Designers Have Created a Device That Can Pull Drinking Water Out of Thin Air


The United Nations estimates that people in sub-Saharan Africa spend roughly 40 billion hours per year collecting water, and what they do find is often unsafe to drink. In some parts of Africa, finding potable water can be a six-hour endeavor. Roughly 3.4 million people die every year from water-related disease. The water shortage is a major life-threatening problem that affects as many as 1 billion people on the continent alone, but it's not as though you can just snap your fingers and make water magically appear out of thin air.

Or can you? Designed by Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogler, WarkaWater is an inexpensive, easily-assembled structure that extracts gallons of fresh water from the air. Standing 30 feet tall, the vase-shaped tower is made of lightweight juncus stalks carefully woven together that stand strong in wind gusts while still allowing air to pass through. This rigid housing holds up a nylon or polypropylene mesh net that collects droplets of dew as they form on the surface. As cold air condenses, the droplets roll down and collect in a container at the bottom, making fresh, safe water appear out of thin air. 

Image Credit: Architecture and Vision

Others have developed similar ideas in the past (including fog-collecting water machine out of MIT a few years ago), but the WarkaWater yields more water for less money. According to the designer, the tower can generate more than 25 gallons of water a day, and because the process is enabled by radically changing day and night temperatures, it's especially effective in the desert, where fresh water can be hardest to find. 

"[In Ethiopia], public infrastructures do not exist and building [something like] a well is not easy," Vittori told Smithsonian. "To find water, you need to drill in the ground very deep, often as much as 1,600 feet. So it's technically difficult and expensive. Moreover, pumps need electricity to run as well as access to spare parts in case the pump breaks down."

This could actually work: The WarkaWater, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive to set up and requires little maintenance. Currently, each tower costs $500 to set up, but that would drop if the towers found an interested investor and were mass-produced. Even now though, that's a low price compared to something like the $2,200 Bill Gates toilet, which requires more maintenance and requires completing a complex procedure to set-up. 

By the end of the year, Vittori hopes to have two towers fully operational in Ethiopia, where only 21% of the population has access to "adequate sanitation services." 

Image Credit: Architecture and Vision

"It's not just illnesses that we're trying to address. 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 said. "If we can give people something that lets them be more independent, they can free themselves from this cycle."

Global water scarcity: According to the UN, "1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation." While a number of organizations and initiatives already exist, water scarcity remains a gargantuan problem across the world, especially in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India.

Image Credit: World Water Development Report 4