In one of the most arid regions of the world, the Atacama Desert, in the north of Chile, there is a unique project being developed. The goal of this project is to improve the life condition of the local community whose lifestyle and subsistence was lost as a consequence of the pollution created by mining activities. Through the implementation and development of this and other similar projects, this project pretends to generate a model to use a natural resource characteristic of this region. It wants to use the coastal fog to improve the conditions of the soil and add an alternative against desertification. This idea was developed by a group of small fisherman from the Caletas community of Chañaral. They thought that in the after math of the disaster generated by the mining companies, which destroyed their main source of subsistence and income, it was necessary to develop economic alternatives and capture water from the fog in the coastal area of the Atacama Desert. With assistance from the Institute for Geography of the Catholic University (CU), the fisherman made a two-year study (1998-2000). The goal of this study was to find out if it was possible to capture enough water for productive projects using the system known as atrapanieblas (mist-catcher).
Thanks to the technical and administrative support of the Chañaral municipality as well as the financial support of the Australian and Canadian agencies, the group Atrapanielbas of Falda Verde, currently grows tomatoes in green houses as well plantations of aloe Vera. The sale of these products in the community is now generating a much-needed income.
As part of this project, water from the mist-catchers is also used to provide drinking water to the tourist that visit the near by National Park Pan de Azúcar. With the goal of making this system known to others and generating some income from tourism, the members of this group built a path with resting areas. The path goes from the low lands where the plantations are, to the tip of the cliff where the mist-catchers that produce the water for the plantations are located.
General Information (information about the country and region)
Described in the schoolbooks like a “long and narrow stripe of land “, Chile extends its territories 4.329 kilometers of length in between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It has geographic and climate extremes. It’s first three territories host Atacama, one of the most arid deserts of the world. The last three territories include innumerable lakes, fiodos and ice fields, which make the Chilean Patagonia.
The Atacama region has an area of 75.176 km2, representing 9,9% of the area of the country. The regional population is 254.336 inhabitants. This is equivalent to 1.67% of the national population and its density reaches 3.4 hab/km2. The regional population growth in between the census is 1,0%, this is under the national average. The rural population is 21.717 people, which represent 8,5% of the total regional population. The regional capital is Copiapó. The region of Atacama is divided administratively in 3 provinces and 9 communities.
The Chañaral province is located in Region III and it has an area of 24.436 Km2. Chañaral, the provincial capital and Diego de Almagro are part of this region.
The Chañaral community is located exactly in the coastal boarder, in the bay with the same name. It is situated 972 kilometers to the noth of the county’s capital, Santiago de Chile. It has an area of 5.772 Km2 and a population of 13.410 inhabitants (97,60% of the urban population).
The advancement of desertification
Desertification has been categorized as one of the most deep social-environmental problems in Chile. The arid and semi-arid territories affected by this process are above 60% of the national territory. Generally this is where most of the damage to soils and biodiversity happens and where most forest, agriculture and cattle-rising productivity is concentrated.
The analysis was compiled by the National Forest Corporation (CONAF). This is the government organization that it is the main contact fort he Convention of United Nations in the fight against Desertification and Drought, which Chile is part of it since 1997.
The CONAF studies indicate that the process of desertification affect 47,3 millions of hectares, this is equivalent to 62,3% of the national territory, almost the half of the northern territories (region I and VIII) and the AUSTRAL area of the country (region XI and XII).
This phenomenon takes place with more magnitude in the pre-cordillera (premountain range) of the region I and II, the coastal strip for the regions I and IV, the areas occupied by the agricultural communities of the region III and IV, the Coastal Secano of the region V ad VIII, the Andean premountain range of the region VI and VIII and the degraded areas of the Region XI and XII.
According to the recorded history of “The Preliminary Map of the Chilean Desertification”, where 290 communities are analyzed, el 93% of the population are affected to one degree or another by the process of desertification.
This phenomenon of Desertification is the result of climate variations and the inadequate management of the biological, hydro and mining resources. Because of the lack of a national policy that would lead to important interventions to stop this process, chances are it slowly but surely will advance towards the rest of the country.
The impact of mining on the environment
The Atacama Region has always had a strong mining activity. Ever since the beginning of the original cultures, during colonization, at the beginning of industrialization and up until today mining continues to be the most important economic activity of the area.
Nowadays mining represents 90% of the regional exports, this include metals like copper, iron, gold and the no metallic ones like baratina, molybdenum, and marble. This region hosts some of the largest mining areas of the country (El Salvador, Manto Verde, La Candelaria) these belong to the public sector as well as the private sector.
By only looking around Chañaral, it is easy to spot the impacts of an industrial tradition in the region. The bay ends in the Slado River, which from 1938 to 1990 transported more than 350 million tons of waste from the mining companies of the region to the Pacific Ocean.
According to the 1996 report from the Mining and Metallurgical Center (CIMM in Spanish), the presence of copper and other dissolved metals in the water killed the flora and fauna of the coastal areas surrounding the Chañaral. In addition, when the wind blows the sand and sediments of the coastal areas create storms of highly irritating and corrosive dust that affect the inhabitants of the area.
Chañaral is one of the poorest regions in region number III. It has a high index of mortality due to the pollution. Because of the bad life conditions there is a high migration rate. A few years ago, before the crisis created by the massive pollution of the mines near the precordillera and when the bay of Chañaral was rich in diversity of marine species, there were many activities around to subsistence fishing.
The fishermen of the Chañaral Bay faced one of the most serious ecological disasters in their own land. There were millions of tons of mining waste dumped into one of the richest and more biodiversed regions in the world transforming it into a polluted and sterile territory. These terribly polluting activities were only stopped judicially in the 90’s decade. Still today the small particles of sand travel with the wind all over the region. When the impact of the ecological damage made impossible to continue with subsistence fishing, the affected workers saw the need to look for and alternative activity to allow them to have a sustainable and secure income. This is how the idea of a project to capture water from the mist for farming activities in the desert was born. The main challenge for the promoters of this project in Falda Verde was the failure of prior attempts to capture water from the mist. The IDRC, together with UNESCO financed the first projects using the mist-catchers in the north of Chile. They analyzed the reasons of what had gotten on the way of developing this project in a faster and ongoing way:
Furthermore, the IDRC documents adds that in the case of Chile, a lot of the water gathered from the mist couldn’t be used as drinking water due to the concern of the communities about the pollutants from the heavy metals released by the mining projects operating in the region. This negative experience didn’t make the fisherman of Chañaral lose hope since they were looking for an alternative to water for the experimental agriculture and not for domestic use. In the words of some members of the association, the objective is to “preserve and protect the natural patrimony of Falda Verde, utilizing some natural resources “. Through the gathering of water with the mist-catchers, we pretend to achieve to “reforest and recuperate native species from the area, while creating space for education, research, environmental recreation and ecotourism in the Atacama Desert. We want to rescue the biodiversity of our costal area that was damaged by the extreme pollution and desertification. The fields and skies of this area are apt for farming, water catching and sun. We also want to regain our cultural and historic sites.
The promoters of this initiative got in touch with different organisms to evaluate the feasibility of capturing water from the mist. This mist advances every day from the ocean until it covers the mountains about 5 kilometers north of Chañaral, and about 600 meters over the sea level. They developed the studies together with the Geography Institute of the Catholic University. The study focused on making projections to determine exactly what was the potential for capturing water and what was the best way to do it. During two years from 1998 to 2000, instruments were installed to measure systematically. The fishermen themselves made the testing. The methodology for monitoring is done using mist collectors (neblinómetros) of about 1 square meter. These are made of polyurethane nets and are installed 2 meters from the ground.
What are the mist-catchers?
The “camanchaca” is a low cloud that travels from the ocean and comes in contact with the coastal cliffs. In the north of Chile this is a phenomenon that happens all year long, although it is less intense in fall and winter. Waldo Canto, regional manager of Conaf of region IV, emphasized that the use and effects of the coastal mist comes from at least 5 thousand years ago. Native people from the coast and inland in South America, especially Peru, collected water from the trees and bushes or excavated next to the mountains where the water filtered after the clouds clashed with the mountains. The drops of water from the coastal mist are too small to condense into the atmosphere on their own. Ten million of them are needed to form a drop of water of 2 grams. To be able to enable their formation in an artificial way big nets are used to trap the microscopic drops of water that form the coastal mist known as the “camanchaca”. The mist-catchers are constructed from Eucalyptus trees and Raschel Net- a net made of polypropylene, which in Chile is used in the fields to protect crops such as kiwi and papaya from the wind. For each mist-catcher 4 thousand meters of net is needed. The capturing panels are placed perpendicular to the wind direction to intercept the clouds. The net hangs in between two polls and under the net a canal is placed to collect the water, which drops down because of gravity.
The installation of capturing nets is relatively simple and its cost depends of the size of the installation and maintenance needed depending of the atmospheric conditions of the place, specially the strength of the wind.
The development of the Project
After obtaining the hard data (daily, monthly and annual flow), and in consultation with the Municipality of Chañaral, the fisherman stared to develop the project and to look for funds. With all information on hand they presented the project to the Australian Embassy, and with their funding they built 6 mist-catchers, with an area of 264 m2, more than one kilometer of tubing and a fiber glass container to capture the more than 1.000 litters of water that are obtained daily from the coastal mist. The idea of slowly replacing small-scale fishing for another activity, materialized with the green house plantations of aloe Vera and tomatoes. The water captured provides water for these plantations and even at times it replaces the water truck that supplies the Chañaral and its surroundings. The place where the project is developed is on the way to Pan de Azúcar National Park, which offers water to tourist. This has made Falda Verde a new tourist spot, with a steady and permanent flow of people. This project has had a slow and permanent growth. Each of the six initial mist-catchers has a collecting area of 48 square meters and they are located over the cliff at 600 meters over the areas designated for agriculture. One pipeline takes water to the greenhouse located 100 meters over the sea level and then over the sand by the coastal boarder to greenhouse where the aloe Vera is cultivated.
The greenhouse, which is made of plastic, started working with almost 900 tomatoes plants. Later on in 2005 FogQuest, a Canadian organization, donated four new mist-catchers and infrastructure to canalize and to store the water. All the water captured is stored in 2 tanks of 5 thousand liters and a pool of 30 thousand litters.
The ten catchers that exist nowadays in Falda Verde provide daily 600 litters of water to the greenhouse and plantations of aloe Vera that are located at the foot of the cliff. An irrigation system installed for the aloe Vera functions trough a dripping system, since this is the best way to save water. The members of the Mitch Catcher Group are in charge of the maintenance of the whole system. The third stage of the project is about to begin, with the construction of 6 new mist-catchers and a plantation for 700 new plans of aloe Vera. These were donated by the mining company Anglo American Chile through its Mantoverde division who is exploiting an open pit mine of copper only 56 kilometers away from Chañaral.
The simplicity of the technology, the low cost of the material required and the abundance of the basic resource, the coastal mist, are the three pillars that assure the sustainability of the project. Pablo Osses, an academic from the Institute of Geography at the Catholic University and one of the researchers that participated in this project affirms that this is “a simple and inexpensive apparatus because it has been designed for poor people with little technical knowledge. Therefore, it must be easy to build and to repair.” He reiterates that basically the only things that are needed for it are two posts and a double net that provides 35 percent of shade so that it can let the wind through. When the clouds crash against the net, it captures the drops of water that due to gravity drop down into a canal, then the water is directed through a pipeline to a container.
The assembly of the system uses passive and static elements that are easy to build or put together. The installation of each panel and its interconnectivity is simple and fast and it does not require much manpower. Due to the simple design of the system, its construction does not require highly qualified personnel. Furthermore, because the channeling of the water is the result of gravity, it does not need energy or any other complex systems for its operation.
This atmospheric water-capturing technology is particularly advantageous in small-scale projects that because of its size don’t justify large investments. The weather conditions in the coastal boarder of Atacama, with abundant and dense fog during the nights all year long, guarantee the constant presence of the Camachaca. This guarantees, with the exception of some small variations during some seasons, the availability of this hydro resource for the functioning of the mist-catchers in Falda Verde and other similar projects the arid lands of the Norte Grande of Chile.
Lessons learned (strengths and weaknesses)
The most relevant aspect of the Falda Verde project is that from its beginning it was self-driven. This distinguishes the project from its predecessors that didn’t succeed and also represents its biggest strength. Pablo Osses emphasizes that “this is an initiative that was born and operated by the fisherman themselves, which is the reason why they are the first ones to be interested in continuing, expanding the project as well as looking for new funders. The motives behind the capturing of water in Falda Verde are very different than the ones in projects that once existed in Chingungo. This project is private therefore there is more commitment and interest to maintain the project. “Here we don’t have an electoral or political interest associated with the water “, says Pablo Osses.
However, the same lack of institutional support that comes out of a political public policy to protect the environment may be one of the main weaknesses of the Falda Verde and other similar projects. There was an absence of political will to stop the severe environmental damage in the bay and community of Chañaral caused by the mining activities. We saw the same lack of will to repair the damage done afterwards, which continues until today. Certainly, it is not expressed in the legal measurements to protect the air, water and soil of the regions surrounding the mining cluster of the Atacama precordillera. Even though, the mist-catchers stand still over the cliffs, producing water to irrigate the plantation of the Falda Verde Group, just a few kilometers away the mining activities continue. This cycle of exploitation and processing of metals, highly valued in the international market, use technologies that represent severe risks for the human health and the environment.
Lastly, it is important to keep in mind the vulnerability of this system when it faces the natural elements. In two different occasions windstorms destroyed the mist-catchers of the emblematic project of the Caleta Chungungo, in region IV. In order to lift up the panels that collect the water from the fog, institutional government help was needed.
The design of the panels has improved a lot to make them more resistant, but there are no guarantees that they will endure the winter conditions.
As long as the project does not produce its own resources to self-finance the reconstruction of the panel, and without any permanent support, the Falda Verde project is completely dependant on the good will of the private sector to be able to rescue its infrastructure whenever its needed.
If the private sector decides not to intervene or does not do it on time, the irrigation for the plantations it is at stake, as well as the income from it for the participant of the project and their families.
Replicability (Potential to replicate or transfer the experience)
In this extensive region of extreme conditions such as lack of rain, rivers or underground water and which hosts one of the largest deserts of the world, it would have made no sense to waste the water from this humid treasure of the Camachanca or northern coasts: the coastal mist. And in spite of the lack of substantial government support, nowadays there are research centers, NGOs and even students committed to the development, dissemination and effective use of this technology. This technology has shown to be appropriate because it is an efficient and effective way to obtain at low cost water for forestry and agricultural projects of the rural communities that live in the arid lands in the north of Chile.
A prove that the mist-catchers still have a lot to contribute to the struggle against desertification and improvement of the conditions of the lives of the community of arid and semi-arid areas of the country are the efforts to disseminate the benefits of this technology among students in the North of Chile and the public in general. One of the most recent efforts was organized by the Atacama Desert Center in September 2007. A group of geographers from the CU organized a series of talks and on the field workshops in 4 colleges in Iquique and one in Alto Hospicio on the subject of how to capture water from the mist. The goal was for the students to appreciate this hydro resource produced by the mist. This is the same institute that for years studied the mist as a hydro resource. In fact Pablo Osses has been working on this subject for more than a decade and now he has the opportunity to apply his research. His work has materialized in Chile, Peru, México, Nepal, Yemen, Eritrea, Namibia and South Africa. His goal has always been to produce important amounts of water at the lowest possible cost and he has achieved it. Now there are more than 250 mist-catchers in different countries, including Chile.
He works together with professor Pilar Cereceda – she is a pioneer on this subjects – she did a study to determine areas of water productivity in the region of Norte Grande in Chile, particularly in the First Region.
She says that «the idea is to combine this water productivity to the type of soil, climate conditions and the development of a possible agricultural activity to obtain, in theory, a productive area for this region that nowadays has an opportunity cost of cero ».
Today the mist-catchers are the base for ongoing projects that aim to help repopulate with native flora important sectors hillsides of some arid areas in the north. They want to stop the advancement of the dessert and to develop more family-owned kitchen gardens in low income rural communities to foment alternative agriculture and cultivate natives crops such as quinoa (a cereal with high protein content) and chañar (a tree with very rich foliage which protects against the wind and that produces an edible fruit. This fruit is rich in sugar and oil and it is used to prepare fruit honey and arrope (boiled must).
Hugo Streeter Cortez
Agrupación de Atrapanieblas de Falda Verde, Sector falda verde 4 Km. Al norte de Chañaral dirección camino c-120 Chañaral – Pan de Azúcar , III región de Atacama- Chile, Correo electronico: atrapanieblaatacama(at)chile.com
Rubén Daniel Olguín Cabezas
Agrupación de Atrapanieblas de Falda Verde, Freire #539 centro, Chañaral 09-9574808, Pilar Cereceda, Instituto de Geografía de la Universidad Católica de Chile, http://www.geo.puc.cl/
P. Cereceda, Two years of fog measurements at the site “Falda Verde”, north of Chañaral (Chile), Equipo de Estudios de Ecosistemas de Niebla, Universidad Católica de Chile, http://www.geo.puc.cl/observatorio/cereceda/C72.pdf
Proyecto Falda Verde: Agua en el desierto, Revista Ecoamerica (n° 68, junio de 2007), http://www.ecoamerica.cl/pdf_notas/68/53-55.pdf
David Brooks, WATER / Part 2. The Approaches, http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-19581-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html
Contaminación de la Bahía de Chañaral por el Mineral El Salvador:
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