Friday, December 07, 2007

15 Seconds of Rain: Cape Verde’s Water Problem

“According to local lore, when God was satisfied with Creation, and brushed his hands together, the crumbs that fell unnoticed from his fingers into the sea formed Cape Verde.” With this image begins The Bradt travel guide to the Cape Verde islands. And frankly, this desolate, island-extension of the Sahara, with its jagged brown peaks and windswept beaches, its tragic history of droughts and famines, seems aptly likened to crumbs.

Even today, despite being one of the most developed West African countries, water is arguably the number one problem. Most comes from underground sources, but salt water is flooding the aquifer. Fuel-dependant desalinization plants are ingenious, but expensive. A four million dollar dam has rendered 65 hectors of previously arid land productive, but springs downstream have all but dried up or become salty. Meanwhile, the scarcity of water, among other factors, makes Cape Verde reliant on imports for over 80% of its food, which arrives on boats at inflated prices from Portugal, Brazil, and beyond.

At the height of the dry season, when our own tank went dry, a truck brought an emergency 2.5 tons of water from a far off coastal down for 25 dollars. It lasted eight people only a week. Everyday, to the thousands of homes with no running water, women and children languidly walk, balancing large containers on their heads atop wadded-up handkerchiefs. Their bodies undulate to keep the water from sloshing when they pause or turn their heads.

“How thrilled everyone is going to be when it rains,” I thought. “How thrilling those two months, those 260 milliliters that are going to fall on all this dust.”

* * *

My first rains were in the beach town of Tarrafal.

Powerful streams of water--pouring out of roof-spouts destined for empty basins below--splashed instead off the sidewalks and flooded the cobbled streets. Tarrafal had recently gotten running water, I learned. Out of town, the corn, usually vivaciously green against the shaley brown earth, looked oddly withered and dry against all that wetness. The stalks stood in pools of swampy brown water, brittle and drowning. Further ahead, the cliffs that mark the climb to the highlands had sprayed rocks across the roads. A driver in a large station wagon paused, wondering whether he could sneak between the widest-set stones or if he was really going to have to get out and move them. Below the road, a waterfall of chocolate milk, as if cut from a Nesquick ad, spilled over the road’s edge into the cornfields. “Erosion” was the caption below every image.

Most people crouched under awnings, watching, impassive. As we reached the highlands, with no central running water, a few had placed basins below roof spouts, or stood, satisfied, beside full containers. Every now and then a woman stood glowering beside her ruined laundry. No smiles. Eventually a little girl, quite serious and rather dry, appeared in a wheelbarrow, her underwear hanging loosely from her scrawny legs. Her brother sat unsmiling on a stone wall nearby. “Frolic!” I ordered silently. “Children are supposed to frolic when it rains!” Especially, I thought, when they live on a crumb.

* * *

Frolicking not being that viable a solution to the water problem, some have turned to harnessing Cape Verde’s not immediately obvious assets--wind, fog, and salt water—to pursue small-scale, affordable, sustainable solutions.
Students at the technical school 100 yards from my house were a little less bored yesterday. Some eagerly shoved cement-laden trowels between the wood panels. Others turned pebbles, water and cement powder together with shovels on something like a giant plastic sandbox. “You’ve got to make sure the cement is really packed down around the wire so there’s no air bubbles,” Nick Hanson, a Peace Corps Voc Ed teacher told them.

They are building a solar still, which for roughly 40 dollars apiece, should clean about 4 liters of water a day using only solar energy. When it is a done, and a big glass sheet is placed across the top, it will look like the front of a minivan’s upper half, flush to the ground with a tube running into an imposing black barrel.

Why clean water when there isn’t any? Actually, one of the only raw materials that coastal fishing towns here have in spades is salt water. Just four liters of it cleaned could meet a family’s daily drinking needs. Make it more efficient, or build a few more, and you could plan year-round agriculture, using a super-efficient drip irrigation system (that directs water only to the root of the plant, through pin-size holes in plastic tubing). The initial investment could be recuperated in a few years while the still might last twenty, and a new generation of tech school grads will know how to install it.

First they have to get rid of the air bubbles.

* * *

So that might take care of the coasts. What about the highlands?
Several wood-framed vertical nets rise out of the mountains behind my office in Serra Malagueta. They look like a half-erected, uninspired outdoor art installation. They are, in fact, fog collection nets, that pluck water out of the thick, wet mist that whips through the highlands almost year round. First set up by the Portuguese before independence, they have been renovated and replicated by the Protected Areas Project.

The fog water runs down the synthetic green netting into a flimsy plastic trough that extends lengthwise along the bottom. It is tilted only slightly, so the water will trickle into a tube headed for the filter, the tank, and finally for the elementary school or the community spigot, from where a bucket will carry it home on somebody’s head. Collection rates vary with wind speed and moisture, and the wind still whips plenty from the trough before it can be channeled. But each net—six meters tall and two meters wide—collects up to 1000 liters of water each night.

“It’s very good,” says Domingos Monteiro, a local farmer who has erected his own nets. He first considered it when he saw condensation collecting on the walls of his chicken coop. “With another ten of these, each catching 1000 liters a day, Serra Malagueta could have plenty of water.” His own nets will be feeding a brand new drip irrigation system for his garden this dry season.

* * *

So weirdly enough, having been a crumb may yet prove to be one of Cape Verde’s biggest assets. While we are still struggling to reduce reliance on increasingly scarce, traditional sources of energy and natural resources, Cape Verde is being forced to figure some of it out now. In the not so distant future, Domingos and the tech school grads may be our most prized consultants, and some Peace Corps volunteers may be out of a job.


Blogger BinHoff said...

Elegantly written, Alex. I chose to read it today, as our own water system was just repaired 5 minutes ago, after only a couple of days waiting. The fog-catching nets are new to me and sound ingenious!

8:56 AM  

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