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Water harvested from clouds in rural South Africa

In the past, if the children of Tshanowa junior primary school in Venda, South Africa, wanted a sip of water at school, they had to bring it from home in containers. At the school itself there wasn’t a drop to drink, let alone to wash hands or grow plants. But now the school and much...

In the past, if the children of Tshanowa junior primary school in Venda, South Africa, wanted a sip of water at school, they had to bring it from home in containers. At the school itself there wasn’t a drop to drink, let alone to wash hands or grow plants.

But now the school and much of the adjacent community has enough water to drink, wash, clean, cook and even grow vegetables–thanks to a system of collecting water from low-hanging clouds.

“The life-giving liquid is the purest you could hope to taste–and it’s also free and environmentally friendly,” said Doreen Gough, media affairs manager for the University of South Africa (UNISA).


Photo courtesy of University of South Africa

UNISA is launching another of its fog-harvesting systems in South Africa today, this one in the country’s Eastern Cape Province.

The university “has been engaged with a largescale research and development project on fog harvesting as an alternative source of potable water for many isolated rural communities struggling to access pure and clean water. Many of the communities where the research projects have been conducted experience scarce water supply and the villagers travel long distances to fetch it,” Gough said in an e-mail to Nat Geo News Watch.

With South Africa already classified as a water-stressed country, Unisa Climatologist Jana Olivier, an associate professor in the UNISA School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, launched the fog harvesting research project in half a dozen places in South Africa.

Hundreds of liters a day

The Eastern Cape project launched today is the latest and most efficient as it produces hundreds of liters of water a day, Gough said.

The system was designed to be used in rural areas and to be as cost effective as possible, using materials readily available and suitable in places with no electricity.

“The water quality of fog is very high and conforms to the World Health Organization and South African water quality standards for potable water,” Gough said.

Perched on a peak in the Soutpansberg mountains, the Tshanowa junior primary school’s nearest water sources are several hours’ walk away. “The closest, 2 kilometers [1.25 miles] from the school, is a non-perennial spring that runs dry in the hot months. The other option, 5 kilometers [3.1 miles] away, is a dam with poor-quality water,” Gough said.

“However, the area is often cloaked in mist, making it an ideal site for Professor Jana Olivier’s fog water-collection project.”

“Within four days, the [students] were drinking water–which was found to be of exceptionally high quality.”

In 1999 Olivier’s team erected the school’s first fog screen, consisting simply of a few poles, cables and pieces of shade cloth. “Within four days, the [students] were drinking water–which was found to be of exceptionally high quality–collected by the fog screen,” Olivier said. “It was the first time they had ever had water on site.”

Encouraged by the initial results, Olivier’s team expanded and refined the school’s fog-collection system. Today it includes three 10,000-liter (2,600-gallon) tanks, each fitted with a faucet, and yields an average of 300 liters (80 gallons) of water a day. “The actual amount of water collected varies with weather conditions,” Olivier said. “On sunny days, nothing is collected, but on wet and foggy days, yields of 3,800 liters [1,000 gallons] have been recorded.”

The water collected is more than enough to meet the needs of the local community as well as the school, all year round, according to UNISA. The school’s 130 students have even started a garden in which they grow spinach, cabbages and tomatoes.

Similar water yields and quality have been recorded at the collection system in Lepelfontein, a mission station of about 200 people on South Africa’s arid West Coast. Residents count themselves lucky if they have 100 millimeters (4 inches) of annual rainfall, UNISA said. “Moreover, the groundwater is so bitter that it is unsuitable for human consumption, so water had to be trucked to the mission station from a village 70 kilometers (43 miles) away,” Olivier said.


Photo courtesy of University of South Africa

Fog-collection systems have since also been erected at a number of schools in the Lusikisiki area of the Eastern Cape. These systems are the only source of water for the schools and surrounding villages.

Many more water-thirsty communities in South Africa could benefit from similar systems, although fog-harvesting cannot be used everywhere, Doreen Gough said.

“It is only viable where fog occurs frequently, preferably for at least 40 days a year, and persists for a few hours at a time,” Olivier explained. “It is the West Coast and the mountainous areas–stretching from the Soutpansberg in the north, along the Drakensberg in the east to the Cape Mountains in the south–that have the highest fog harvesting potential.”

Since these two types of areas cover an extensive part of South Africa, fog-harvesting could be applied effectively in many more communities, especially in rural areas, Gough said.

Specifications for fog-collection system

Olivier’s fog collector was specially designed to be used in rural areas, to be as cost effective as possible, to use material that is readily available in the area, and to be suitable for use in areas with no electricity.

“Each collection system consists of three six-meter-high (twenty feet) wooden poles, mounted nine meters (thirty feet) apart. Steel cables stretch horizontally between the poles and anchor the structure. A double layer of 30 percent shade cloth is then draped over the cables and fixed to the poles on each side. This forms a fog collection screen of about 70 square meters (750 square feet), with a gutter attached to its lower end.

“The technology behind fog collection is extremely simple,” Olivier continued. “During foggy conditions, the tiny fog particles are blown against the screen and deposited on it. As the drops become larger, they trickle downwards and drop into the gutter. From there, the water is channeled through a filter to a pipe that leads to a water collection tank.”

The system works best when the wind is blowing, although Olivier has designed a collector that is effective during calm conditions. “A prototype has been constructed and tested, and found to work well,” she said. Refinements to the new collector are being made prior to getting it patented.

Professor Olivier’s project is a collaboration with three researchers from the University of Pretoria: Professor Johan van Heerden, Professor Hannes Rautenbach and Tinus Truter.

Update from Doreen Gough: At the launch [today] the local municipality asked for more of these structures to be put up in the area which is one of the poorest in the country, fairly inacessible and with poor infrastructure, so this project is really taking off.  

Related National Geographic News story:

Fog Catchers Bring Water to Parched Villages

When dense fog sweeps in from the Pacific Ocean, special nets on a hillside catch the moisture and provide precious water to the village of Bellavista, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) outside of Lima, Peru.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn