Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

Nepal: The Fog Catchers

Posted by hetty7 on April 21, 2011

This article is from myrepublica, and informs the importance of water in this Himalayan region. This is an important question facing revolutionaries of this century: how resources will be used (or not) and their long term impact on the natural world. Posting here does not imply endorsement of views presented.

The Fog Catchers

“A specially designed mesh is spread between poles and erected on a ridge. The mesh traps water particles from the wind that carries the fog through the ridge on which the device is installed.”

“It quickly becomes evident to the thirsty residents of Kathmandu that despite the fog that descends in the cold winter months, the Valley is unfit to have the mesh installed. Water is indeed everywhere, but far from being readily available.”

Sradda Thapa

Sabina  BK, a previous resident of Kumaripati, moved to the banks of Nakkhu on the outskirts of the Ring Road to escape the dire lack of water. “Even here, during the summer months, it gets difficult”, she explains. “Sometimes we wait, sometimes we buy.” City dwellers shifting residence in the search of placating water needs is not something new.

While Kathmanduites daily queque in mile-long lines of pay out of their pockets to have trucks deliver water, students at Saraswati Primary School in Megma, Ilam do not.  They wash their hands and use the toilet freely. Villages perched on hilltops (usually situated  two to four valuable hours away from a reliable water source) now have it flowing into their community. They can water their plants and cook in their kitchens.

The students and villagers enjoy the freshwater made available fy the most astounding of all sources – fog.

According to FogQuest, which introduced fog water to Nepal, the technology was developed by Environment Canada (and later FogQuest) with academics and forestry specialists in Chile as a response to requests that sought water where wells, rivers and pipeline were not available. Fog  water collection gained momentum around the world in the 1990’s – from places like Chile to South Africa, and it made its way to Nepal.

The concept is radical and simultaneously simple. Santish Basnet, Technical Engineer at Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH) describes the process.

“A specially designed mesh is spread between poles and erected on a ridge. The mesh traps water particles from the wind that carries the fog through the ridge on which the device is installed.”

In trapping water, the mesh then collects it into large water tanks at the foot of the mesh. Upon inquiringt as to whether users had to carry bucketfuls home, he smiled.

“The water is then diverted to settlements. Basic treatment is required for human consumption – but because it is fresh water beyond boiling it, not much else is needed to drink it.”

“For many centuries, people in the Middle East and parts of Africa have harvested water from fog,” reads a NEWAH Fog Collection report. “Using rudimentary mud walls or dried gourds, people collected the water droplets that rolled off trees after periods of fog. Scientists later discovered this same method could be replicated.  Fog water can be used for drinking, irrigation, forestry and livestock management.

It would seem that fog water is an excellent means of addressing Nepal’s growing water crisis.

Unfortunately, fog water cannot be collected in any terrain in our country. Instead, potential sites have to be first assessed by Standard Fog Collectors. The objective is to check the reliability and magnitude of the fog to produce fresh water from fog. During the assessment, the polypropylene plastic mesh panel is spread between two poles. The mesh sheets are one meter square and observed for an entire year.

NEWAH, which worked closely with FogQuest in the late 1990’s to conduct these pilot studies, only recommended a full launch if and when the criteria were met. N-EWAH’s Basnet gave the nod of approval for sites that were able to “produce 10 liters per head per day” and adds “at a minimum”.

The ability to produce that much freshwater was entirely dependent on the location – it had to be on a ridge where heavy fog could be carried past the mesh by winds. Only when such a site was located would large Fog Collectors then be installed-some with mesh as large as 33 square  meters square. The wooden posts  had to be sturdy enough to withstand the wind. The number of collectors posted is determined by the size of the community. During the summer months, up to 5,000 liters of fresh water has been collected.

Saraswati Primary School is only one of two sites where fog water has been collected in  Ilam – Kal Pokhari being the other  ( though this was later discontinued due to local-level conflict regarding the land). The Pathibharavara Temole in Taplejung and Dhoje Dhanda in Dhankuta also utilize such technology. Standard Fog Collecters were installed to conduct assessment studies in additional sites, including Lalitpur and Surkhet. Unfortunately they have not been launched in a full scale as there were not suitable locations. For now, fog collectors can be spotted in a handful of sites in the Eastern region. NEWAH, through the financial and technical support of WaterAid, an international agency, has been at the forefront of this initiative in Nepal. WaterAid, keen on exploring innovative means of addressing water issues, was approached by NEWAH.  Unfortunately, fog water does not seem to be the priority or the agenda for either organization today.

WaterAid refrained from aggressively campaigning for fog water collection with the Government of Nepal due to the challenges that were inherent to the system.

Basnet does not hesitate to point out the fact that “it is  not a 100% solution or an alternative to other sources.” Nepal has faced considerable difficulties in promoting fog water due to its costly nature, limited localities and lack of sustainability.

Location-wise, a foggy area is an obvious must. To be precise, a ridge along a 1,500 – 3,500 meters elevation is ideal, but this is not rampant even in hilly Nepal. As NEHAW likes to see a minimum of 10 liters per head per day to be able to collect before launching the program full-scale, such output is most feasible only in specific parts of Nepal alone. To date, the Eastern regions have proved most suited.

Even when the location is spotted, the materials are not only expensive, but they have to be imported from overseas. As the special mesh designed specifically to collect water from fog was designed  in Canada and was available there, not only does the still-costly product  have to be purchased overseas, but also shipped.  Basnet claims “the transportation of the material is higher than the costs of the material itself.” NEWAH considered purchasing mesh from India but quickly discovered its  inability to trap water particles, as the mesh in the sub-continent was designed to be used for agrilcultural purpose, not fog water collection.

Even since the location is identified and material made accessible (as has been the case with FogQuest-funded projects where the mesh had been provided), then the campaign to extend this project is hindered by its limitation in value or use. As water can only be collected from fog when it is foggy, there are only certain months when fog is most  feasible.  As such, the structures are known to have collapsed when the winds were particularly strong, and it has trapped dust in its mesh (when fog was low) and is still an option limited to certain time of the months. Water storage could be an option that ought to be developed. However, not only does it require necessary facilities in terms of size or reservoir, but it also needs to be equipped to treat the inevitable contamination of long-term storage.

Considering these three factors, it quickly becomes evident to the thirsty residents of Kathmandu that despite the fog that descends in the cold winter months, the Valley is unfit to have the mesh installed. Water is indeed everywhere, but far from being readily available.

Causing virtually little environmental damage, it is still one method of collecting water. The materials, location and sustainability may be an issue. However, Kabir Das Rajbhandari, Program Manager at WaterAid, is not deterred.  “Alternative or not, it is one source that will be wasted if it remains untapped.”

WaterAid’s interest in providing support to NEWAH stemmed from its yearning for creative means of addressing contemporary water issues. Fog water, as a viable option, was one scheme they were willing to experiment and explore. Today, neither WaterAid nor NEWAH is looking to expand this project. However, a new initiative is being started by FogQuest in collaboration with another Nepali group, the Foundation for Sustainable Technologies (FoST). Tony Makepeace, of FogQuest says, “We’re building a medium sized fog collector which we hope to be able to produce in quantity in order to reduce costs.”

Fog water was not able to sustain the communities it served on its own, nor would it be possible, to replicate said project in Kathmandu to appease the resident.  Yet, the focus remains within the spirit of innovation.

Kathmandu’s water shortage is severe, to say the least. However, it is a ground reality across the contemporary world.  Water shortage, its management and treatment are not problems exclusive to Nepal. No community is immune from this global crisis. Innovative groups are busy considering options and alternatives. Not intended to duly replace current sources of water, it was conceptualized  as a means of providing water where it was hard to find, such as – hills over where liters had to be carried for  hours on the backs of women and children.

For a country such as Nepal where severe shortage has been the norm for decades. Rajbhandari expresses remorse at the disinterest in promoting research and experiments to consider the context and potential possibilities.

Whether that is the responsibility of the state, civil society or individuals – is for us to decide. The lessons from groups such as FogQuest, WaterAid, NEWAH and FoST has been to experiment,explore and continue being creative.  After all, that is our sole option.

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