By Pauls Toutonghi
The New Yorker
“There are few places where life is so harsh,” Pablo Neruda wrote, describing his native Chile’s Atacama Desert. “It takes untold sacrifices to transport water there, to nurse a plant that yields even the humblest flower, to raise a dog, a rabbit, a pig.”
The Atacama is famously dry, receiving, in some areas, only a few hundredths of an inch of rain per year. In order to subsist in this environment, indigenous animal species such as the guanaco—a wild relative of the llama—have developed a range of innovative strategies. When the great banks of sea fog known as the camanchacas sweep in off the Pacific Ocean, for example, the guanaco drink, very gingerly, the resulting condensation from the spines and flowers of the Echinopsis deserticola cactus. It is a remarkable act of survival in an inhospitable landscape.
March 22nd marks the twenty-third annual observance of World Water Day, an initiative overseen by U.N.-Water, which bills itself as “the United Nations inter-agency mechanism on all freshwater related issues.” It also marks the first anniversary of an ambitious international collaboration between Dar Si Hmad, a Moroccan N.G.O., and several German partner organizations to bring potable water to the Aït Baâmrane tribal region of southwest Morocco using a technology called CloudFisher. Aït Baâmrane borders the Western Sahara; like the Atacama, it is an area marked by centuries of desertification.
CloudFisher does exactly what it says on the tin. On the slopes of Mt. Boutmezguida, in the Anti-Atlas range, the project’s organizers have erected a series of tall steel poles, hung with rectangular black polymer nets. These are the fog harvesters. They look like the flags of long-buried pirate ships, standing out from the slope of the mountain, the only man-made thing for miles around, but they behave rather like Echinopsis cacti. Built on arid, rocky ground at an elevation of more than four thousand feet, they can, in twenty-four hours, collect up to seventeen gallons of water—condensed fog from the nearby Atlantic—per square yard of netting.
Reliable access to freshwater would, of course, provide a host of benefits to rural, water-poor districts in North Africa. According to the World Health Organization, a community requires about twenty gallons of water per person per day in order for its residents and their crops and livestock to thrive. Even a relatively small CloudFisher installation could provide a consistent water source for a group of rural families or a village. In a part of the world that is battling the progressive effects of continuous drought—exhaustion of wells, topsoil erosion, population loss as the land becomes inhospitable to agriculture—fog-water collection could be a life-altering adaptation.