Many of us take for granted the clean, fresh water that magically appears every time we turn on a tap. But there are many communities around the world where access to safe, drinkable water is a daily struggle — or an impossibility. According to the World Health Organization, 1.8 billion people use a water source contaminated with fecal matter, which can lead to some extremely unpleasant diseases: cholera, dysentery and typhoid, just to name a few. Add to that the increasing levels of water stress — when availability can’t keep up with demand — and accessible water is becoming a hot environmental and health issue.
But there are people creating solutions. Using a combination of technology, design and influences from nature, Arturo Vittori and his team at Bomarzo, Italy-based Architecture and Vision have a plan to create a means for water harvesting that is cost-effective and easy to build and maintain. The Warka Water (more on the name later) is a 33-foot tower made from bamboo, hemp, metal pins and bio-plastic. It’s designed to collect up to 26 gallons of water each day, with enough storage for 264 gallons.
The Warka Water team is aiming to build a working prototype in Ethiopia, with the help of $100,000 raised via a Kickstarter campaign, which ends on February 10.
Following up from our previous blog post on the Warka Water campaign, Not Impossible Now spoke with Vittori over Skype about the project.
NIN: What motivated you and your team to create the Warka Water?
Arturo Vittori: In 2012, I went to Ethiopia for a conference and I discovered the beautiful country. I also saw the dramatic situation of women and children walking for many hours every day, without shoes, to collect sometimes questionable water from sources they share with animals. That was very hard. My office, which is called Architecture and Vision, started to develop the Warka Water project.
Many countries have problems with the availability of potable water. Why do you think this is such an intractable problem?
Vittori: This is a big question, and it’s partially because we don’t respect the resources on Earth and we don’t want to distribute it equally, but rather we want to consume more than we need. I can wonder why in Emirates (UAE) they consume 500 liters water per person every day, which is way more than needed, and a few kilometers away, they don’t have a few liters every day of potable water. Because this is the problem of our society. We have to change mentality.
Where does the name Warka Water come from?
Vittori: We were inspired by the Warka tree. It’s a huge tree, and an institution in Ethiopia. It was traditionally the center of a community, where they’d all gather underneath to organize social activities and community affairs. The idea was to use this symbolic tree to remind everyone the problem is not only about infrastructure, it’s really cultural. It’s about preserving nature and living again in integration with nature, which provides the environment for them to exist.
Can you talk a bit what’s happening to the Warka tree and the role of trees in water access?
Vittori: The Warka tree is now disappearing because such a big tree provides a lot of wood, and we’ve reached the point where it’s almost extinct. And not just this tree, but all of them. To make more water, you have to have trees. Trees take water from the ground and deliver it through the air every day. One of the ideas of the Warka Water is to grow a Warka tree next to it to bring them back to the village, and it will be monitored by the same people who monitor the Warka Water. This humidity will then be collected by the Warka Water and be drinkable again. We want to plant Warka trees because we need them, they’re very important.
The design of the Warka Water is very sculptural and visually arresting but, of course, it’s practical as well. Was there an inspiration for the design?
Vittori: There were several inspirations. For the structure, I was really touched by the way they hand weave baskets in Ethiopia. You can make this basket bigger, with the same technique.
The other inspiration was nature because in nature different plants and insects have the skills to collect water from the air and they’ve been surviving for centuries, including in the most arid places on earth. We have been looking to different plants and how they are designed. Nature is very smart, and we learned from the technology nature has developed. The Namib Desert beetle is one, it’s this little insect that’s creating water in the night in the desert.
Also looking to the past because similar techniques for water collection have been used by the Persians and Egyptians. The culture is lost today but there’s evidence it has been used. So the design is looking at how to optimize the natural phenomena of rain, fog and dew. Water is in the air and is moving, there are rivers moving above us through the clouds, so it is about finding the right approach and strategy.
Is the netting that’s part of the structure something your team is developing?
Vittori: Yes. This is one of the things that’s taking the most resources and time. We’re still trying to understand how to make it the most efficient but not too heavy, won’t create resistance against the winds and be able to form the little drops of water. We were inspired by spider webs, which are super light and very efficient in water collection. We believe it depends on the geometry and thickness of the material but also the finishing. All these things together make the difference between one material that collects less water and another that collects much more.
You’ve built nine prototypes so far. What have been some of the challenges in creating a functional unit?
Vittori: The challenges in the last two years and a half of development have been many. For instance, to collect the water from the fog you have to go high in the sky because you have the movement of the air and not much interference with the trees and the landscape. But you also face the winds, so the wind has been our enemy and we have been trying to find a way to make it resistant. We’ve reached the limit of 65 km an hour. So something like an elastic structure rather than a rigid one done with natural materials that is capable of changing shape but still be grounded.
Another challenge has been birds because they like to sit on top of the Warka. So we added some little elements that keep birds away. On the very top part there is what we call the crown, which looks like a decorative element, but we put little shiny aluminum pieces of metal, which reflect the light and disturbs and keeps away birds.
Vittori: This crowdfunding will finance the first Warka Water in Ethiopia. Constructing the first model in Ethiopia will be much more costly than once they are mass produced because we have to start many things from scratch — finding the right materials, the right people to collaborate, find the location, to train people and so on. Also, we will build what we call the Warkino.
What is the Warkino?
Vittori: The Warkino is a metrological and environmental monitoring unit that transmits data via Wi-Fi. Sensors check the air temperature, the air flow, wind speeds, air humidity, the material temperature, the amount of water following the rain and so on. It’s based on an Arduino motherboard and will be connected to Wi-Fi. This data will be available on the website, so everybody will be able to go and check and for us. We’ll be able to monitor in real time day and night. Also, there will be an infrared camera monitoring the surface of the material, and we can watch what is happening when it is all dark. So it is a fundamental tool, and it is expensive.
What’s the best pilot site?
Vittori: There are a few requirements. One, the site must not be too difficult for us to access, so not too remote because it would be too complicated. At the same time, we need a remote community that needs water and then there are environmental requirements, such as the difference in temperature and the presence high humidity and so on.
Learn more about the Warka Water at its Kickstarter page.
Top artistic illustration courtesy of Architecture and Vision