How a bamboo tower could bring drinking water to parched communities

The first Warka tower was built in 2015, in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.
The first Warka tower was built in 2015, in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

An Italian architect has come up with a potentially life-saving concept: a tower that turns humidity into drinking water for rural communities living in arid areas. As an added bonus, the tower is environmentally-friendly and relatively cheap to build. The first model was built in Ethiopia last year, but there are already plans to develop it on a global scale.

Clean, safe drinking water is a rare commodity. According to a report by the World Health Organisation published in 2013, roughly 2.4 billion people lack clean drinking water. The report adds that 1.8 billion people drink water that could lead to health problems.

In Ethiopia, water is particularly scarce: according to Warka Water, only 34 percent of the population has access to a clean water source. With that statistic in mind, Italian architect Arturo Vittori decided to tackle the problem head-on. He's designed a structure that takes advantage of Ethiopia's climate by capturing the humidity in the air and turning it into clean water that's stored in a reservoir.

Ethiopia's first Warka tower. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

"The structure is made out of bamboo and covered with a mesh that captures the humidity"

In 2012, I travelled to northeastern Ethiopia. I travelled through several small, isolated villages where I saw women and children walking miles on foot just to bring back water. I had already heard about the lack of drinking water in television reports, but that was the first time I'd seen it with my own eyes. Seeing that really affected me and, once I had returned to Italy, I decided to think of a way to bring drinking water directly to the villages.

When I was in Ethiopia, I noticed that it is very humid in the morning and I started wondering if it might be possible to collect that humidity. I remembered that in the region in Italy where I grew up, during the olive harvest, we used to put huge nets under the trees to gather the fallen fruit more quickly. In the mornings, when we went back to the fields, the nets were always wet. But it wasn't because it had rained during the night, it was because of the dew-- the humidity that had built up.

The netting that covers the structure captures humidity from the air. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

I then tried to recreate the same phenomenon but vertically, so that the water would then trickle down so it could be collected. I wanted to use cheap materials to keep the cost down, so it's mainly made from bamboo. The structure is covered with a mesh that captures the humidity. The water droplets then trickle down into a central reservoir.

The form of the tower tries to imitate traditional structures. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

With just one tower, we can collect around 100 litres of water a day. I also wanted the tower to blend into the landscape, which is why its rounded form imitates traditional construction methods. 'Warka' is the name used to denote a fig tree in Ethiopia. People gather under these trees and turn them into meeting places.

The Warka tree, which inspired the tower's name. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

"We're now working on similar projects in Brazil, Indonesia, and Colombia"

I proposed the project to Dorzé's village chiefs. I explained the concept and told them that if they weren't happy, I could easily remove it. That's one of the tower's advantages: it takes less than a week to build, and it can be moved very easily. We wanted to come up with a design that could be sold for 1,000 dollars or less.

Thanks to the tower, Dorzé's villagers no longer have to walk miles on foot to get clean drinking water. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

We've been working on this project for three years. Now that the tower in Ethiopia works well, NGOs around the world have been getting in touch with us. Towers have already been built in Lebanon and Brazil and we're now set to work on similar projects in Indonesia and Colombia.

In order to get his project off the ground in Ethiopia, Arturo enlisted the help of Kidus Belayneh and Adane Alemayehu, two students from Addis Ababa's university of architecture.

"Beaucoup d’enfants ont maintenant le temps d’aller à l’école !"

We helped Arturo to build the tower in Dorze. The project was very well received and the residents quickly learned how to use it. They no longer have to walk hours and hours to bring back water. Cutting out the need to fetch water has actually meant that more children can now attend school.

The tower's reservoir. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

I have family members who live in isolated villages where clean drinking water is pretty much impossible to find. This problem is common all over Ethiopia and lots of people often end up drinking dirty water, which makes them sick. But it's not just a problem in rural areas: even in the capital, it's hard to access safe drinking water.

Kidus Belayneh took part in building the tower in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Warka Water.

Along with another student from my university, I'm currently doing a work placement with Arturo in Italy. We're trying to develop the project in order to bring it to other villages across Ethiopia.

For the time being, the priority is to spread the supply of safe drinking water. But we've also been thinking about towers that could be used for irrigation and agriculture during periods of drought [Editor's note: According to the United Nations, Ethiopia currently is facing its worst drought in decades].

Arturo has already been rewarded for his innovation, picking up the annual World Design Impact Prize in March. To continue developing the project, Warka Water - the company backing the initiative - has launched an appeal for donations. If you'd like to help, you can contribute online by clicking here.

This article was part of our series Observers vs. Climate Change. To see the other stories in this series, click here.

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