities of working and living there are very different.

"It would be difficult for us to briefly sum up the 20+ years of life in this remote wilderness, which have culminated in the creation of this company," Bear explained. "The word 'adventure' is honestly the best way to describe life here from day to day, in a place that's pristine and beautiful, not to mention downright challenging. It has been our privilege to not only leave the beaten path far, far behind, but to call some of this region's remotest areas 'home'.

"It took years of exhaustive searching throughout the difficult and mostly inaccessible terrain to find what we were looking for. If we had to sum up the essence of Patagonia in just a few words, we would have to say it's a world of waters. Here, water in all its elemental grandeur, is still actively shaping our landscape and it's also a great shaper of our lives. Drinking from a cold mountain stream makes you realise that water here is miraculous and can only be celebrated."

There are many areas in the world where having access to such an abundant, pure water source would seem impossible to comprehend. Waters of Patagonia is seeking to address the issues regarding the future of fresh supplies of drinking water, as it's in the start-up phase of transporting massive bulk shipments to areas of the world with existing or imminent water shortages.

It's staying 'local' to start with, developing its first programme for the north of Chile, where some of the largest global producers of copper need to provide fresh drinking water to the city of Antofagasta and for day to day mining operations. Further afield, the Mediterranean basin and Gulf would be future targets, followed by India and China at a later date.

Redistribution of water

Raccoon admits that, for most people, this concept is beyond the scope of human imagination, yet the company believes that the critical water issues the world is facing are making the redistribution of water an urgent necessity.

"The notion that water should be free has to change," said JC. "It's a commodity and it won't be long before this is recognised. In time, redistribution of water will become a normal practice, just like with oil. But if an oil tanker leaks into the sea, you have a catastrophe on your hands. Not so with a floating aquifer filled with water."

So is Waters of Patagonia the first company to step forward with such a bold, potential solution? "We can't believe that in all the financial reporting and water research reports from Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and The Financial Times etc, no one has identified what we believe to be the mechanisms for the transformation of the water business; namely to create movable pipelines that could address so many issues, such as geographic distribution, dependability of supply and water quality, let alone the problems of staggering pollution, greenhouse gasses and inefficient energy use.

"It's been a long time since water has been truly innovative. Desalination, bottling purified water – all of these things were indeed innovative, but have only gone so far. We're talking about redistributing the world's water supply. That's a significant innovation."

The price you pay for innovation is often seemingly insurmountable challenges. In this case, not only were the logistics of such an operation daunting, but gaining rights to what could add up to an unlimited resource was even more problematic.

"We clearly understood from the outset that even though it's almost unheard of to move massive amounts of water, as the world runs progressively drier, solutions to move this water were becoming an urgent necessity," said Raccoon. "We had the resources but also had the challenge to provide a clear method of moving it.

"We had two advantages here: one, that Chile is naturally a faraway place and already had many pre-existing methods of moving bulk liquids to the northern hemisphere with wine and juice in 24,000-litre TEUs. And two, that our project is set right on the largest shipping route in the southern hemisphere. This easily connects us to the world, and however remote we may seem, this proximity would make us a unique player."

Revolutionary programme

It's integrating what it terms a 'revolution' into its programme. Portable aquifers will aim to compete with local water sources worldwide, and in some cases help to recharge and replenish natural aquifers.

According to Raccoon, the aquifers can be pulled at neutral buoyancy by relatively small vessels, are completely spill-safe and can transport 300m litres per load. They can also provide optimal offshore storage when set at a vertical position in deep water for a long period.

"The moment that bulk water is moved around the world will signal the dawn of water as a new commodity," he said.

It was back in 1999 that the idea first seemed possible due to the region's resources: "We were living in an area naturally rich in renewable hydrographic resources for over 10 years before it truly dawned on us," said Raccoon. "The Andes at this latitude rise dramatically out of the remote Pacific Ocean with prevailing northwesterly winds. We have enormous cloud cover here in the roaring forties, and the mountain chain essentially sucks the moisture out of them in a patterned consistency that amounts to an impressive abundance of yearly precipitation – up to 30 metres in some places."

They initially targeted the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, but soon realised that the Southern Ice Field was much larger and had clearer, higher quality streams running through it. Using such an untapped resource immediately throws up questions about altering the natural life of the glacier. The team is quick to point out that they do nothing at all to interfere with the cycle of the glaciers: "The ice is melting into giant rivers all year round. All we do is source some of this before it flows into the ocean.

"We hope to accomplish this without affecting our untouched environment," said Bear. "Quite the contrary. We hope it will contribute to its own conservation. By allowing the natural services of the area to do what they do best undisturbed, we're putting large swaths under protection to work in conjunction with our only neighbour: the largest national park in Chile (Parque Nacional O'Higgins). In doing so, we're not only ensuring the quality and supply of our water for future generations, [we're] also finding a way of translating the land's intrinsic value into something that's economically viable and self supporting."

Achieving their aims without compromising the local environment has made the task of building their first bottling facility even harder.

"Although it has taken us considerably longer and cost more to build than a conventional building, we're certain that in the long run it will be worth the extra effort," they said. "It allows us to stay true to our company philosophy and ensure the quality of our product for decades to come."

The plant will be responsible for bottling its new water. Crevasse has been developed to help build the company's credibility in the market and prove the purity of its resource. "It's our calling card," said Raccoon. "It's basically the culmination of everything we've done so far, helping work on the practice of handling our water and putting our philosophy into practice."

Prestigious clientele

The company has partnered with Zenith International to assist with the bottling and handling of the water. Likely to be completed by August, the plant will initially offer a relatively small capacity of 1,000 bph.

Crevasse has already been formally launched on the Chilean pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. The water will be available exclusively at ABaC – a two-Michelin starred restaurant in Barcelona – with a limited run planned with blue lacquer seals on the bottles, destined for Colette in Paris.

Despite the prestigious distribution locations, the company is keen to be light-handed with the product's packaging and marketing so as not to dilute its message.

"Glacier water has something special: water from Patagonia goes hand in hand with adventure and purity," they said. "We're fortunate that it really markets itself. Everything related to our packaging and labelling sets out to hit the heart of what we're about. It's been a convoluted and personal journey so far. We simply make sure it's consistent with what sets us apart to begin with: the water itself.

"It was our desire to find a way to share this exquisite experience with others, setting us on our mission to find the purest, wildest, live water anywhere, so that maybe someone in the Middle East, Tokyo or anywhere who might never have access to this kind of experience, could get it.

"We understand the environmental challenges the world is facing, and the tough choices that have to be made to bring about decisive change," continued Bear. "We believe this is a reflection of our concerns from way back. We want to be a part of a new way of looking at the positive responsibilities we can share."

Emotional debate

As a water distributor, being asked questions about the environment is a constant reality. It's clear that fence-sitting isn't part of Waters of Patagonia's strategy: "We constantly observe that traditional methods of environmental activism often involve spending time and effort raising money to pay for spiralling administration costs to basically raise more money, and that eco-tourism here is more often than not a misnomer.

"The bottled water industry is under fire. It's interesting that consumers have targeted high-quality brands like Fiji as they continue to drink Coca-Cola guilt-free. Why is this?" asked Raccoon. "Who's to say a bottle of Fiji shipped all the way across the globe to be consumed in London might not be a better green alternative to a 'local' brand trucked across the UK from Scotland? Transporting water from different water-rich areas of the world to water-bankrupt areas will be the game-changer here, as it will offer multiple benefits: local bottling, but water provided from consistent and pure sources."

"Water can be an emotional subject," added Bear, "and it seems to be more of an emotional debate among consumers than about what all the complicated variables actually add up to. It's important to make the best and most responsible choices as you move forward, as ultimately these decisions will be passed on to consumers. Yet, the real question we try to ask ourselves is, what happens when there's no water; where making water from the sea will be taxing both on the environment and GDP; when overtaxed groundwater plummets to even lower levels across the globe."

This is where Waters of Patagonia feels it can break the mould, not only by providing a valuable raw material at a time when water supplies are dwindling, but also by achieving 100% zero emissions on its site through mini-hydroelectricity, solar and wind power. And it feels that more can be done.

"To quote Michael Braungart, head of Cradle To Cradle, who we're working alongside on packaging and logistics solutions: 'What good would a marriage be if it was only sustainable?' Let's try to nurture it and make things better!"

This genuinely positive, uplifting outlook serves the company well. On the day of the photo shoot for Water Innovation magazine, conditions were ideal thanks to an unusual lack of precipitation.

"If we'd waited one more day, it would have been a washout," said Raccoon. "We got lucky!"

I know that feeling. And there are some things on Earth that should never be taken for granted, water being one of them.

Medina Bailey is editor of Water Innovation magazine. Subscribe here.