ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — What stands 30 feet tall, is shaped like a vase and has a giant orange shape inside of it? If you answered the future of water sources, you could be right.
Of the seven billion people on this planet, about 783 million of them do not have access to clean water. As the global population continues to expand, and environments continue to degrade because of pollution and climate change, this chronic water shortage is predicted to worsen. Rivers are drying up, water tables are shrinking, and people are suffering. Unless we can find a way to draw water from thin air, the world is in serious trouble.
Italian industrial designer Arturo Vittori and his colleague Andreas Vogler have invented a device which can do just that. The Warka Water Tower relies on condensation to provide water. Named after an Ethiopian fig tree and built of flexible bamboo or juncus stalks and plastic mesh similar to produce bags, the tower has often been compared to something out of a science fiction novel or a Pier One catalog. But this mysteriously artistic artifact could be the key to providing plentiful clean water to struggling communities.
The Warka Water Tower has collected over 25 gallons of potable water a day in field trials, even under dry conditions. It requires no electricity, instead relying on the inherent natures of the materials and shapes of its structure. The flexible bamboo lattice allows lots of air to pass through, while the mesh net on the inside acts as a scaffold for condensing dew. As it forms, the dew drips down the mesh into a wide collection basin at the bottom of the tower.
Attempts to provide new water sources for rural developing areas have proven short-lived. There is a long list of failed projects meant to revolutionize water sources, from the PlayPump that was meant to pump water as children played on it, to the Bill Gates Toilet, which made human waste completely potable again. As Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe put it, “If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.”
If the fatal flaw of the past projects was their complexity, we may be looking at a real solution. The Warka Water Tower only costs about $550, much less than the thousands required for previous technologies. It is simple to build and can be made by local workmen, with local materials. A trained four-person team can erect one in less than a week without special tools. The water towers are also far easier to maintain than their high-tech predecessors. It is far simpler to mend a mesh net or replace a bamboo rod than it is to replace a motherboard or sharpen a drill bit.
Ethiopia is expected to be the first country to receive Warka Water Towers later this year. Ethiopia has very little infrastructure in rural areas, and in some places it takes six-hours to find drinking water. That, coupled with climate-change induced droughts, make the necessity of a new water source abundantly clear. Most water sources would require a well drilled deep into the earth to access the ever-sinking water table. The Warka Water Towers don’t need drills, a water table or even electricity to function as sources for potable water.
In the coming years, water scarcity will grow more severe. But perhaps solutions like the Warka Water Towers can, if not solve the crisis, at least give developing areas a fighting chance.
– Marina Middleton