They are known as water guardians. Women in Southwest Morocco’s rural communities begin their trek as early as 4 a.m. and spend an average of 3.5 hours a day making multiple trips to collect water for their families. In the summer, it takes them more than four hours. Sometimes they return empty-handed because the wells are dry or their buckets broken. When available, they offer the water first to their children, elders and then the animals, often leaving the women thirsty at the end of arduous days. For girls it often means that they could not continue school, in order to help their mothers with the daily water gathering.
Today, some of these Berber communities tucked into the mountains overlooking the scorching Sahara have found a way to adapt to extreme water shortages by using an unexpected natural resource — fog. By harvesting water from the air with a fog-catching system, the women-led non-governmental agency Dar Si Hmad is transforming the water-scarce villages and freeing up girls and young women to get an education.
Dar Si Hmad’s founder Aissa Derhem found this particular area near the coastal city of Sidi Ifni, where ocean fog rolls in graciously from the ocean against a backdrop of a dry desert mountain range, has the perfect conditions for a fog collecting-system.
Villagers informed Derhem they often saw water running down the metal legs of a large television transmission tower whenever there was fog blowing over the tower. He remembered reading about a fog-catcher project in Chile and contacted several NGOs to survey the location. FogQuest, a Canadian NGO that plans and implements water projects for rural communities in developing countries, provided training sessions for Dar Si Hmad with the initial support of Dr. María Victoria Marzol of Universidad de La Laguna in the Canary Islands and her husband José Luís Sánchez Megía of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Dar Si Hmad then went on to build what is now the world's most extensive fog-collecting system atop Mount Boutmezguida.
Harvesting water from fog is an ancient and relatively straightforward technique that requires few materials and no electricity. The process consists of hanging specialized plastic nets between two tall poles to trap the tiny water droplets found in fog. When the wind pushes fog through the vertical mesh, the droplets are trapped, then drip into a gutter at the base of the unit. This pure water is collected and distributed via plastic pipes that run down the mountain into homes in nearby villages. The 870 square meters of nets installed by Dar Si Hmad collect an average of 22 liters of water per square meter every day.
With piped water now running down the mountain into homes into the villages, conditions have improved dramatically for these villages in Southwest Morocco. Community members are active contributors to the project and trained in fog collection building. Dar Si Hmad integrates community members and ensures they are active contributors to the project, providing training in water sanitation health, water management, water saving, and plumbing. The project includes a Water School, where rural youth gain awareness about sustainable water practices and how the water economy shapes one’s environment. Dar Si Hmad focuses on enhancing quality educational and leadership, especially for women and girls, with the belief that investments in women will benefit future generations.
Fog recycling has been successful in other coastal regions of the world with similar climates, such as Chile and Peru. This likeness begs the question of whether fog-catching could help fight drought and expand water sustainability in some of California’s coastal regions, where water scarcity and fog abound.
“The climates in Southwest Morocco and California are somewhat similar, and there is a possibility to use the fog making technology in California but on a smaller scale," says Daniel Swain UCLA Climate Scientist and author of Weather West, the California Weather Blog.
Long-term fog trends are uncertain along the California coast and particularly in urban areas. "In Los Angeles and San Diego fog has been decreasing and the height of the fog layer has been increasing," Swain says. As inland regions warm up significantly, their contrast with cool coastal weather is increasing. "There is a balance between things getting drier in the atmosphere with there being a stronger pull from the cold ocean," Swain says. "We do not know which one of those will win out in the next few decade."
"[Fog catching] can be done but you would also have to consider if the fog would be occurring in the areas that need the water in California," Swain says.
You would also have to consider how much water California fog would yield, says Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Even if there were enough water in the atmosphere to make it possible, it would probably rain out.
“California has a chronic water scarcity problem. Fog-catching will not generate large quantities of water, but it could provide small amounts to communities. Every bit helps."
In addition to quantity, the state’s most significant challenges with water sustainability go far beyond a drought.
“One of the biggest stressors for California is that of the water we withdraw from rivers, reservoirs and groundwater, 80 percent is used for the agriculture that feeds the entire country,” Famiglietti said. Commercial food production adds pressure to California’s water issues and makes them a lot more complex than other areas where water is harvested from fog. “It is a national problem because we are trying to grow food for the nation in California only using water from California," Famiglietti says. "We are running out of water."
While fog harvesting will not solve all of California’s water issues, it is being used in other creative ways, including the making of vodka. Caley Shoemaker, head distiller at Hanger 1 in Northern California, created a vodka called Fog Point Vodka. It is made from San Francisco fog as a way to discuss water conservation and alternative water source. Hanger 1 works hand-in-hand with FogQuest and is excited to use the newest fog-catching technology, the CloudFisher, which they used to make the 2018 edition of Fog Point Vodka. They collected 1,500 gallons of fog water for this year’s edition and will continue to donate proceeds to expand sustainable water sources.
Though fog catching is not a one-size-fits-all best solution for water scarcity, it continues easing the burden of women in Southwest Morocco and mitigating water scarcity in rural communities around the world.
Top image: Closeup of nets used in world's largest fog-catching installation. | Valeria Cardi