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CityPress - - Business - YOLANDI GROE­NEWALD busi­ness@city­press.co.za

new breed of green engi­neers is work­ing to avert the world’s loom­ing wa­ter is­sues by grab­bing wa­ter out of thin air. And South Africa-based Cir­rus Wa­ter Man­age­ment is join­ing the party with its in­de­pen­dently en­gi­neered wa­ter­har­vest­ing tech­nol­ogy that gen­er­ates clean drink­ing wa­ter from the am­bi­ent at­mos­phere.

Only 2% of the wa­ter on earth is fresh rather than salt wa­ter. And sci­en­tists fear we are rapidly run­ning out of clean fresh wa­ter. Chang­ing cli­mate pat­terns show wa­ter scarcity is a catas­tro­phe wait­ing to hap­pen.

To make mat­ters worse, only 25% of all fresh wa­ter is ac­ces­si­ble to hu­mans.

But there are about 12 900km³ of wa­ter, mostly in the form of wa­ter vapour, in the at­mos­phere at any one time.

Although the Le­sotho High­lands Wa­ter Pro­ject and dams, in­clud­ing the Vaal and Berg River, will con­tinue to sup­ply the bulk of our wa­ter, fu­tur­ists pre­dict that new tech­nolo­gies, such as at­mo­spheric wa­ter gen­er­a­tion, must be used to cre­ate new sup­ply lines for clean drink­ing wa­ter.

Sput­nik Ratau, the depart­ment of wa­ter af­fairs’ spokesper­son, con­cedes that his depart­ment’s drink­ing wa­ter qual­ity re­mains a chal­lenge in South Africa. Wa­ter from the Vaal River has been called into ques­tion and con­tin­ues to be con­tam­i­nated by un­treated sewage and acid mine drainage.

And drink­ing wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion in towns such as Bloemhof, Carolina, Brits and Gra­ham­stown has led to a boom in busi­ness for so-called wa­ter shops.

One of the more dra­matic shifts in con­sump­tion in re­cent years has been the ex­plo­sive growth in the con­sump­tion of bot­tled wa­ter. South Africans spend more than R2 bil­lion on bot­tled wa­ter an­nu­ally, and will spend even more in years to come.

Cir­rus com­mer­cial di­rec­tor Bruce Jones says: “The fre­quency, ge­o­graph­i­cal spread and as­so­ci­ated vi­o­lence of ser­vice-de­liv­ery protests over wa­ter, among other so­cial de­mands, has shown that wa­ter scarcity is now a main­stream con­cern.”

The drink­ing wa­ter cri­sis in Gra­ham­stown led to the es­tab­lish­ment of Cir­rus. Most peo­ple in the city won’t drink the mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter any more, Jones says.

Seven years ago, Cir­rus co-founder Lind­say Char­ters, a mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy stu­dent at Rhodes Univer­sity, had enough of pay­ing for bot­tled wa­ter. She wished she could start a busi­ness that would give the peo­ple of Gra­ham­stown bet­ter ac­cess to clean drink­ing wa­ter.

Along with her fa­ther, she started in­ves­ti­gat­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally man­u­fac­tured at­mo­spheric-wa­ter-gen­er­a­tor ma­chines, but found none suit­able to South Africa’s needs.

The duo, with Jones, started re­search and de­vel­op­ment to man­u­fac­ture an af­ford­able wa­ter gen­er­a­tor for this coun­try. Cir­rus be­gan op­er­at­ing com­mer­cially two years ago.

“We dream of a world where ev­ery­one has ac­cess to clean, af­ford­able drink­ing wa­ter in a way that is also kin­der to the en­vi­ron­ment,” says Jones. He says that with the coun­try al­ready clas­si­fied as wa­ter scarce – with ex­treme cli­mate and rain­fall fluc­tu­a­tions – wa­ter de­mand can, to an ex­tent, be taken off the grid, es­pe­cially in ur­ban ar­eas.

Tak­ing wa­ter out of the at­mos­phere is not a novel idea. Nat­u­ral fog har­vesters, such as bee­tles and plants, have served as in­spi­ra­tion world­wide for how to tap into the at­mos­phere’s wa­ter re­serves.

The most ba­sic, and pos­si­bly most ac­ces­si­ble, form of at­mo­spheric wa­ter-har­vest­ing tech­nol­ogy works by col­lect­ing wa­ter and mois­ture from the at­mos­phere us­ing mi­cronet­ting – fog har­vest­ing. The mi­cronets col­lect wa­ter that drains down into a col­lec­tion cham­ber. This fresh wa­ter can then be stored or chan­nelled into homes and farms as needed.

Re­searchers from Unisa, along with oth­ers from the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria, have run a num­ber of foghar­vest­ing projects to pro­vide com­mu­ni­ties with clean drink­ing wa­ter.

As far back as 2008, the Eastern Cape’s Al­fred Nzo Dis­trict Mu­nic­i­pal­ity had a fog-har­vest­ing sys­tem in­stalled in a bid to boost potable wa­ter sup­plies to the dis­trict’s res­i­dents. And on the west coast, re­searchers are test­ing their fog-har­vest­ing tech­nol­ogy at Le­pel­fontein.

But in the past five years, engi­neers have be­gun play­ing with more so­phis­ti­cated tech­nolo­gies that may al­low houses to gen­er­ate their own wa­ter sup­ply and crops to ir­ri­gate them­selves. There may even be “wa­ter­less” cities, all us­ing the vapour in the air.

As a re­sult, a new breed of green-ori­ented busi­nesses, such as Cir­rus, is look­ing to the skies to solve the wa­ter cri­sis. These com­pa­nies use a va­ri­ety of tech­nolo­gies to drive down the costs of ex­tract­ing wa­ter from air.

Cir­rus’ ma­chine works on the cool­ing-to-con­den­sa­tion prin­ci­ple. The air drawn into the ma­chine’s con­den­sa­tion cham­ber is cooled to a tem­per­a­ture at which the wa­ter vapour in the air con­denses, gen­er­at­ing wa­ter.

Jones says air pol­lu­tion is not a prob­lem for cre­at­ing some of the clean­est wa­ter on the planet.

“We tested our tech­nol­ogy in one of the dirt­i­est cities in the world, Mum­bai, and we still got the clean, full, round taste of our wa­ter,” he says.

South Africans use be­tween 10% and 15% of their wa­ter for drink­ing, cook­ing and wash­ing. Cir­rus’ small­est unit sells for R90 000 and pro­duces 100 litres a day, enough for sev­eral house­holds.

Cir­rus’ wa­ter is gen­er­ated at 70c a litre (R1.50 with fi­nanc­ing), as op­posed to the more than R10 a litre that many peo­ple pay for bot­tled wa­ter.

Sub­sidised mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter costs 2c a litre.

Cir­rus has al­ready in­stalled wa­ter gen­er­a­tors at a gas and min­ing ex­plo­ration pro­ject in Mozam­bique. Other places us­ing Cir­rus’ gen­er­a­tors in­clude com­mer­cial build­ings, such as of­fice parks and col­leges; re­mote busi­nesses, in­clud­ing bush lodges and oil rigs; and ho­tels and con­fer­ence cen­tres.

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