As Morocco captures mountain fog, Africa’s water needs find one technological solution

By James Hall

Analysis in brief: Africa’s water needs are accelerating. Populations are growing just as traditional water sources are endangered by climate change. Technological innovations are showing promising ways to tap into water sources that always existed but, before now, could not be accessed.

Africa’s quest for water sources to sustain life pre-dates modernity. However, with every economic activity tied to availability of water, from agriculture to mining, tourism to manufacturing, demands on water supply are ever-growing. The continent’s ability to increase equitable prosperity and sustain population growth requires new thinking at a time when climate change is diminishing water security. Meanwhile, pockets of rural Africa continue the same struggle as their ancestors: accessing a bare minimum of water to sustain human life, some crops and animals. Morocco, a largely desert and mountainous country, experiences uneven water distribution, and its water policies must target usage by urban areas and industry without neglecting rural community needs. Various technologies are being explored or utilised by Morocco to harvest water, sometimes from unusual sources, and to store, mitigate wastage and facilitate distribution. Other African nations both north and south are looking at Morocco’s innovations to gauge their effectivness. One exciting method of finding a new source of water is the harvesting of mountain clouds and fog. While this method cannot meet the water needs of large populations, the requirements of small mountain communities that have been perpetually in want of water can be met.

Turning fog into drinking water
Image courtesy of CNN

Africa’s water search is a health as well as economic imperative

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought new emphasis on the need for residents of all areas to access clean water. The basic requirement to avoid the Coronavirus infection – wash hands with running water – is impossible without a water supply. This new pandemic necessity is a continuation of a quest for water and sanitation services that is continental in scope. Every year, scores of Africans fall ill from water-borne diseases like diarrheal diseases, malaria, guinea-worm, bilharzia, typhoid and cholera. Ways to address water and sanitation needs have been the subject of international efforts like Unicef’s WASH programme. Water shortages and poor sanitation coverage are high on the list of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and all African nations have agreed by treaty to alleviate these problems. Water quality is directly tied to pollution and over-populaton. As groundwater sources are strained and become unavailable because of overuse, and as the water from streams and lakes becomes unusuable because of human activity tainting these supplies, new means of securing water are required. Africa’s more economically developed countries like South Africa and Morocco are more financially able to build and test water technologies. Once these are perfected, economies of scale can reduce system prices for other African countries. Cape Town, for instance, has been plagued by severe water shortages, and came close to being the first major city in the world to run dry. At the height of the crisis, desalination plants were constructed to make use of the ocean water that surrounds the peninsular area. For Morocco, desalination is one way to exploit Mediterranean water. However, sea fog and clouds provide intriguing options, which the country is exploiting following the success of a project in the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

Morocco captures wind-blown moisture to nourish mountainous communities

The aridity of the Anti-Atlas Mountains has grown worse since a particularly devastating drought hit in 1986. In the subsequent three decades, rainfall has decreased by 15% in Morocco overall, but up to 80% in the south, while temperatures have steadily increased. Traditional herders like the Berbers are finding scant grazing grounds for their animals, and farmers struggle to grow crops. However, moisture is everywhere, shrouding the mountains with thick and persistent cloaks of fog. Cold, moist air blown by anticyclonic winds condenses into low-lying statocumulous clouds upon reaching the Moroccan mainland. A barrier of thin air above the Anti-Atlas Mountains traps the clouds and creates a perpetual layer of fog. Below this moisture, the land receives only 132 millimetres of rainfall annually, with no rivers or lakes and limited groundwater to meet human and animal needs. Now, 6,300 litres of fresh water are harvested daily for local communities, sourced from mountain fog. The non-profit organisation Dar Si Hmad has erected 20 large nets measuring 30 square metres each, which trap the fog’s minute water droplets. As these droplets coalesce, they run down the nets’ mesh into gutters and then into a sand-filtration system. From there, the water runs into reservoirs, which are now seven in number. Per capita, the cost of each installation is US $4 per community beneficiary, which is three times less costly than digging a borehole to try to access groundwater. Because the air currents pushing the moisture into the mountains do not pass over industrial areas, no air pollution taints the water, which is immediately consumable. Nine villages now receive fog-harvested water, making the project the world’s largest fog-water system.

Fog catcher on top of Mount Boutmezguida
Image courtesy of Dar Si Hmad

Morocco’s fog technology offers a lesson for other locations

More than any other factor, a lack of water is driving urbanisation in Africa. Because of desertification and competition for existing supplies, not enough water is available to sustain agriculture-based livelihoods for all. In Morocco, the number of Moroccans living in rural locales decreased by nearly a third from 1960 to 2018, from 65% of the population to 40%. Women spend much of their time carrying water from distant sources. Where water is now available through fog-harvesting, women are free to pursue other activities like education, starting businesses and other means of empowerment. In recognition of the societal change brought by the liberation of women from water-carrying chores, Dar Si Hmad received the United Nations Climate Change Prize “Momentum for Change: Women for Results.”

While fog-harvesting cannot meet the needs of large populations, its success with rural communities has been demonstrated and can be duplicated wherever the local environment provides sufficient fog or low-clouds.

Critical points:

  • Africa’s water needs are increasing, driven by population growth and economic expansion
  • Climate change, pollution and poor water management are driving the search for new ways to achieve water security
  • Morocco’s successful harvesting of fog to provide water to mountainous communities is one technological breakthrough that can be applied elsewhere

The views expressed are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of In On Africa.