Harvesting Water from Fog: A Solution to Water Scarcity?

Germany’s Aqualonis says fog-harvesting can address rural communities’ water woes.

As desertification continues worldwide while the earth’s population continues to increase, more countries are seeking creative solutions to tackle water scarcity. More aquifers are becoming depleted, and desalination is still too expensive of an option for many governments. Hence the search for viable options, an example of which is the United Arab Emirate’s investment in cloud seeding technology.

The extraction of water from air has seen a fair share of startups appear and disappear over the past decade. Arid regions, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, are desperate for answers. But water technologies that are both cost-effective and sustainable in the long-term have not proven themselves to be scalable to meet the growing demand for water.

Could fog-harvesting be an option? While countries with arid climates find themselves parched, they are also blanketed in fog for much of the year.

Such an effort appears to be working in the Ait Baamrane region of southwest Morocco, where a fog-harvesting project launched one year ago is still seen as a success. The system, called CloudFisher by the German company Aqualonis, has several selling points. Perched about 4,000 feet above sea level in the Anti-Atlas mountain range, nets measuring three to six meters tall collect condensation from the thick fog that envelopes these mountains. The nets, which are strong enough to withstand the region’s fierce winds, can be installed quickly with minimal labor, require no energy and need little maintenance. This project’s manager, Dar Si Hmad (DSH), says the 6,460 square feet (600 square meters) of netting and 5 miles (8 km) of pipes and solar-water pumps now provide about 400 people with potable water.

In addition to providing a reliable source of water, this fog-harvesting program has improved the quality of life for locals in other ways. Women, who often spent three to four hours a day collecting water, have had a burden lifted off their shoulders. Girls, who often helped the mothers collect water, can now go to school.

Poor farmers can continue to raise livestock they would have had to otherwise sell. And local culture can continue uninterrupted, which means local customs, languages and dialects can survive.

Of course, the project faced some skepticism in the beginning, in part due to infrastructure challenges, but mostly over locals’ doubts whether this water was safe enough for everyday use. A training and trust program helped gain these villagers’ confidence, and now women have a leading role as they have been trained to monitor the system. Many of the systems, in fact, are now monitored with cell phones so they can send SMS messages to the project’s managers in the event something goes wrong with the nets or pipeline.

A similar project launched over 20 years ago in Chile’s Atacama Desert, but it eventually failed largely because of its success. The Canadian NGO FogQuest implemented a system around the mountain of El Tofo for the village of Chungungo in 1992. At its peak, 4,000 gallons (15,000 liters) flowed to Chungungo, reversing migration to large cities while gardens and fruit trees helped transform the village’s appearance and quality of life. But local politicians saw a conventional pipeline or desalination plant as more prestigious than the low-tech fog-harvesting option, so eventually, this system fell apart. That million-dollar alternative never materialized, however. Now Chungungo is receiving water from a local reservoir, which itself is kept full by trucks hauling water over long distances.

While what occurred in Chungungo was a frustrating experience for all parties involved, that project has inspired over 30 others worldwide, from southern Africa to Peru. Many of these fog-harvesting programs are in towns that are relatively isolated and do not have reliable access to potable water. Agencies including the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Organization of American States (OAS) have suggested that fog-harvesting could be a viable option in rural communities lacking the capital to fund massive water infrastructure projects. And the nets used for these projects are far more advanced than a generation ago.

So, while wind turbines will long be a far more common site in the countryside than fog-collecting nets, the success in Morocco could offer new ideas to promote social enterprise and alleviating water scarcity in regions that need such an environmental and economic boost the most.

Image credit: Aqualonis