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As the sky fails to give water, Gujarat goes to sea for help

NEW DELHI, MAY 4: So what if Gujarat has hardly any rainfall to speak of. It has one of the longest coastlines in the country. The Chief minister of Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel, in his visit to Delhi this time has laid his hands on a unique project for water-starved Gujarat. It is the stuff dreams are made of: A simple project which will convert abundant sea water into drinking water.

The person who is going to make this a reality for the state reeling under drought is Chennai-based Felix Ryan, adviser to the UN, winner of the UN Global 500 Environmentalist award and director general Ryan Foundation. Ryan was director, Ministry of Industry. A `poor man's technologist' as he is called, his project is simple and requires hardly any investment based on a simple evaporation and condensation principle.

``It is as simple as brewing liquor in villages,'' he says. It requires building a huge stainless steal container and then putting a smaller container inside. The outer steel container is covered with a white transparent plastic sheet, allowing the middle portion to sag like a funnel over the middle container. This funnel-like depression is filled with cold water. The pure, clean water condenses in the smaller container into the inner container after condensing on the plastic sheet.

Burning expensive fuel is replaced with stainless steel, photovoltaic cells, reflectors bigger than dish antennas and magnifying glass. ``This enhances the heat by 40 per cent,'' explains Ryan.

He has managed to draw attention to his scheme in Chennai where after a few demonstrations, some households have installed this simple device on their roof-tops. The sea water that is heated up is three times that of the potable water that is obtained in the end.

His project has been better received in exotic countries like Somalia and Sierra Leon in Africa where it has been tried, tested and proven to be successful. A module has also been prepared in Osaka, Japan. In India, after writing several letters to various government, he caught the attention of Maneka Gandhi who initiated the meeting with Home Minister L. K. Advani and Patel. In India, it will be for the first time in Gujarat that he will be attempting it on a large scale.

An investment of Rs 22 lakh would be required to obtain 30,000 gallons of water which would be sufficient for as many as 50,000 people or a small village. The location and the actual fabrication of the vessel is still to be chosen in Gujarat.

However, Ryan says that the first thing that he will do when he reached the state on the 10th of this month is to attempt another project. ``I will pump huge amounts of sea water into the dry wells adjoining the coast line. Since salty water is heavier, it will go into the aquifers and push the fresh water up,'' he says. But what about the ground water turning saline or the soil becoming unfit for irrigation. ``These are myths. The water goes so deep down that it does not affect the soil and because it is heavier, the fresh-water is what comes out,'' he clarifies. He has already attempted this successfully in Sierra Leon in 1982.

One thing leads to another -- he says that already saline cultivation is becoming a reality in Kutch, thanks to the effort of an American firm. A special bush called Salicornia Sos, essentially an underwater plant is being grown with the help of salt water to produce rich edible oil and fodder for animals.

De-salination projects have been attempted earlier but most of them have proven to be uneconomical because of the fuel they burnt. Also, the technology did not suit the Indian conditions. ``Unlike the project that was attempted in Avania near Bhavnagar by Central Salt and Marine Institute, this project uses magnifying glass which might make all the difference,'' said P.K. Lahiri, chief secretary, Government of Gujarat. ``If this pilot project is successful, we will not hesitate to duplicate it,'' he added.

The usual doubts about whether local temperature and the kind of salt water is suitable will only be cleared by the pilot project.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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