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Case Studies: Harvesting Water from the Sky

Fog Catchers

Fog Catchers

The village of Chungungo in Chile may be a fishing village, but it is nevertheless in one of the driest places of the inhabitable world. Located in the jagged cliffs overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean, water is plentiful -- just not fresh water. For decades, water has been delivered to the village on trucks coming from other, lusher, parts of the country. The Chungungo villagers were constantly conscious of the scarcity of drinking water.

Scientists have targeted 47 locations in 22 countries around the world where the conditions are good for fog harvesting. Scientists have targeted 47 locations in 22 countries around the world where the conditions are good for fog harvesting.

In 1987, the International Development Research Center, along with NGOs in Chile and the community of Chungungo, instituted fog harvesting to tap into the ocean's bounty. Fifty large nets were erected on the ridgeline above the village. In 1992, the system was functioning well enough to pipe the water into the village. From the beginning, it was a community-supported initiative: the collectors are managed and maintained by a local committee, and each household pays a small fee for the water they use. Each household is encouraged to conserve water because if they greatly exceed the average monthly water consumption, the fee increases. In this way, poor households can afford water, and people are discouraged from abusing the new source of water.

The fog harvesting technique was intended as a supplement to the water brought in by truck, but by the first year, the village had become completely sustainable -- the truck never had to come. Since then, the water supply has more than doubled, and the truck has only had to deliver water during extreme droughts. The main source of water in Chungungo has become community-supported fog collection, not national pipelines.

Fog catchers in Peru set up nets. See more pictures of fog catchers in Ecuador.  Fog catchers in Peru set up nets. See more pictures of fog catchers in Ecuador.

As in Rajasthan, where the easy availability of water freed up labor and allowed girls to attend school, Chungungo underwent a dramatic transformation. The city started experimenting with more demanding and more fruitful crops, and a public park was created in the village center. Everyone insists that it was the local involvement that allowed the new system to flourish. According to the project leader, Pilar Cereceda, "It is so important to involve the community not only so that people know about the project, but so that they are involved in building the collectors, in maintaining the collectors, in organizing a local water committee, and in donating their labor to keep water costs at a minimum. This system depends on the clouds, but if people know how to use this simple technology and organize themselves well it will really work."

The technology that was tested in Chungungo has been either adopted or is under consideration in 25 countries around the world. New fog collection projects are underway in Yemen and central Chile, while other projects are being evaluated in Guatemala, Haiti, and Nepal. (Find out more about these projects at the FogQuest website.) Sadly, in the past few years, the fog catchers in Chungungo have fallen into disuse and disrepair. The reasons for this are still being evaluated by those who deemed the project a success in the mid-to-late nineties. As it stands now, the residents of Chungungo have gone back to receiving water delivery from expensive trucks.

Some say that the community was not involved enough in the process. Others say the project was chaotic and disorganized from the start. All agree that the rapid population growth in Chungungo, from 300 to 900 people in about 10 years, required more water than the fog catchers could provide, making is seem like they weren't working properly.

The lessons of Chungungo are two-fold. Fog collecting works, but only if the local community is involved and committed to an alternative technology.

Images used with permission from the IDRC.

Learn more about the science behind fog catching and what went wrong in Chungungo at the International Development Research Center website.
Watch a video of the fog catchers in Chile on the CNN site.