In spite of having some of the world’s most spectacular lakes, rivers and waterfalls, the inhabitants of South America’s remote rural areas still remain a long way from having access to reliable, clean, drinking water.
With natural disasters a frequent occurrence, this makes water an issue of survival for many across the continent if it becomes contaminated during flooding or lacking due to drought.
Electrical outages and faulty generators mean pumps don’t consistently deliver water to residents’ homes and operations are disrupted at water treatment plants. Residents are cautioned to boil water during the first three days even after their water is restored or after an interruption to make sure it is safe to drink.
The UN made universal access to safe drinking water one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and a 2017 report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF shows that just 65 percent of the region has access to safe drinking water, though differences within the region remain vast, not least from urban to rural populations.
Among the nine countries with data available, Mexico has the lowest level of access to safe drinking water, covering just 43 percent of its population, while Argentina and Chile provide for almost everyone. Though most people across the continent have water piped into their homes, geographic inequality is profound. Just 57 percent of Cuba’s rural population for example, has access to water compared to 86 percent of its urban population, while Bolivia’s differential is 39/90 percent and Ecuador’s 67/96 percent respectively.
In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria’s destruction knocked out water service to over half of the residents using the island’s utility provider, which provides water to more than 97 percent of the island. More than a third of sewage treatment plants were unable to function after the hurricane, resulting in raw sewage flowing into waterways residents used for drinking and bathing, meaning large numbers of residents falling ill with leptospirosis, a serious bacterial infection that can occur from consuming or wading in contaminated water.
Technology is desperately needed, but resources, like clean water, are scarce. In countries such as Chile, there are areas where even dirty water is scarce, but what it does have, is fog. Several developers have been working on fog harvesters that can convert the misty air into water, as it passes through a weave of large vertical nets. Tiny droplets of water get caught by the fabric and trickle down the meshing into a collection system. The inexpensive system has been piloted in countries such as Ethiopia and proven a huge success.
One atmospheric scientist has shown internationally, that this is a very real option for countries of several climates, having taken the project to the likes of Africa and the Middle East. After working on fog collection for 20 yeras. Robert Schemenauer set up the all-volunteer organisation FogQuest, in 2000, after working on the concept with funding from donations and grants, with small fog collectors costing from $75-200 (AED300-800). The system requires zero energy and can last up to 10 years.
The first of Schemenauer’s fog collectors were developed in El Tofo, Chile in 1987, which led to a fog collection project in the village of Chungungo, Chile in 1992. Since then, small and large fog collection projects have been established in Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, and across the world including Ethiopia, Yemen, and Tanzania.
With this mass shortage of water around the region, farming and self sufficiency is challenging. Roughly 97 percent of water on the planet is salty, making it unsuitable for the cultivation of food but a design student from the UK’s University of Sussex has created floating farm pods that generate their own fresh water. The pods, designed by Leilah Clarke, float on the ocean, and in turn, water evaporates below them and rises in the dome. When the vapour hits the glass, it condensates and runs down the sides, watering the plants growing inside. This kind of technology could support sun plenty regions to generate their own clean water in addition to crops, which the student grew including spinach and radishes.
Last year, it was a boarding school in remote north east Colombia, in a rural village called Wayuu, which posed the answer to solving the population’s water crisis, harnessing the area’s plentiful sun and wind supply to power a reverse osmosis plant, turning dirty groundwater into drinking water.
Colombian and German scientists began work from the grounds of a boarding school in Aremasahin, a small town in the largely rural northeast of La Guajira, to design and built a desalination plant which runs entirely on wind and solar energy.
The aim was the prevention of diseases such as hepatitis A, typhoid/paratyphoid and acute diarrhoea, rife in the arid region, which sees rain as little as twice a year. Previously, the local population had to order drinking water from costly trucks, which were often hours away from home, and when they didn't have enough money, they had to drink dirty water, which led to sickness and even death. The boarding school now sells the clean water to villagers for a fair price and the rate of illness has fallen rapidly.
The technology is not cheap, and according to the UN, the number of people living in extreme poverty in Latin America increased in 2017 to the highest level in almost a decade. However, with the support of government and charitable bodies, the solutions are there to bring lasting change.
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