For most of us, getting a fresh drink of water just means walking to the kitchen and turning on the faucet. But in some parts of Ethiopia, it’s a grueling six-hour journey. That adds up to 40 billion hours a year trying to find and collect potable water, a group called the Water Project points out. Even when they do find it, the water is often unsafe—collected from ponds or lakes riddled with bacteria, animal waste, or other harmful substances.
Water scarcity affects nearly 1 billion people in Africa alone and is an issue that has drawn the attention of philanthropists like actor and Water.org co-founder Matt Damon and Microsoft-founder-turned-activist Bill Gates. Both have donated millions of dollars into research and solutions, like a system that converts toilet water into drinking water, for instance.
Despite creative solutions, the problem is far from solved. Critics continue to have doubts about integrating complex technologies into remote villages. Even if they are integrated, costs and maintenance could rule the ideas out as impractical.
“If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work,” Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe wrote for New York Times.
Many low-tech inventions, on the other hand, still rely on users to find a water source (and in some cases, an hours-long journey).
This critical issue is what drove Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogler to engineer WarkaWater. WarkaWater is an inexpensive, easily-assemble structure that has the ability to extract gallons of fresh water from the air. The 30-foot-tall, vase-shaped tower has a deceptively complex visual appeal, but the practical equipment relies on basic elements like shape and material. Every detail has a functional purpose.
The housing of each tower is made of Juncus stalks, woven in a pattern that offers stability against the elements but still allows air to flow through. A mesh nylon or polypropylene net hangs inside, collecting droplets of dew that form along the surface. Those droplets roll down into a container at the bottom of the tower as cold air condenses, and the water is then passed through a tube that works as a faucet—carrying fresh water almost instantly to the person on the ground.
The design was based off a concept for a fog-harvesting device introduced by an MIT student, but the Warka Tower yields more water at a lower cost. Vittori claims that internal tests have shown that just one of these structures can supply more than 25 gallons of water a day. The most important factor in collecting the condensation is the difference in temperature throughout the day, meaning they are able to successfully collect water in the desert, where temperatures can range as much as 50 degrees throughout the day.
Best of all? It only costs about $500 to set up a tower (and less than that if it is mass-produced). Vittori and his team hope to install two Warka Towers in Ethiopia by next year and is searching for investors to contribute to more.
“Once locals have the necessary know-how, they will be able to teach other villages and communities to build the Warka,” Vittori notes, making the idea infinitely scalable with the right resources.
“Many Ethiopian children from rural villages spend several hours every day to fetch water, time they could invest for more productive activities and education,” Vittori concludes. “If we can give people something that lets them be more independent, they can free themselves from this cycle.”