In 2012, Swiss-Italian duo of architects and co-founders of Architecture and Vision [AV], Andreas Vogler and Arturo Vittori, visited the North-East regions of Ethiopia, set on a high plateau against a rich ecological landscape. Dotted with villages, the region has an acute water scarcity problem. Here was an environment untouched by industry, replete with natural resources, but dysfunctional without running water, electricity, toilets or showers. Rural Ethiopia didn’t need development, it needed – and still does – sustainable growth and livelihoods to ameliorate it from its gaunt circumstances, yet preserve its ecological diversity.
Together, they developed the idea for WarkaWater, an experimental project. The WarkWater would be a vertical structure capable of harvesting potable water straight from the atmosphere, eliminating all the energy-dependent technological interlocutors we currently have in place to obtain water. In December 2013, Andreas Vogler left AV, but the WarkaWater continued its journey under Vittori.
It isn’t even the pioneering nature of this project that’s awe-inspiring. It’s the philosophy AV embraces to develop WarkaWater. WarkaWater is built on a three-pronged principle: Technological ascesis, natural aesthetics and ecological sustainability to create vernacular architecture. Its urn-like shape was especially sketched to compliment the traditional villages and landscape. Their use of biomimetics to build the most efficient water-harvesting system makes WarkaWater well worth the investment.
As natural as it gets
Every element of the WarkaWater sings Ethiopia. The superficial structure borrows from traditional Ethiopian basket weaving techniques, and the materials with which the WarkaWater is constructed are locally-acquired. The thoughtfulness behind these seemingly inconspicuous details lies in AV’s ultimate goal: to build a technology that rural Ethiopians can easily replicate, repair and maintain indigenously.
The WarkaWater structure itself is built using bio-degradable materials, predominantly bamboo, hemp and bio-plastics.
The functional design for WarkaWater needed to rely on a passive system (no energy consumption) and natural phenomenon like gravity and condensation to produce and efficiently collect water through rain, fog and dew.
WarkaWater is an autotype of several efficient biological structures found in nature. It adopts the integrated fog collection system of the cactus, for instance. Cacti are drought-tolerant plants found in arid regions, yet they thrive in this environment. The plant is composed of clusters of conical spines and trichomes (hair-like structures found in plants like thistles) containing three integrated regions that, together, enable fog collection.
The second natural life of importance is yet another desert-dweller, the Namibian Beetle. This particular beetle’s wings are covered with hydrophilic bumps of nanoscopic scale, whereas the sides of the bumps are hydrophobic. It allows the beetle to collect water on its wings, which slides down into its mouth. The structure is highly efficacious for fog collection, and the primary means through which the beetle survives in this climate.
WarkaWater also uses what is known as the Lotus effect in its fabrics. The effect refers to the self-cleaning properties of the lotus leaf due to extremely high hydrophobicity that allows water droplets to roll off the leaf, leaving it dry and clean as the water picks up dirt.
Lastly, WarkaWater utilises the secrets of the spiders. There are countless examples of natural life interacting with water and air in unique and unusual ways at a nanoscopic scale. It’s important to identify and study these interactions, so we may apply them to develop high-efficiency technologies. The silk weave of spiders, in this vein, has the capability to collect water from its environment due to the structure of the fibre and the nature of the weave itself.
Vittori and his team even studied termite mound structures to accentuate airflow through the outershell of the structure.
WarkaWater fuses all this natural knowledge to build the best water-collection structure possible using special materials and coatings to further enhance condensation, flow and storage of water.
Ethiopia’s water woes
The average Ethiopian ideally needs 15 litres of water per day. By comparison, developed countries use more than 300 litres. WarkaWater has a modest aim: to provide 100 litres of potable water per day for every rural Ethiopian. It’s designed for ease and built by local villagers without machines, with the potential to radically change the socio-economic landscape of these under-privileged regions.
Nearly 85.3% of Ethiopia is rural, and due to lack of sanitation, diseases spread easily. Only 44% of Ethiopians have access to water, and even lower than that, only 34% of rural Ethiopians have access to water. And, these statistics don’t include clean water. The scarcity has become, both, their black horse and pale horse.
Yet, Ethiopia is a beautiful land of abundant natural resources (including gold), wide range of altitude and climatic variations, all under threat of deforestation, climate change, desertification, inefficient agricultural practices like the common slash-and-burn techniques. This backwardness also threatens Ethiopian resources from those looking to exploit its natural wealth.
If the WarkaWater becomes a large-scale success, it would mean an invigoration of local economy where walking miles to collect water from morbid ponds becomes a discarded tradition. Women and children can invest time in productive activities. So, there’s a larger empowerment potentially at play.
Taking up the gauntlet
Creating a tall, self-supporting structure that does not interfere with natural surroundings, especially by way of earth excavation, is AV’s biggest challenge. The next is to limit this simple technology to natural, locally-available and sustainable materials. It’s a low-tech ecological approach that is expected to work in vegetal, arid and coastal regions.
Their first prototype took nearly four months to design, and it has taken AV three complete years to finally reach its latest prototype (still in development) WarkaWater v3.1.
A technology that takes 4 days to build
WarkaWater v3.1, now, stands 10 metres tall and weighs 60 kilograms. The device comes in five modules that can easily be assembled by six people without the need of scaffoldings (or, even a ladder). With this (literally) handful of manpower, it takes four days to build WarkaWater and only three days to assemble it. If the model can be scaled, we’re looking at a cost-reduction in manufacture, bringing down its value to ~$1000 per tower, a smidgen compared to current water-collection technologies.
Right now, there are nine full-scale prototypes of the WarkaWater. WarkaWater v3.1 will be their 10th prototype ready for a test pilot scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2015.
More than just water
Because, just building a structure is not enough, AV goes a step further than most. It has plans to institute water management programs that teach Ethiopians the best practices of using, distributing and recycling harvest water. Eventually, they hope to see WarkaWater snowball into a change that introduces shared internet connections between rural villages to help them stay up-to-date with weather changes, good practices and market prices of crops (Ethiopia’s rich climate allows cultivation of diverse food produce).
The disappearing warka
The Ficus vasta is called warka in Amharic. It’s a fig plant that’s gradually teetering towards endangered existence. For every WarkaWater constructed, AV, as an obligation, plants a warka tree to counterbalance deforestation. The tree, native to Ethiopia, also provides a better environment for the WarkaWater to function. It’s yet another display of how dedicated AV is to sustainable vernacular architecture.
WarkaWater is not simply a story of technological innovation, but a testament to all that is possible even after you deliberately limit yourselves to a fastidious and stringent manifesto. It tells you: ‘It’s possible.’