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Students help harness fog to quench Moroccans' thirst

Some rural Moroccans have to trek for miles every day because their arid environment doesn't provide enough drinking water. Or does it?

Six Rice students with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy's Energy Forum spent a month helping with a project that harvests potable water from the fog that envelops parts of the Atlas Mountains. The students were joined by Amy Myers Jaffe, a fellow in energy studies at the Baker Institute and associate director of the Rice Energy Program; Ronald Soligo, professor of economics; and Eugenia Georges, professor and chair of anthropology. They worked with the Dar Si Hmad Foundation in Sidi Ifni, Morocco, to move forward an engineering program to capture tiny droplets of water with a polyethylene mesh in the mountainous Boutmezguida region of southern Morocco.

The volleyball-net-like structures grab liquid from the fog, which drips down the nets into collecting tubes. Gravity propels the drops down pipes that terminate at a water storage tank at the bottom of the mountain. The sustainable project could theoretically provide clean, safe water for people in the area.

The idea for Rice involvement in the project began this past spring in Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Development, a class taught by Jaffe, said Kevin Liu, a 2010 grad who now works as a research associate at the Energy Forum. "One of the guest lecturers turned out to be Jamilla Bargach, the founder of the Dar Si Hmad organization, and she told us about an opportunity to go to Morocco to work with fog nets in water-poor areas," Liu said. "The goal of the trip was to expose students to applying sustainable techniques learned from a course to real-world problems in developing countries."

Bargach graduated from Rice in 1998 with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. She started her nonprofit foundation to improve the quality of life for some of the more impoverished communities in and around Ifni.

In addition to Liu, other Rice participants were junior John Michael Nosek, junior Rebecca Jaffe, senior Marilu Corona, junior Alexandra Ernst, senior Noemie Levy and 2010 graduate Joyce Yao.

"Initially, it was a huge culture shock to be in an Arab country, but Moroccan hospitality and food won us over," Liu said. "We had a great experience working with the foundation and the local people." He described the interaction with professionals associated with Dar Si Hmad Foundation and residents of the Boutmezguida region as the highlight of the trip. After overcoming early "stomach issues," he and his colleagues developed a taste for the local cuisine. However they gave up on mastering its preparation. "We learned that we could not cook Moroccan food, not matter how hard we tried," he said.

While he acknowledged that the nets cannot supply enough water for a metropolitan area, Liu said they can make a real difference for rural families. At a cost of roughly $1,000-$1,500 to cover materials and maintenance for an average 10-year lifespan, he said, "we can provide anywhere from 200 to 1,000 liters of water per day for a village." They also looked into the possibility of harvesting water that accumulated on trees by spreading tarps on the ground beneath them. The idea stemmed from observing indicators of water accumulation on the vegetation. Ideally, the vegetation acts as a natural fog collector.

The Rice students' mission included conducting background research on the project, completing the calculations for the designs and locations of the nets and developing the required infrastructure for a future Rice group to finish the project next summer. "Determining the location to position the nets will be especially important for maximizing the efficiency of the nets in regard to the orientation, frequency of fog, and wind speed and direction," Liu said. "The region could also benefit from a comprehensive survey of natural groundwater patterns created by the fog."

"Our main two takeaways were developing and conducting a comprehensive survey for local water demand as well as designing and implementing basins to capture water from the fog on local vegetation," he said.

"The challenge of both the science and engineering and cultural implementation is large, and the predestined condition of geography and nature is hard to overcome," Jaffe wrote on the Baker Institute's blog in the Houston Chronicle. One of the lessons of the Morocco experience, she added, is that "the solutions to such problems are not global at all. They are community-specific and require a deep knowledge of specific cultural, geographic and socio-political conditions."

Liu echoed Jaffe's conclusion: "Although we may think we know what is best for other countries, it is impossible for us to put ourselves in their shoes. That is why a comprehensive survey needs to be done before any construction so we can get a feel of the situation. If you just go and build without understanding the culture and the relationships of the locals (and what is socially acceptable), you could do more harm than good."