The science of water sustainability

A look at solutions for water scarcity from fog catching nets to water-efficient washing machines.

From space, the Earth is a big blue planet covered 70 percent in water. However, a closer look reveals that only two and a half percent of that is fresh water, with only one percent being easily accessible to keep our 6.8 billion inhabitants alive and well.

A United Nations report suggests that water consumption has grown twice as fast as population growth, by 2025, it’s estimated that two-thirds of the population will live in water-stressed regions of the world.

The pressure to feed the world uses most of the freshwater supply, with 69 percent going to farming, 19 percent going to industry and only 12 percent to households and municipal use.

Water scarcity is a serious problem globally, it's been said that there will be wars fought over water.

by Daniel Fernandez

So with a global freshwater crisis upon us, scientists like Daniel Fernandez, a professor at California State University in Monterey Bay, are working to create innovative solutions to help save our stressed freshwater supply.

TechKnow goes to California’s central coast, where scientists are looking up instead of drilling down, capturing water from a weather phenomenon that has been around for million of years – fog.

“Fog is a crucial part of the ecosystem and is a very interesting and intriguing part of a very complex system that we call weather, and it’s one that’s much less understood. Fog collection actually has been around for a long time, longer in some cases than recorded history. You can see evidence, even 10,000 years ago, in areas in Chile, where some of the population there established their bases… in locations that are heavily fog areas,” says Fernandez.

Scientists are trying to create the most efficient fog-catching devices. Innovation in mesh designs. This idea comes from what scientists call biomimicry, building on what nature has already created. In this case, taking cues from leaves that collect water on trees.

Can we emulate the surface of a leaf. Keep in mind a leaf has a lot of surfaces, a lot of different angles. There’s a lot of complexity that the wind can blow through and the little droplets of fog can collect on. So one example… is a type of mesh that is actually made in Chile, it’s called a raschel mesh and a double layer of it is a standard used for fog water collection. And you can see there are actually different surfaces involved in this mesh, in different angles and in a sense this emulates what a tree would do,” Fernandez explains. 

Fogquest, a non-profit organisation involved in sustainable water projects estimates that currently, 200 fog collectors in 10 countries are producing 40,000 litres of water a day, an example of this is found in Chile, in a region that is blanketed in a daily dense fog known as camanchaca.

Villagers have turned to a system of simple nets to capture water from fog. It is a much simpler version of the fog nets that Fernandez is studying and innovating in California, but for the people of this desert, it delivers a gift of life.

Meet California’s fog collectors

The nets capture about 10,000 litres of water a day from fog, and the fog water is used to bring new life to the area.

So is this a feasible, sustainable alternative? And if so, is this a way of moving forward? And what other uses can the fog have?

On TechKnow, we explore the possible solutions to address water scarcity through science and look at the effect these new initiatives could have in the larger agricultural areas around the world. We also explore technological advancements that are having a quantifiable impact on conserving fresh water through innovation.