Catching Fog

Fog is little more than an earth-bound cloud. When I picture fog harvesting, I have an image of people moving quietly through dense fog, using loose linen bags to scoop against the water-laden air around them. But why would anyone harvest fog? It’s not as if enough of it would ever stay in the imaginary bags to leave behind a harvested area of clear, sunny terrain.

When we talk about design engineering, it’s usually with a specific goal in mind. But sometimes the real goal isn’t apparent until the first goal has introduced a design idea. This was true of fog harvesting, which did not begin with people gathering fog in sacks to little purpose.

Fog is critical to the health of some redwood and coastal forests. Photo: Coast Redwood & Ecology

Fog is critical to the health of some redwood and coastal forests.
Photo: Coast Redwood & Ecology

Fog harvesting, the gathering of moisture from fog, has been around for millions of years, at least when it comes to plants. Some ferns, redwoods and berry plants absorb up to half their water intake from the moisture in fog – and that’s not from moisture that accumulates on the ground. They absorb the moisture directly into their leaves, or from the drops that collect at the base of stems.

The Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) was studying the particle constituents of fog in Quebec when it created fog harvesting equipment in the 1980s. Basically, they built a stationary canvas sail with a collecting trough at the bottom – fog coalesced on the material and dripped down into the trough for examination. This technique was then re-purposed for a reforestation project in Chile, with the fog harvesting sails redesigned to irrigate hillside seedlings in a denuded area that had once been cloud forest.

Fog water collectors on El Tofo mountain, Chile. Courtesy of IDRC / CDRI; Photographer Sitoo Mukerji

Fog water collectors on El Tofo mountain, Chile.
Photo: Sitoo Mukerji / Quemao Viejo

What happened to the fog water, though, indicated an entirely different need: the local villages of the area suffered from water scarcity, and wanted the water gained from the fog harvesting to be redirected from the reforestation project to the local inhabitants.

And out of this somewhat messy, haphazard path of discovery, the idea of fog harvesting for people in water-scarce areas came about.

These days, there are a few non-profit organizations focused on various collection and distribution methods, including the International Organization for Dew Utilization (OPUR), which sounds like a dream company out of a fog fairytale, but which is a functioning entity working to combat water scarcity.

Looking at the design telescope from perspective of the end result, the idea of catching ephemeral water droplets seems obvious.

There are still issues to be resolved – how to keep the passive catchment and distribution systems clean, how to gather the maximum amount of moisture.

Fog catchers are improving in design and efficiency, but could probably still benefit from some applied design thinking to get them to work as well as your average fern.

Two workers in Bellavista, Peru, perched 18 feet (5.5 meters) high to sew nets onto a fog-collecting apparatus (2007) Photo: Anne Lummerich / Nat Geo

Two workers in Bellavista, Peru, perched 18 feet (5.5 meters) high to sew nets onto a fog-collecting apparatus (2007)
Photo: Anne Lummerich / Nat Geo

Old Water Ways

Satellite images of California. Source: NOAA

Satellite images of California.
Source: NOAA/Washington Post

These satellite images show winter snow levels in California in early 2013, when the state was already experiencing drought conditions, and in 2014, when the state is officially in the worst drought on record. Much of the annual fresh water in the state is the result of snow melt.

California is no stranger to the challenges of access to fresh water. The state was practically built on water conflict – too little in the south, enough in the north (or at least, until recently). Anyone who grew up there, as I did, knows about water scarcity – or at least they should, since it is one of California’s defining characteristics.

Now, with several counties and communities on the brink of running completely dry, drastic action is being called for. Desalination technology, an expensive proposition, is looking like the more affordable alternative to parched earth.

But none of this is new. People have known for decades which way the river flows. In the midst of this, there are California farmers using water imported from the Colorado River to grow hay for export to China, a place that has far outpaced its own water resources.

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade. Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discovery

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discover Magazine

Even with some of the most progressive environmental laws in the United States, water was always going to be the fly in the ointment for further expansion in the state. Climate change hasn’t helped matters.

Back in 1977, California went through a long drought, its worst before the current dry spell. I remember it well. The normally lush green hills of winter were the color of straw. By spring, the fire season had begun, months early. I used to drive by a local Marin County water resource, the Nicasio Reservoir. Usually it was full of glittering blue water, but by 1978 it was all cracked soil.

There was an old road that once ran through what is now the bottom of the reservoir. It was lost with the building in 1961 of the Seeger dam, a past path submerged beneath the sweet vision of plentiful water that dams and wet years always bring. The drought of 1977-79 – and the current drought – have exposed it again, a defunct road with neither a beginning nor an end.

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013. Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013.
Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

 

 

Not Another Nail

Water is the most important raw material in the world, and we need to decide whether or not the population’s water supply should be privatized. And there are two schools of thought on this. One, an extreme viewpoint in my opinion, (is that) as a human being, you have the right to water. That’s the extreme solution.

“The other viewpoint is that water is a foodstuff like any other foodstuff, and as such, it should have a market value.

“Personally, I feel that a market price should be set for all foodstuffs so that we are all aware of its actual cost. And for those who don’t have access to water, there should be specific solutions, and there are a variety of possibilities for that issue.

Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck, from a 2012 interview.

I guess whether or not you agree with this statement depends on your faith in the ability of a market-based approach to tackle most issues.

Villagers queue for a chance to fill containers with fresh drinking water, delivered by truck to the dry villages of south China’s Guangdong Province. Photo: AP via National Geographic

Villagers queue for a chance to fill containers with fresh drinking water, delivered by truck to the dry villages of south China’s Guangdong Province.
Photo: AP via National Geographic

Fresh water access has always been a point of contention, and water conflicts have been around for as long as humans have sought clean water. But fresh water has generally been, until fairly recently, considered a commons. The provision of safe water via public services has been considered part the state’s responsibility.

Like many public services in countless countries, water services have been undergoing a process of privatization. On the Water Privatization Conflicts website, there are a number of highly informative articles on this process, and what it means for the democracy of water access.

Clean, safe, reliable water supplies are becoming increasingly difficult to come by, with or without privatization. What kind of government health and safety oversight would privatization entail, and who would be ultimately responsible for where the water flows?

Via: awalsallfield

Via: awalsallfield

The question is, do companies – even the very best companies – really have the means, the authority, the reliability and the trustworthiness to take charge of the water supply to any given population? Water security is an issue that not only affects the general populace, but the ability of businesses and companies to function. Thus, there are many who are encouraging companies to take action to managing water risks.

The main priority of businesses, especially companies of the size necessary to take on something as long-term as ‘water ownership’, is finding new markets, and exploiting those markets for profits. And in most cases, that’s just as it should be. The market can be a powerful tool. However, risk management doesn’t necessarily mean ownership.

It puts me in mind of the saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

When it comes to one of the most important basic elements for life, the extremely limited natural resource of water, I’m not sure the market-based approach is the right tool.

More:

Motley Fool article on water scarcity as an investment potential – Riding on the world’s water crisis by Sudhan P

Worth a look – Flow: For Love of Water (2008), a documentary on water privatization.

Half the Rivers

The Chinese Yu Ji Tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu the Great), a map carved into stone in the year 1137 during the Song Dynasty, located in the Stele Forest of modern-day Xian, China. Yu the Great refers to the Chinese deity described in the Chinese geographical work of the Yu Gong, a chapter of the Classic of History. Source: Wikipedia

The Chinese Yu Ji Tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu the Great), a map carved into stone in the year 1137 during the Song Dynasty, located in the Stele Forest of modern-day Xian, China. Yu the Great refers to the Chinese deity described in the Chinese geographical work of the Yu Gong, a chapter of the Classic of History.
Source: Wikipedia

I live in an area of plentiful water, at least for the time being. There’s a spring source twenty minutes from my house by foot – I walk through two forest parks to reach the remains of an 18th century watermill, now a tumbledown ruin. Evian, of the bottled water fame, is a 45-minute drive; the famed Evian water is free to anyone who shows up at one of the local fountains with empty water bottles. It’s hard to imagine the Lake Geneva region, with its many rivers and groundwater sources, ever running dry.

China, on the other hand, is considered a country with water problems on a variety of levels. From toxic waste to damming to population growth, over-exploitation of groundwater, desertification and poor management, China’s freshwater supply has been under duress for some time.

Just how much duress was brought to light with a recent report that thousands of China’s rivers have simply disappeared. Over the course of three years, a large team of surveyors counted 22,909 rivers in China, covering a total area of 100 sq km (38 sq. miles). Just twenty years ago, a 1990 survey counted 50,000 rivers, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics. The official cause has been blamed on climate change.

China will be faced with damage control, but can help us all in one respect: Even if water seems abundant right now, it’s no reason to waste it.

More:

The Australian article