All posts by Willemez

EUNAVFOR: Switching from pirates to migrants?

A human disaster is currently happening in the Mediterranean Sea where more than 10,000 migrants have been picked up as they attempted to enter Europe from Libya. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants have died on the sea route this year compared to 207 in the same period last year.

Traffickers started taking advantage of the breakdown of authority in Libya to pack boats with paying migrants willing to cross the sea for a better life. Meanwhile, the European operation against piracy in the Indian Ocean (EUNAVFOR Atalanta) has become a reference for possible maritime operation in the Mediterranean against those traffickers.

EUNAVFOR: an operation meant to fight piracy

ATALANTA
Operation Atalanta, as of June 2015. Along with AoR.

Created in 2008 as an operation to protect merchant ships against pirate attacks, mainly in the Gulf of Aden and particularly in the IRTC (International Recommended Transit Corridor) put in place to make sure vessels from the World Food Programme would reach the populations in need, Atalanta has become much more than a simple EU joint operation.

If the destruction of ships was not part of the original objectives of Atalanta, its actions soon grew offensive: in spring 2010, 18 months after its start, Atalanta adopted enhanced intelligence and surveillance methods allowing it to disrupt both “pirate bases” and pirate ships.

The tactics used by the EU operation (and by other forces) to enter a maximum of mother ships (not simple skiffs) was one of the operation’s success vectors. But those vessels were empty most of the time and no collateral risk was therefore expected.

Recognition means and intelligence

Operation Atalanta has strong recognition means with several maritime patrol aircraft based in different parts of the Indian Ocean (mainly in Djibouti and Seychelles) to regularly cover the area. From time to time, an AWACS aircraft is also required to lead strategic surveillance of the zone. And at the tactical level, some vessels (mainly Dutch) used maritime drones.

The interrogation of arrested pirates is a very important source of information and merchant ships that cross the zone play an important role in passing information to the  Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa, the maritime information centre set up at Northwood military headquarters in the UK and the various information collected in neighbouring countries (Kenya or Djibouti).

The Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) is an initiative established by EU NAVFOR with close co-operation from industry. It provides 24-hour manned monitoring of vessels transiting through the Gulf of Aden, whilst the provision of an interactive website enables the Centre to communicate the latest anti-piracy guidance to industry, and for shipping companies and operators to register their vessels’ movements through the region.

Owners and operators who have vessels transiting the region are strongly encouraged to register their movements with MSCHOA to improve their security and reduce the risk of attacks or capture. Additionally, the “Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy” (BMP) and further information about combating piracy, and what action to take should they come under attack, can be downloaded on the MSCHOA’s website.

A further initiative was the introduction of Group Transits; vessels are co-ordinated to transit together through the IRTC. This enables military forces to “sanitise” the area ahead of the merchant ships. MSCHOA also identifies particularly vulnerable shipping and co-ordinate appropriate protection arrangements, either from within Atalanta, or other forces in the region.

In 2012, the need for ground actions was put forward.

Operations on land

In 2008, the crew of the Ponant, a French ship has been reported as having been taken in hostage by one of the four most powerful local groups, the Somali marines, who usually launched their operations from Garaad.

After the release of the Ponant, Admiral Gillier launched a helicopter raid by boarding commandos to intercept pirates on land. This air raid took place with the agreement of the Somali government. This is the only time where pirates were followed on land after the ransom was paid. The question was asked if the extension of Atalanta’s mandate would allow armed forces to track pirates on land. In April 2012, authorizations to destroy the logistics depots, i.e. “pirates bases” was obtained. These actions were also a way of saying to pirates “we can reach you anywhere.” This possibility of ground action, however, has been used only once, in May 2012, in an action by the Spanish navy. It was apparently enough to convince some local leaders that it was too dangerous for them to help pirates.

Recent actions in Yemen

In the margin of Atalanta, the French patrol boat L’Adroit was deployed on March 30, for two weeks off the Yemeni coast, where he led the evacuation of 23 French nationals from Aden, in difficult conditions. L’Adroit also escorted several Yemeni dhow between the ports of Djibouti and Al Mukah, contributing to the evacuation of nearly a thousand people from Yemen, including more than 500 Djiboutian refugees. The French ship then made call in Djibouti to refuel. Several authorities went on board, including the Ambassador of France to Djibouti, to congratulate the crew for its actions. L’Adroit now resumes his patrol off the Somali coast as part of the EU mission Atalanta to fight against piracy.

EUNAVFOR MED: Switching from pirates to migrants?

TRITON
Operation Triton, as of June 2015.  Along with Malta’s SRR AoR.

This triple action: information, sea destruction and destruction on land was recently considered as a model for a possible CSDP operation against human traffickers in the Mediterranean. On 23rd April, an extraordinary European Council gathered to speak on the sensitive subject of migrants in the Mediterranean.According to a draft declaration, EU leaders turn towards Atalanta to reduce –if not end- the shipwrecks of migrants. We must “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy the ships before they are used by traffickers”, the document reported.

The head of European diplomacy,Federica Mogherini, “was invited to immediately begin preparations for a possible security and defence operation, in accordance with international law.” The head of the Italian Government, Matteo Renzi, even requested the examination of the possibility of conducting “targeted interventions” against smugglers in Libya, which over the years became the country of embarkation of migrants and asylum applicants towards Italy and Malta.

If accepted, the organization of the EU military operation would be a first in the fight against illegal immigration but, of course, its implementation would take time. But in order to do destroy boats in Libya, a legal mandate is required from the UN. The ground action possibility for the Atalanta naval force in Somalia was almost never used because of its difficulty. EU leaders also need to think about measures to intervene during the crossing of migrant boats. And this would probably require giving more money to Frontex, the EU’s border control agency. However, the destruction of ships used by migrants already takes place at sea.

There are three main reasons for this:

First, abandoned vessels are a hazard to navigation, especially at night, when, because of their size and lack of lighting, they cannot be seen, even in good weather. Second, a ship lost at sea can be seen from an airplane and it is not always clear if anyone is onboard. To maintain the high quality of emergency rescue at sea, it is necessary to destroy those boats immediately after all migrants have been evacuated.Third, abandoning a vessel could lead to the risk of it being used once again by a new team of traffickers.

For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has officially confirmed on the 19th May during a joint press conference with President Hollande, that, since the beginning of sea rescue operations where the German navy was involved, “five inflatable boats and a wooden boat were sunk”.

The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, declared: “the fundamental point is not so much the destruction of the vessels but it is the destruction of the business model of the traffickers. If you look at business model of the traffickers and the flows of money involved in trafficking, it may be that that money is financing terrorist activities.” Stressing the same point, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists, also trying to hide, to blend in on the smugglings vessels trying to cross over into Europe.”

Know your enemy!

On 18th May, Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence of the 27 Member States of the EU (Denmark opted out of the common defence agreement after the Danish ‘no’ vote at the Maastricht referendum in June 1992) gave their “green light” to EUNAVFOR Med. Since the United Nations did not take any resolution yet, the operation should start with a first phase: the exchange of information and intelligence. This is fundamental, since, without an accurate tracking of information concerning different traffickers, different means employed, etc., it would be almost impossible to fight this traffic. This means air observation (maritime surveillance aircraft, UAVs, helicopters …) and imaging (radars, satellites, etc.).

Furthermore, if the goal is to neutralize these networks and to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is necessary, indeed, to have specific evidence against them. Laws also need to be updated to arrest traffickers on the high seas.

It will not be too difficult to organize action in the Libyan waters since most of the interested navies such as Greece, Italy, France, Spain etc. are already almost positioned in the international waters near Libya. The Mediterranean is really a “mare nostrum”. All European marine meet there to participate in combined manoeuvres (within NATO in general) or to visit the Indian Ocean – to participate in the anti-piracy operation in the operation of allies in Iraq, etc. – So, the cost for the navies to act through EUNAVFOR Med is reduced.

The General Operations Quarter installed in Rome, is already operational as it is currently used for Triton operation conducted under the aegis of Frontex (the European border control agency). Its military commander is Credendino Enrico, an Italian admiral. After this first phase centred on intelligence gathering and surveillance of smuggling routes leading from Libya to southern Italy and Malta, EU ships would start chasing and boarding the smugglers’ boats in a second phase. Summer is the high season for trafficking; this is why it is necessary to act quickly.

A dramatic situation but where is solidarity?

Despite the show of unity on the military action, the EU appears increasingly divided on the question of mandatory numbers of asylum seekers which should be accepted by member states, according to population size, wealth, and the number of migrants already hostel, as proposed by the European Commission on 13th May.

Ten countries have already spoke out against it, namely Spain, France, Britain and Hungary. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the proposed quota for Spain doesn’t take into account the nation’s sky-high jobless rate of 24 percent and its efforts to prevent illegal migration from African nations. Police in the Sicilian port of Ragusa, meanwhile, arrested five Africans suspected of navigating a rubber life raft packed with migrants that was intercepted at sea last week. Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban has said the plan is “madness” and France’s Manuel Valls called it “a moral and ethical mistake”.

Why are all politicians so afraid to hold a hand to migrants? In 1979, French politicians and intellectuals put their disagreements aside and welcomed more than 128,531 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, fleeing communism and ethnic persecution, not knowing where to go.” Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, two intellectuals, who were politically opposed, gathered around a common cause. A few months earlier, this heterogeneous coalition was established to charter a boat, with MSF, to travel around the South China Sea and bring relief and assistance to boat people in distress.

France hosted and helped migrants to settle and be integrated on its soil. Much of the Asian community in France, especially in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, is the result of this wave of immigration of boat people fleeing the former French colonies in Indochina.

Today, thousands of men and women are fleeing war in Syria – a former territory managed by France-,or the dictatorship in Eritrea, or the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa and no one is there to hand them a hand. David Cameron recently announced that he would send a ship of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean but any migrant rescued by the British Navy would be deposited on the coasts of the closest countries, probably Italy.

We can find thousand of reasons not to help these people but I have one question: when did we stop being human?

After studying law and international relations, Alix started working on the first cycle of conferences “Defence and Environment: a new way of thinking” about the impact of defense activities on the environment. Alix served as a Navy officer and a political adviser to the New Zealand Consul in New Caledonia.  Since 2013, Alix is also the Asia-Pacific market analyst for the French and English publications of Marine Renewable Energy as a renewable energy consultant. She currently lives in New Caledonia. She is writing a PhD on the law of marine energy resources.

Louis Martin-Vézian is the co-president of the French chapter of CIMSEC, and produces maps and infographics features on CIMSEC and other websites. His graphics and research were used by GE Aviation and Stratfor among others.

The South Pacific’s Cyclone Pam

A Story of Climate Change, Destruction and Global Solidarity

The little archipelago of Vanuatu in the South Pacific has been struck by a tropical cyclone of nearly unprecedented scale on the night from Friday the 13th (!) to 14th March 2015. With 165 MPH winds, the category 5 cyclone named ‘Pam’ is the most destructive tropical cyclone in Vanuatu’s history and the second most intense tropical cyclone in the South Pacific basin after Cyclone Zoe of 2002. Zoe hit several small islands in the Temotu Province of the Solomon Islands with a total population of 1700.

Pam was much stronger than Hurricane Katrina. Now, Vanuatu must begin the long process of recovering.

Casualties and damages

As of 16 March, the National Disaster Management Office confirmed 24 fatalities in total, including 11 from Tafea, 8 from Efate, and 5 from Tanna. However, there are still no reliable casualty figures from the rest of the country.

The president of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, told the Associated Press:

“More than 1,000 people have been evacuated to evacuation centers and will be returning to their homes some time later today, if their homes still stand. That’s in the capital Port Vila alone. Confirmed dead in Port Vila is 6 and more than 30 injuries. I do believe the number of casualties will not be high. More than 90% of the buildings and houses in Port Vila have been destroyed or damaged. The state of emergency that has been issued is only for Port Vila. Once we receive an update on the extent of the damage in the provinces then another state of emergency will be issued for the outer islands. Despite widespread damage, Shefa remains the only province declared an emergency at this stage.”

Climate change as suspect N°1

President Lonsdale declared that climate change was contributing to the severe weather his country is experiencing: “Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu. We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year.” He added that his country had been “wiped out” by the catastrophe and would have to build “a new paradise again”.

President Lonsdale received the support of Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, who declared:

“For leaders of low-lying island atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights and our survival into the future. There will be a time when the waters will not recede. It is now time to act on climate change.”

Kiribati is slowly disappearing under the seas and some of its population has been sent to Fiji as the first climate-change refugees of the world. Three islands of Kiribati have been struck by the cyclone Pam and Tuvalu is thought to have suffered extensive damage. 

International aid on its way

N2DwSji

 

The first priority now is humanitarian needs. 90% of the buildings have been destroyed and people have nowhere to stay. President Lonsdale has been asking for help:

“Clothing, eating utensils, and bathing, most of the necessary items of the households, all this has been destroyed and damaged. I really request for humanitarian needs and assistance at this stage. Tarpaulins, water containers, medical needs, gathering tools, and construction tools, all these are very important right now.”

Currently, 3,300 people are sheltering in 37 evacuation centers in Torba and Penama Provinces, and on the main island of Efate. UNICEF officials warned that the entire population of Tanna island faces starvation within days. Indeed, the cyclone destroyed all crops on the island. Islanders have just a few days of fruit and root vegetables left. There are very serious concerns about food stocks going forward.

Somewhat more positive, communications have been almost fully restored in Port Vila but other islands remain cut off from the world. People remain without power and ADRA Australia reported that most evacuation centers lacked even basic hand washing facilities. Another source of concern is contamined water supplies and the risk of the spread of dengue and malaria.

Aerial assessments have been carried out by military aircraft from New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand. On Sunday, France sent a military plane, a Casa loaded with relief supplies, a vehicle to enable the recognition, a generator for a desalination plant, sheeting for shelters to protect a hundred families, the Route Opening equipment (chainsaws, and other tools),  satellite communications, along with a logistics unit to support the detachment for 10 days. The plane came from Tahiti and took off from Noumea (New Caledonia), which is only 500 km away from Vanuatu. The Casa carried three soldiers, a member of the Civil Security and a member of the Red Cross. A second plane was sent on Monday.

The Australian Defence Force sent two C-17A Globemaster IIIs loaded with food and basic equipment and a C-130J with an on-board evaluation team. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pledged long-term support for the recovery effort and sent two more military aircraft. AP-3C Orion maritime patrol was positioned in Honiara, Solomon Islands and started aerial reconnaissance of the archipelago. A second AP-3C Orion launched reconnaissance flights in northern Archipe.

In Polynesia, the Air Force is operating with a detachment consisting of a transport squadron of two tactical transport Casa 235s (ETOM 0082) while in New Caledonia, the Air Force maintains the transport squadron (ET52) with two Casa planes and three Puma helicopters. The frigate Vendémiaire, currently in Noumea, will be deployed to the remote island of Tanna on Friday. It will carry a Puma helicopter on board. Another humanitarian C-17 transport plane with emergency supplies took off from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, UK as part of a growing effort involving countries from around the world.

The 268,000 affected people are spread over 65 islands, with security experts likening it to dealing with 65 simultaneous emergencies. Furthermore, the difficulty of travel from one island to another makes it incredibly hard to compile an accurate picture of what the situation is.

I remember going to remote islands of Vanuatu with the French Navy: Ni-Vanuatu had nothing but gave us everything. 

To those affected, we have everything. Let’s at least give them something. It’s up to us to make sure that these wonderful people don’t die suffering from hunger, thirst, cold, fear alone on their ravaged island.

The French chapter co-presidents

Text: Alix Willemez

Map: Louis Martin-Vézian

Nauru: A Lesson in Failure

Have you ever heard of Nauru? This small island of the South Pacific is not very well-known but its story could be representative of the one of humanity.

A little history

Nauru was formerly called “pleasant island” and if it may have been really pleasant, it is no longer the best tourist destination.

With its 21 square kilometers for less than 10 000 inhabitants, it is the second smallest state in the world after the Vatican.

As many islands in the South Pacific, Nauru was colonised by a European state in the 19th century. The German Empire settled in the small island to make it part of its protectorate of the Marshall Islands.

During this time, the Australian prospector Albert Fuller Ellis discovered phosphate in  Nauru’s underground. Phosphate is widely used in agriculture and is an essential component in fertiliser and feed.

After contracting an arrangement with  the German administration, Ellis began mining in 1906.

But soon, WWI happened and Australia, New Zealand and the UK took over Nauru and started administrating the island and its phosphate. In 1923, the League of Nations gave Australia a trustee mandate over Nauru, with the United Kingdom and New Zealand as co-trustee.

Then the Japanese troops occupied the small island during WWII. It’s only in 1968 that Nauru gained its independence, shortly after buying the assets of the phosphate companies. This enabled Nauru to become one of the richest island in the South Pacific.

All Used Up

Between 1968 and 2002, Nauru exported 43 millions of tons of phosphate for an amount of 3,6 billions Australian dollars. But 21 square kilometers is a small area to have mines everywhere and now there is no phosphate left.

The Land of the Fat

In the meantime, people of Nauru started having access to a lot of money and  to live the American way. Apart from phosphate, there are very few resources on the island. Therefore, most products were imported, including big American cars and fat food. It did not take long before inhabitants of Nauru  became the most obese people in the world, which led the British journal ‘The Independent’ to call Nauru ‘the land of the fat’. Indeed, according to the World Health Organisation, 97 percent of men and 93 percent of women in Nauru are overweight or obese.

Those people who used to eat fish, coconuts and root vegetables now eat imported processed foods which are high in sugar and fat. Now, more  than 40% of the population is affected with type 2 diabetes, cancers, kidney and heart disease.

Money, Money, Money

In the 80’s, Nauru was very rich. However, soon, growing corruption, bad investments and big spending on the government’s side made Nauru a very indebt country.

Nauru’s bank accounts are all in Australia, simply because there are no banks in Nauru (the only one left, the National Bank of Nauru is actually insolvent). In October 2014, an Australian court ruled that Nauru owed 16 million Australian dollars to US-based investment fund Firebird, which had lent money to the government of the small island. But  the government of Nauru did not respect the  court’s decision and it defaulted on the bonds. Since it did not reimburse Firebird, its debt soon amounted to 31 million Australian dollars. Firebird had then prevented Nauru’s government from accessing its bank accounts held in Australia and had frozen all of Nauru’s acounts. Nauru’s administration immediately warned that it was about to run out of cash and that it could not pay for essential goods, such as generator fuel, and public servant salaries. It would have been a national disaster because from the 10% people who have a job in Nauru, 95% are employed by the government. Nauru’s unemployment rate is estimated to be 90 percent. The government clearly needed money to buy fuel to produce energy, since it did not invest in renewable energies. Without fuel, no possibility to have a functioning hospital or to have fresh water, because sea water is pumped and then desalinated, a process that needs lot of energy. And without fuel, all the planes stick to the ground.

Finally, Nauru merely won the court case and did not have to repay Firebird. Is this decision linked to the fact that Nauru hosts Australia asylum-seekers in a detention center? Maybe. If all the planes stick to the ground, that means that the center is no longer running; every day, new asylum seekers come and  go, and so do doctors, lawyers and others.

Furthermore, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) declared that although Nauru’s administration has a strong public mandate to implement economic reforms, in the absence of an alternative to phosphate mining, the medium-term outlook is for continued dependence on external assistance (mainly from Australia and China). In 2007, the ADB estimated  Nauru GDP per capita at $2,400 to $2,715. That’s not a lot!

Public enemy n°1

In the 1990s, Nauru became a tax heaven and started selling passports to foreign nationals.

It led the inter-governmental body based in Paris, the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), to add Nauru to its list of 15  non-cooperative countries in its fight against money laundering. Experts estimate that Nauru triggered a $5 trillion shadow economy. According to Viktor Melnikov, previous deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank,  in 1998 Russian criminals laundered about $70 billion through Nauru. The island  started suffering the harshest sanctions imposed on any country, harsher than those against Iraq and Yugoslavia. European banks did no longer allow any dollar-denominated transactions which involved Nauru. This is why in 2003, under pressure from FATF, the government of  Nauru introduced anti-avoidance legislation. The result was quick: foreign capitals left the island. Two years later, satisfied by the legislation and its effects, the FATF removed Nauru from its black list.

The difficult relationship between Australia and Nauru

There is a very special relation between Australia and Nauru. Australia administered Nauru  from 1914 to 1968. However, Nauru did not seem entirely satisfied with the Australian administration. Indeed, in 1989, Nauru took legal action against its former master in front of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Nauru was attacking the Australian way of administrating the little island and in particular Australia’s failure to remedy the environmental damage caused by phosphate mining.

You can find the judgement here.

In 1993, Nauru and Australia notified the ICJ  that, having reached a settlement, the two parties had agreed to discontinue the proceedings : Australia had offered Nauru an out-of-court settlement of 2.5 million Australian dollars annually for 20 years.

In 2001, Australia asked Nauru to help it fight immigration. The two countries signed an agreement  known as “the Pacific solution”. In exchange for an important economic aid, the small island of 21 square meters agreed to host a detention center for people seeking asylum in Australia. This agreement officially came to an end in 2007 but the two countries are still looking for a solution to help Nauru’s economy survive. Which means the detention center is still running.

Furthermore,  we know that a significant portion of Nauru’s income comes in the form of aid from Australia. In 2008, Australia committed €17 million in aid for the 2009 financial year, along with assistance for “a plan aimed at helping Nauru to survive without aid.”

In November 2014, the Australian independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the International Criminal Court (ICC) asking it to investigate Abbott’s government for crimes against humanity over its treatment of asylum seekers .

Abbott’s government has consistently argued that its offshore processing and resettlement policies have stopped people attempting to arrive in Australia by boat and therefore saved lives. For the moment, asylum seekers who arrive to Australia by boat will be refused visas and the ‘Pacific Solution’ is implemented; under this policy, asylum seekers arriving without authorisation are sent to Australian-funded detention camps in Nauru or the island of Manus in Papua New-Guinea rather than being allowed to claim asylum on the Australian mainland. In September 2014, Canberra paid 40 million Australian dollars to the government of Cambodia for Phnom Penh to welcome asylum seekers from Australia. Furthermore, a new legislation from September 2014 will make it harder for asylum seekers already in Australia who arrived by boat to make visa applications.

Nauru’s diplomacy

After having sold many passports, the Nauru’s government decided to communicate on positive actions.

In 2008, immediately after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, Nauru recognised it as an independent country.

One year later, along with Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, Nauru recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions from Georgia. After a war with Georgia, Moscow had tried to secure international recognition for the two regions. According to the Russian newspaper  ‘Kommersant’, Russia gave $50 million in humanitarian aid to the little Pacific state.

Nauru is Kiribati’s neighbour, an atoll famous for disappearing and for sending the first climate change refugees abroad, to Fiji. With no space left to grow food or to live, no fresh water and always more refugees coming, the people of Nauru might also desert their island soon.

Hopefully, the story of the small island of Nauru will not be a sample to the history of humanity’s little island orbiting the sun!

Alix is a writer, researcher, and correspondent on the Asia-Pacific region for Marine Renewable Energy LTD. She previously served as a maritime policy advisor to the New Zealand Consul General in New Caledonia and as the French Navy’s Deputy Bureau Chief for State Action at Sea, New Caledonia Maritime Zone

The Future of Seawater: Fuel for the Fleet

The US Navy recently announced that it successfully converted sea water into fuel and that it used it to fly a model plane. The aim of this technology is, of course, to give ships a self-sustaining power source and to make the Navy less dependent on fuel imports.

US Navy Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, declared the project to be “a huge milestone for us. What is just absolutely revolutionary about [this technology] is that, if you no longer have to worry about where that oiler is, you remove so much of the vulnerability that we have at sea.”

According to the Department of Defense, the ability to harness this new technology would allow ships to always be operational and eliminate the need to refuel at sea.

Indeed, it would prove very helpful in time of conflict: the vessel would not spend time away from the mission by returning to land to re-fuel, which is particularly helpful when surrounded by hostile forces. Furthermore, fuel supplies constitute a good target during conflicts.

Turning sea water into fuel: how does it work? 

Seawater is a very attractive energy source, since it contains much higher concentrations of CO2 than air. And, obviously, it is very abundant. The new technology developed by the Navy uses a gas-to-liquid process, which at the same time recovers carbon dioxide (CO2)  from seawater and concomitantly produces hydrogen (H2), the building blocks of hydrocarbons. Dr. Heather Willauer, a research chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), explains the chemical process: “Using an innovative and proprietary NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM), both dissolved and bound CO2 are removed from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.” First, the CO2 and H2 are converted into unsaturated hydrocarbon starter molecules called olefins using an iron-based catalyst. Next, these olefins are converted into a liquid containing larger hydrocarbon molecules with a carbon range suitable for use in jet engines by polymerization.

While the Navy successfully tested this new technique on a model aircraft, it will require time and an enormous investment from the American government before the Navy is able to solely use salt water as fuel. Regardless, Dr. Willauer is very optimistic:  “This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation.” According to her, this technology could potentially produce jet fuel which may only cost approximately three to six dollars per gallon.

Furthermore, the team claims that its technology removes CO2 at 92% efficiency, which is far superior to previously developed techniques for CO2 recovery from seawater. It also declared that it can convert about 60 percent of the extracted gases into hydrocarbons which can then be processed into jet fuel.

Fossil fuels are currently the only obvious energy source capable of powering the system. However, coupling this system with a renewable energy source that drives CO2 recovery could potentially allow this process to be very sustainable in the long-term.

More dead seas tomorrow? 

For the moment, companies are more interested in desalinating sea water for use as drinking water rather than using it as a fuel source. However, current desalination techniques use a huge amount of energy. Indeed , energy consumption can account for up to 70 per cent of the desalination costs. This is almost incredible: the global production of desalinated water uses approximately 75.2 terawatt-hours  (1012 watts) of electricity per year, which is enough to power about  7 million homes.

This is the reason why GE and Aramco Entrepreneurship have just launched an open global technology challenge aiming at finding solutions to improve the energy efficiency of seawater desalination. This $200,000 challenge will be awarded to four winners with a prize of $50,000 each, and the two companies may invest towards commercialization of the best ideas.

The Director of Aramco Entrepreneurship, Nabil Al-Khowaiter, explains that “finding a more efficient method of desalinating seawater will be a game-changer in our collective pursuit of a more sustainable energy future across the globe. Due to increased water scarcity, countries around the world are poised to rely more and more heavily on desalination as a means to provide fresh water. Aramco Entrepreneurship is partnering with GE not only to identify new solutions to lowering desalination costs, but also to invest in and attract new technologies and industries to Saudi Arabia.”

Beijing supplied by seawater in 2019 ?

 Saudi Arabia is not the only country interested in desalinated sea water. Wang Xiaoshui, desalination department director at Beijing Enterprises Water Group announced that desalinated seawater will supply domestic tap water of a third of Beijing’s inhabitants from 2019.

In 2013, the Chinese company researched and developed its own reverse osmosis membrane technique. Beijing Enterprises Water Group had already started desalinating seawater in March 2012 and it transported 50,000 tonnes of freshwater from the coastal city of Caofeidian to Beijing and Tianjin. The group has a 1-million-ton desalination project under construction in Caofeidian, in the district of Tangshan in the Hebei Province.  Liu Fushun, Deputy General Manager, declared that this project is to be completed by 2019.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in Beijing, explains that the Chinese capital has suffered from droughts since 1999. Desalination can help relieve the water, but he warns that this process can also cause pollution. “In the long term, the eventual solution is to save and recycle used water at the consumer end,” he said.

Sea water for cooling buildings

Sea water is already popular in the South Pacific where it is used for cooling buildings.

In French Polynesia, the InterContinental Hotel in Bora Bora is, since 2006, the first private building to be cooled entirely with Sea Water Air Conditioning (SWAC). This system uses deep cold seawater that replaces the energy-intensive central refrigeration systems which chilled water to provide air conditioning in buildings.

This system has now become very popular in Hawaii. Jan War, Operation Manager at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, declares that SWAC is “an underutilized technology. Because of the cost of fossil fuels, more and more people are realizing they have a resource underneath their feet.”

Several large municipalities, including Toronto and Stockholm, also switched from traditional cooling systems to seawater systems.

So, might sea water really be the energy of the future?

Alix is a writer, researcher, and correspondent on the Asia-Pacific region for Marine Renewable Energy LTD. She previously served as a maritime policy advisor to the New Zealand Consul General in New Caledonia and as the French Navy’s Deputy Bureau Chief for State Action at Sea, New Caledonia Maritime Zone

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