They’re a cornerstone of our global economy but also carry our trash and excrement. Today, people across the planet are reimagining the world’s waterways in new and exciting — though sometimes inadvisable — ways. As nations slowly begin opening up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s Daily Dose dives into the watery innovations making a splash with their ability to combat climate change, prevent conflict and provide summer fun in new ways — from river surfing hubs to floating camping tents. Jump in.
Stephen Starr, OZY Correspondent
1. Sun Rises on Floating Farms
With 73,000 solar panels, a Dutch solar farm built on the surface of an otherwise useless sandpit lake is showing just how much water can help generate energy — even if it’s not hydropower. Europe’s largest floating solar farm can power up to 7,200 homes, and the Netherlands is planning more such floating farms to harness the power of the sun. The cooling effect of the water on the solar panels means their yield is 20% to 30% more than it would be with static, land-based solar farms, industry experts say.
2. No More Sex for Fish
Thanks in part to the practice of jaboya — that is “sex for fish” — nearly a quarter of Ugandans living around the shores of Africa’s Lake Victoria have HIV. That’s because women who mostly sell fish but don’t catch them from the lake themselves are forced to trade sex for their share as the region’s growing population is facing food insecurity, says Chris Macoloo of the Oklahoma City-headquartered global nonprofit World Neighbors. Now, fish farming initiatives encouraging locals to breed fish in small ponds and tanks are allowing East African women to break out of the jaboya trap. They no longer need to buy lake fish from men. The result? HIV rates are falling and household incomes are rising.
Krill feed on phytoplankton, an algae that’s found beneath Antarctica’s continental ice shelf, including the icebergs that break off. As more and more icebergs drift north, these tiny creatures are on the move too, and scientists are investigating how that may affect the migration patterns of humpbacks and other whales that feed on krill, as well as penguins that live in the Antarctic.
4. Worth Its Salt
Better known as an important migratory point for flamingos or as a tourist trap just off the D750 highway, Lake Tuz in Turkey has also become an important salt-producing center for the nation. The lake water evaporates every summer, leaving behind up to a foot of natural salt, a resource that has attracted dozens of companies keen to make a buck. Currently, the salt is exported to more than 60 countries around the world.
Famed international chef Marcus Samuelsson says South Africa tops his list of most beautiful places in the world, where he can smell the red clay earth and connect with wildlife. But his creative side yearns for urban hubs like Miami, where he can jump on a bicycle and enjoy the special culture of street art.
Florida and California might be the best-known destinations in America for water-themed fun. But with the pandemic restricting travel for many, Americans are finding new options, such as the canal waterways in the eastern U.S. that were used to transport heavy goods in the 19th century. The towpaths that run alongside the canals were once used by horses and teams of men to pull canal boats loaded with coal, foodstuff and raw materials, but were quickly abandoned once railways were built. Now paved, these paths serve as an outdoor escape for millions of bikers, joggers and hikers, with visitor numbers at some rising by 50% in 2020. Within a few decades, you might be able to cycle from Washington, D.C., to the Pacific Ocean on a route made of towpaths and trails.
2. Surf’s Up in the Midwest
Hundreds of miles from the nearest sea, the Midwest hasn’t always had the greatest reputation when it comes to its waterways. Remember the pollution-triggered river fires in the 1950s and ’60s? But now, a new generation of forward-thinking urban planners and water enthusiasts in the region is driving a burgeoning surfing scene. In southwestern Ohio, Dayton sits at the confluence of three rivers, and its location has turned it into a hub for surfing enthusiasts from as far away as Kentucky and Pennsylvania. “Many people look at Midwestern states as ‘flyover states’ and do not realize all of the historical charm and actual opportunities we have to offer,” Amy Dingle of Five Rivers MetroParks, the authority that oversees local whitewater features in Dayton, told us last year. That’s now changing as the Midwest’s catching a wave.
Surfing not your scene? Then how about gently bobbing up and down on the surface of a river, massaged by the motion of the current as you sleep in a tent? Indeed, floating tents are now a reality. There are even entire campsites on rivers in parts of the Midwest. At this floating encampment, also in Ohio, you can rent kayaks, canoes, paddles, life jackets and even floating fire pits if you want some smoke on the water.
4. Watery Airship
You might have expected some extravagant Dubai mall to be the home of the world’s largest indoor waterpark. But that title actually goes to Tropical Islands Resort, located in a former Nazi-then-Soviet-owned airfield 35 miles from Berlin. Made from a converted airship hangar and boasting a capacity of up to 8,200 visitors per day, it’s the fourth-largest building on the planet by volume. Under the 32-story-high dome there are 50,000 plants, also making it the biggest indoor rainforest in the world.
1. Low-Head Dams
It’s not just huge dams that are flashpoints. Low-head dams — often pretty sights with water cascading over their edge — are also dangerous. Every year, hundreds of people get caught in the near-inescapable circular hydrodynamics of these dams, which drag anyone in their path underwater, to the surface and back down again. Now, a growing movement of engineers, environmentalists and local politicians is starting to remove some of these deadly dams, making rivers safer and more accessible.
2. Colorado Crisis
With faraway metropolises (looking at you, Los Angeles and Las Vegas) placing enormous demands on its rivers and with less frequent precipitation in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s rafting and water sports industries might soon be on the way out. Declining water levels are forcing rafting firms and economically dependent local communities to search for patchwork solutions — from prodding clients to move further upriver to relying on water in high-altitude reservoirs. But these are temporary fixes. And slowly, everyone — from visiting rafting enthusiasts to locals — is getting used to the idea of less adventure and lower incomes.
3. GERDing for Battle
Africa’s largest hydropower project, the proposed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), has fueled regional tensions between water-scarce neighbors Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia over who gets to control the power generated from the initiative. But a group of Belgian researchers believes there’s a possible win-win solution: The three countries and their neighbors could agree to invest in large solar and wind farms that utilize the GERD to generate giant amounts of additional power that can be fed into a shared, regional grid. In effect, the sun and wind could literally stop a war.
4. Watch It, Superyacht!
Superyachts sailing down tiny canals? Only in the Netherlands. In some of the more ridiculous photographs you’re likely to see, a 308-foot luxury ship passes within a yard of people’s bathrooms, portraying just how obscene the excesses of the billionaires club have become. Need more evidence? How about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ planned superyacht, which will come with a support yacht equipped with a helipad to help him actually get to the superyacht.
5. Refugee Disaster-in-Waiting
Bangladesh, which won global plaudits some years ago for accepting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees when others wouldn’t, has since moved 18,000 of them to a low-lying island. Cut off from the rest of Bangladesh, the island this week witnessed protests from refugees, some of whom allege they were forced to relocate there. And the United Nations is worried that the strong cyclones that frequently hit the Bay of Bengal could overwhelm the tiny island of Bhasan Char, plunging an already displaced community into a fresh fight for survival.
6. Bizarre Building
It’s a disaster of a different kind. The Liebian International Building in Guiyang, China, has four pumps that suck water 350 feet high . . . only so it can crash all the way down again in a spectacular (and wasteful) waterfall feature. It costs $118 an hour to get the water that high just to have it cascade down the facade of the building, even if its owners insist the waterfall will only be used for “special occasions.”
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There’s no greater tribute to the awesome power of waterways than Egypt’s majestic pyramids just outside Cairo. Wooden boats carried the limestone for the pyramids up the Nile from Tura, home of ancient Egypt’s biggest quarry. Indeed, Egypt — one of the world’s oldest civilizations — wouldn’t have flourished without the Nile, a river so unmatched in its influence that Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it had made Egyptians adopt unique “manners and customs.” Even today, most of Egypt’s 100 million people live near the Nile.
2. Do as the Romans Did
Hollywood would have you believe that the Roman Empire was built thanks to a fondness for spilling blood and guts, but its success was partly due to a much more mundane reason: its unique water transportation system comprising aqueducts. From Constantinople in the east to northern England, moving large volumes of water into towns and cities was vital to keeping them thriving for hundreds of years. Fun fact: To this day, Rome’s Trevi Fountain is still fed by an aqueduct.
3. Aztec Architectural Aces
The Aztecs took their version of aqueducts a step further with the deployment of terra-cotta earthenware water systems to move potable water from mountain springs to their lake-based city of Tenochtitlan — what we now know as Mexico City — in the 1300s. As the thriving center of Mesoamerican culture and home to about 100,000 people, Tenochtitlan residents enjoyed access to such an abundance of water that it was common for them to bathe twice a day. (By contrast, Queen Elizabeth I of Great Britain only bathed once a month.)
4. Syrian Succor
Even amid a devastating war, Syrians continue to take pride in their storied history and architectural treasures. The water wheels, or norias, of Hama in central Syria are one such way people are leaning on the past to envision a new future. Dating back to the 14th century, the largest noria is nearly 70 feet in diameter. Today, in the shadow of a conflict that’s taken an estimated half-million lives, craftsmen are working to restore these unique water features.
5. Water Warriors
The coastal Indian state of Tamil Nadu has seen repeated droughts in recent years — one of the many impacts of climate change. But the government hasn’t done much. So local village communities are coming together to repair canals, clear silt, plant small forests and clean lakes, reviving long-ignored water bodies that historically supported communities across the region. Centuries ago, these waterways were successfully managed by local communities. Now, the state government is looking to return to that model.