What is the most valuable treasure on Earth?

Francesco Sottile

15/04/2019

Have you ever thought what makes planet Earth truly special? The Sun? Plants? Animals? I believe that water is the most valuable treasure on the globe!

Water makes our planet unique; it links and connects all living beings. Almost everywhere there is water, there is also life, and this is the reason why scientists intensively look for it on Mars! This basic but at the same time complex molecule, is indispensable for life. As you know, our body is made of around 50/70% water and the same is true for your dog, cat, etc. Impressively, jellyfish are nearly composed by 100% of water!

Water is literally part of us and it is all around us. In fact 2/3 of the planet is actually covered by water. The oceans hold the majority of the water and only the 3,5% is actual fresh water, which represents the primary source of potable water. Additionally, this little fraction of fresh water is not homogeneously distributed all around the World, and is not even present in the liquid “shape” everywhere.

Could you imagine yourself in one of the most desert region on the globe and be actually surrounded by water?? For example, the area around Lima, in Peru, is one of the driest regions on the world and it almost never rains. However, thanks to the exceptional climatic feature of this area, the dense fogs coming from the Pacific Ocean are blocked by the Andes generating a “fertile soil” for the “fog farmers”.

Fog farmers use simple nets placed on the hilltops of areas with persistent fog to induce water condensation from the fog and collect it for domestic or agriculture purposes.

The movement “Peruanos sin agua” (MPSA) decided to begin with this cheap, simple but efficient equipment to collects fog- water and distribute it to the communities living in marginalized and poor urban areas with inadequate access to water. Thanks to the specific geographic and climatic position, in ideal conditions, each installed net could collect up to 400 liters per day. Since 2005 the MPSA, supported by international partners, installed around 1550 nets and trained the local communities to use and maintain them. Up to now around 60000 people could benefit from this system and it represents a potential improvement for the communities where the lack of clean water and sanitation is a serious issue.

Like Peru, North of Chile has extremely desert areas and similar geo-climatic conditions. Here, scientists from the Pontificial University of Chile, in Santiago, in collaboration with researchers from the Massachussets Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering are harvesting potable water from the coastal fog.

 

 

Atrapanieblas in Alto Patache (2013), Chile.Photo by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

 

Further research and laboratory studies were able to optimize the mesh geometry and its surface chemistry, thus, enhancing the collecting efficiency by 500 percent. An impressive improvement!!

In some regions in Africa, where population face poor water access, the NGO “Warka Water” is installing articulate but cheap towers, named as the symbolic Warka tree. Also in this case the net represents the basic unit, which is necessary to collect water from atmospheric humidity.

Another perfect location for harvesting fog-water is just nearby. In fact, the so called “sea cloud” phenomena in the Canary Islands pushed researcher to evaluate the possibility of obtaining water by using fog-collecting nets! Inspired by the native Garoé tree, that can harvest fog-water, the company “Aguas de Nieblas” is now developing fog-farming implants to produce potable water!

Overall, fog-collecting technology is still in its infancy but thanks to the peculiarity of some geographical regions, it represents a particularly successful technology to face the lack of water in isolated and poor urban areas. Researchers are working to better understand and to improve this powerful technology. How ever, further studies are needed to also understand how massive water removal from the atmosphere could affect the local ecosystem.

Water is a precious treasure indispensable to all living beings on Earth and it is our responsibility to optimize its use and to not waste it!