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Drinking the fog

Efforts to harvest water from fog dates back to 1901 in South Africa
Une bonne vieille technologie, datant d’il y a un siècle, permet d’obtenir de l’eau salubre à moindre coût (Duncan Evans/Cloud Water Concepts)

Gcinikaya Mpumza, mayor of a small municipality perched high in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, was saddled with a huge problem: more than half the residents did not have access to water. It was a question of money.

"We are a rural municipality with insufficient revenue, and providing water with conventional systems [piping it] in most of the areas cost a lot of money," he told IRIN.

Then he chanced upon an article about harvesting water from fog by Prof Jana Olivier, a climatologist at the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of South Africa.

Olivier has spent 20 years on research into harvesting water from fog, which originated in South Africa in 1901 and is now used in many mountainous regions across the world, she said.

The process is simple: fine mesh netting is stretched between two posts perpendicular to the direction of the wind, so as to trap and coalesce the water droplets in the fog. The water then runs down into a trough or gutter at the bottom of the panel and is collected and stored.

Mpumza contacted Olivier. In March 2010, with a budget of R300,000 (about US$41,000) the municipality launched a project in partnership with the university and the 180 residents of Cabazane village now have access to 40,000 litres of clean water harvested from fog and stored in tanks, rather than having to walk two kilometres to the nearest stream.

Encouraged by the results of the Cabazane project, Mpumza said he had budgeted a million rand (about $137,300) to harvest water from fog for another four villages and a town in the municipal area where he is mayor. A conventional system to pipe the water would have cost at least R40 million (about $5.4 million).

''About 98 percent of our water is allocated already, leaving only two percent to manoeuvre with''

South Africa has made tremendous strides in water delivery since 1994, when only 61.7 percent of households had access to basic water services, according to the government website; 87.2 percent of households had access by 2007.

Bleak future

Will there be enough in future? South Africa is a semi-arid country and rainfall "is spread disproportionately across the country", with far less in the north and west than in the south and east. "Water availability now and in the future is heavily dependent on climate, water use, and management and land-use practices," the website noted.

Wandile Nomquphu, Research Manager at the Water Research Commission, set up in 1971 after a period of serious shortages to examine the quality and quantity of the country's water resources, painted a stark picture.

South Africa is one of the top 30 water-scarce countries in the world, and 60 percent of the country is semi-arid. "About 98 percent of our water is allocated already, leaving only two percent to manoeuvre with," he commented.

The country did not have enough water resources to attract the industrial investment needed to create the economic growth rate of six percent required to bring down unemployment. The government website noted that "fresh water is our most limiting natural resource".

Nomquphu pointed out that one of the country's biggest manufacturing companies consumed as much water as the city of Cape Town, which has a population of about four million.

He said the government was considering tapping the Umzimvubu River, in Eastern Cape Province, the only river in South Africa that has not been dammed, and noted that "there is big potential in alternate sources of water, such as fog". South Africa has yet to conduct research into the amount of groundwater available, but "we hope to map that soon."

Climate change projections have painted a gloomy, waterless future for South Africa. "But those predictions are based on global models," Nomquphu said. "We don't know how accurate those projections are, as they have not been scaled down to country or regional levels."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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