It sounds like a simple plan: redirect excess river water to deserts. But this plan potentially addresses a whole web of environmental problems including deforestation, dirty rivers, carbon emissions, rising sea levels and more.

The International Water Grid (IWG) is an under-ocean grid system constructed primarily of plastic pipes that will link rivers around the world to desert coastlines. From there, land distribution pipes and storage reservoirs will provide water sources that can be used for agriculture and forestry purposes.

With arid regions turning into cooler, more conducive agricultural areas, there will be more investments and development, reducing the worldwide forced migration of people.

“This is a project that is ripe and ready for the world. We are talking about a project that will address climate change.

“We have been talking about a solution for climate change for 30 years, but nothing as major as this has been done,” says Sri Skanda Rajah, 60, founder and chief technology officer of IWG Sdn Bhd, when met at his office in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Sri Skanda says that the project contains a multi-pronged approach to addressing climate change problems. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Under the project, water will be pumped through the grid using low air pressure (LAP) flow technology, which is a floating low-energy pumping system powered by solar and other green energy sources.

At present, Sri Skanda says 40 trillion cubic metres of water from rivers just end up in the oceans every year, worldwide. And with more frequent and severe storms linked to global warming, greater amounts of freshwater are flowing into oceans.

The IWG project aims to utilise 3% of each river water source, providing developing countries with a new income source and a renewed reason to look after their rainforests and invest in better water management systems. That would bring about cleaner rivers and, subsequently, oceans.

“Forty trillion cubic metres of water can green two million sq km of deserts. By then, we would have absorbed all the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted since 1950 (via the photosynthesis of plants). But it would still take 38 years to absorb all that CO2,” explains Sri Skanda, who is also co-founder and executive director of Stream Group, a tech company that specialises in automated underground waste management.

More importantly, the project aims to divert close to 50 billion tonnes of oil used for fuel to plastics for the pipe construction.

“This allows the oil and gas companies to carry on producing oil but with less of the oil used for fuel and therefore less CO2 emissions from fuel combustions,” he explains, adding that this amount of fuel can be substituted with renewable energy sources and biofuel.

With arid land turning into green areas and more oxygen released through photosynthesis, the earth will also be cooler. The grid will potentially be funded by using 5%-10% of the new green areas for real estate development.

The project also foresees new green job opportunities in the Middle East – reducing forced migration – and creating stability there through profitable investments and jobs.

The issue of deforestation can be addressed by greening deserts and turning them into forests and plantations. Photo: Bloomberg

It is no secret that the palm oil industry has been linked to harm to the environment and also wildlife.

“But with the project, we maintain the rainforests. Oil palms will also pick up CO2 from the air and we can use the oil palms to convert to biodiesel to use for transport. If we grow oil palm on desert land, that’s huge revenue,” says Sri Skanda.

“We have also been blaming the oil and gas companies for being the bad guys (responsible for climate change).

“The solution is to bring the oil and gas companies and environmentalists together to solve the issue, to have plantations in the deserts, which is happening in some parts of Jordan now but on a small scale,” says Sri Skanda.

Phase 1 of the proposed IWG project will link Malaysian rivers with the Arabian Peninsula under the Indian Ocean, a distance of 8,000km.

The potential impact is the greening of 6,000sq km of desert in the Middle East over 110 years, which will see 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 absorbed per year.

The IWG project plans to divert close to 50 billion tonnes of oil used for fuel to plastics, thus cutting down on emissions. Photo: The Star/Mohd Sahar Misni

Then, 4,500sq km of land can be allocated for forestry, plantations, food crops and other plants that produce biofuels, 900sq km for infrastructure and green energy farms, and 600sq km for real estate and green tech incubators.

At the moment, the company is looking for funding for a feasibility study.

“Climate change is a very, very serious problem and I realise that one of the reasons we cannot solve it is because we have alienated one very powerful group, which is the oil and gas companies. We need to engage big businesses in the solution to climate change.

“Before, the thinking is that climate change will cost us money. But the IWG project demonstrates that looking after the environment actually makes money. That’s the difference,” he emphasises.

Jassy Few, chief business officer, adds that, ultimately, the biggest benefactor of the project will be the environment.

“At the moment, governments are working in silos to address little parts of climate change. But no one’s got a congruent plan to bring it all together and address it at this scale.

“Everyone thinks someone else is going to come up with a solution. But with a big problem, you need a big solution,” she says.