Tackling water scarcity in Morocco by harvesting fog

15 August, 2023

People have lived in the villages of Ait Baamrane in southwest Morocco for thousands of years, but severe water scarcity has made life in the region extremely difficult.

Until recently, women walked up to three hours a day to collect water from nearby sources and families lived in a state of constant water anxiety.

Morocco is chronically water deficient and already sits well below the international water poverty line of 1000 cubic metres per capita, with only 730 cubic metres per person.

In remote Ait Baamrane, water scarcity has worsened with hotter weather and spasmodic rainfall compounded by weak infrastructure, forcing people to move away. 

"In a region which is home to around 6% of the global population but has access to just 1% of the water resources, fog collection can alleviate water scarcity for small communities living near the necessary climatic conditions"

That’s where the fog collection project Dar Si Hmad has stepped in. Alongside German NGO Wasserstiftung Water Foundation, Dar Si Hmad has worked over the last 20 years with the Ait Baamrane community to install a fog harvesting system.

The farm of 31 collectors on Mount Boutmezguida, 26 km away from Ait Baamrane, now provides water for 1,600 people. 

Fog collection is the harvesting of water droplets from fog in the air, providing fresh water for the surrounding communities. Fog is collected using a specially developed mesh that is strung up vertically between two poles perpendicular to the prevailing wind.

The wind forces the fog through the mesh, where it condenses into water droplets. The droplets cling to the mesh and get bigger as more fog is pushed through. As the droplets grow, they become too heavy to cling to the mesh and drop down into a pipe system that leads to a storage tank. The water can then be distributed to the community. 

Fog collection building [Foundation Dar Si Hmad]
Fog collection building [Foundation Dar Si Hmad]

“Usually you get water from rain or from underground but in a chronically water scarce region it makes sense to have water that’s desalinated or re-used or captured from fog as it’s not something that people do automatically,” Jamila Bargach, founder of Dar Si Hmad, said.

The Mount Boutmezguida project has changed the lives of villagers in Ait Baamrane — a square metre of mesh can yield up to 22 litres of water on a foggy day. Women no longer have to walk three hours a day to collect water and can spend time looking after their children. Men have stable jobs looking after the fog collection apparatus and water delivery system. And families are able to grow vegetables for subsistence.

“We don’t often think about the effect water scarcity has on quality of life. When you don’t have water, you live in water anxiety. All of a sudden the people in Ait Baamrane no longer have water anxiety and they have hours back to their day,” Bargach told The New Arab.

“The project has also brought attention to a region where people felt like they weren’t getting heard or that their voices didn’t count. Their dignity has been restored.”

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Moroccan legislation stipulates that water must be mineralised before it is considered potable so Dar Si Hmad mixes the fog water with groundwater before it reaches the residents’ homes. 

Residents then pay for the water with a prepaid charge card. The card keeps the cost on par with water elsewhere in Morocco up to a cubic metre of water per person. The prices rise once this threshold is reached to make sure that anyone using the water to profit — by growing vegetables to sell, for example — pays more into the scheme than those using the water for subsistence.

Residents now have a new source of freshwater [Fog collection building [Foundation Dar Si Hmad]
Residents now have a new source of freshwater [Fog collection building [Foundation Dar Si Hmad]

Fog collection requires minimal operational or maintenance costs, does not use any electricity or adversely affect the surrounding habitat and is therefore a cheap way to harvest freshwater in areas of scarcity. 

The method works in Ait Baamrane because the area boasts specific climatic conditions — dense fog for about 135 days a year, a prevailing wind that forces the fog through the mesh, pressure levels that create fog and cold currents from the Atlantic coastline. 

These conditions are scarce in the MENA region but are found most often in mountain ranges, close to the coastline and at a right angle to the prevailing wind. One example is the Dhofar region of Oman. Since the early 2000s, fog harvesting projects have taken place in Dhofar and in 2018, the project collected 350,000 gallons of water during monsoon season. 

Even when the specific conditions exist, however, fog collection still runs into problems of scalability. Atmospheric water represents only 0.004 per cent of the total freshwater on the planet, according to the US Geological Survey

With only a fraction of that water in fog at any given time, the volume available for harvest is tiny. This suits local communities but means fog collection cannot be scaled up to tackle water scarcity across the entire region. 

What's more, as the climate changes, so too may the amount of fog available to collect. Bargach said that the number of days of dense fog on Mount Boutmezguida had dropped from about 145 to 135 since the project began.

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Scientific research has not yet drawn a link between climate change and fog density, but it is possible changes in the environment may affect the prevalence and thickness of fog, according to Dr Manzoor Qadir, deputy director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.   

In a region which is home to around six percent of the global population but has access to just one percent of the water resources, fog collection can alleviate water scarcity for small communities living near the necessary climatic conditions, but is not a silver bullet for the rest of the region. 

“The good news is there are several other viable solutions such as water re-use, recycling of wastewater and desalination which are starting to get traction in the region,” Dr Qadir said.   

Jordan and Tunisia have both established wastewater treatment systems which collect and reuse most of the wastewater produced within their borders. While Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE collectively produce almost half of the world’s desalinated water supply.

Lauren is a freelance environment and sustainability journalist and producer with a particular interest in human interactions with the natural world. Her work has been published in WWF UK, The Telegraph, LBC, The Gear Loop, FoodUnfolded and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @LaurenSLws