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What Is Water Transportation?

By Jeremy Laukkonen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term "water transportation" refers to the act of moving substantial volumes of water from one location to another. There are three main categories into which most water transportation activity can be divided: aqueducts, shipments via containers and towing across large bodies of water. These various methods can be used to move water from a location where it is abundant to an area where it is needed. Water transportation can be used for irrigation of otherwise arid lands, the delivery of fresh drinking water to large municipal areas and many other purposes.

In modern engineering terms, "aqueduct" can refer to closed-pipe systems, open canals and other similar methods that are commonly used to transport water. Aqueducts have been used for transportation since the seventh century BCE, when they typically consisted of large, raised constructions that were capable of diverting substantial volumes of water to population centers. Open canals and raised aqueducts are still in use, though most municipal water transportation systems use closed pipes. These pipes tend to create more friction than open canals, and in many cases, pumping stations are used to keep the water moving if the downward incline of the system is not sufficient.

Water is also commonly transported in containers, using both trucks and ships. Up until the late 1800s, liquids such as water were transported only in casks, though various technological developments led to the creation of container ships. One issue that can affect water transportation using tanker ships is known as the free surface effect. This effect describes the likelihood of a large surface area of liquid in the hold of a ship adversely affecting the stability of the vessel, which is typically dealt with by creating segmented or partitioned areas within the hold. Tanker trucks can also be difficult to drive for this same reason, and they often contain a system of baffles as well.

Another method of water transportation is towing. One way to accomplish this is to use a tugboat to tow an iceberg, because the ice is made up of fresh water. Fresh water also can be towed through saltwater in a liquid state if it is placed in an airtight bag. The fresh water is less dense than the saltwater, so the bag will tend to float at the surface. Designs for large bags capable of transporting water in this way were first tested in 1990.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Feb 05, 2015

@irontoenail - Even a closed system isn't going to be perfect. Water will also evaporate, and frankly I think the problem is not so much that we don't recycle water as that we use too much in the first place. That's a population problem.

Humans have been shifting water around for thousands of years, though, whether it was in gourds or by truck. Water transport is never going to stop unless every single person decides to live next to a river.

By irontoenail — On Feb 04, 2015

@clintflint - The thing I can never understand about water shortages is how dumb the system has to be to let it happen in the first place. I mean, water doesn't just disappear. It gets dirty, but we know how to clean it, even if it's extremely contaminated.

We just don't want to put systems in place to handle it. So all the water we use basically just gets poured down the sink and disappears back into the environment, where we may or may not see it again.

Every single house in the world should have grey water systems as a matter of course and every waste water pipe should be going to cleaning systems. It's ridiculous to transport water long distances so that people can let it run down the plughole while they are brushing their teeth.

By clintflint — On Feb 03, 2015

One of the major problems we are going to be facing in the near future is the fact that at the moment we are working far beyond our capacity in water in most places. Water is often shipped into drier areas without people realizing it and many ancient aquifers are starting to run completely dry because they are being pumped for far more water than they can gather.

This is happening because people think that moving water from one place to another is a better solution than ensuring that they plan ahead to only use the amounts of water they need in the first place and living according to local climates.

Las Vegas is a good example. It's in the middle of a desert and all the water for fountains and hotel toilets and swimming pools has to come from somewhere.

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