Two remote villages in the UR Tambo region of the Eastern Cape, Lufuku and Lugazo, and two primary schools, Makulu and Mtambalala in neighboring Kotuini, have benefited from a revolutionary new technology that literally turns air into water.
Between August and November 2022, each household in the two villages received two types of hydroponic water, capable of producing six to eight liters of potable water per day. Then early this year Maqulu Middle School received 150 boards, and Mtambalala 50.
Today an estimated 2,500 people benefit from access to a reliable stream of clean and safe drinking water.
When the panels began to be installed in 2022, they had to be transported by helicopter, as the villages and dwellings are remote and there are no roads leading to them. Since then, the villagers and children have been relieved of the daily burden of fetching water from the rivers. In an area of extreme poverty, access to clean water has improved the quality of life of residents.
According to Rob Bartrop of Source Water, the US company that makes the panels, the technology has unique applicability to villages like this one. Since many homes have thatched roofs, JoJo tanks are not suitable for water harvesting; The use of pit latrines means contamination of the water table.
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When it comes to schools that need water for cooking as well as drinking, hydro panels save money that previously had to be used from National School Feeding Program grants to buy water – meaning more money can now be spent on food.
The novelty of the technology means that the Department of Operations, Energy and Environmental Technology (PEETS) at the University of Johannesburg has also been attracted as a partner, examining the impact of the project on school enrolment and gender-based violence (women and men). Girls at risk when walking for water), unplanned pregnancy and economic gain. PEETS’ goals are to “demonstrate technology, engage with local governments, publish research findings, and develop policy briefs.”
Enter Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
Providing clean water to schools and villages is the brainchild of a billionaire philanthropist Dr. Patrick Soon Xiong. Everything from the helicopter to the panels themselves was funded by the Chan Soon Xiong Family Foundation.
Soon Xiong Ho is a leading medical scientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He was brought up in Gqeberha, studied medicine at Wits, and says he was “the first South African Chinese to work as an apprentice in a white hospital”, the old Joburg (now Charlotte Mackesi) general. He left South Africa in 1977 and had a very successful career in medicine in the United States, including the invention and development of the successful cancer drug Abraxane.
There is an abundant reservoir of water in the air that is constantly replenished by evaporation of sea water.
In an interview with Daily MaverickSoon-Shiong said he views access to clean water as a vital aspect to South Africa’s ability to succeed as a country, but also as a “hanging fruit”. He says the partnership with Source is a start toward building affordable and accessible clean water infrastructure. Waterboards are a short term solution [for communities without water infrastructure] But to create scalable water, we need massive desalination projects,” he says.
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Soon Xiong says he was an early investor in Sourcewater. After using it successfully to supply water to the Apache and Navajo nations of the United States, he says he saw its potential value in South Africa. As a result, it became an initiative of his family’s foundation, which he describes as “a business enterprise, not a think tank. It’s a very quiet foundation that literally does things quietly,” he says.
Shiong was soon coy about the cost of financing the hydro reactors, estimated at a few million dollars, saying he was “not looking at it in terms of the financial cost, but rather its impact”.
“The only reward we want is a song,” he says, “from Happy Kids.”
Soon-Shiong is deeply committed to South Africa and in the course of the interview reflects on other ambitious health projects he has initiated here. “Until you show something like what we did with Source, change won’t happen… Source is an important start, but the real opportunity is to bring about infrastructural change for the good in the country.”
Bartrop, chief revenue officer at Source, who spoke to him Daily Maverick From his home in Australia, he explains that the two Eastern Cape villages were chosen precisely because of their remoteness, saying the source technology – unique in the world – is “the only option for the most vulnerable rural places” when it comes to accessing clean drinking water.
Problems requiring such technology include a lack of infrastructure and a “general lack of access to water and water quality”, all characteristic of the rural Eastern Cape.
However, says Bartrop, in contrast to the water scarcity in many villages and small towns across South Africa, “there is an abundant reservoir of water in the air that is continually replenished by evaporation of seawater.”
It is a human consequence of the villagers but also a potential catalytic consequence of where we think technology can go.
Technology makes drinking water where people need it. It is derived from a pure, renewable, climate-resilient resource, and requires no electrical lines, pumps, treatment plants, or miles of water pipes.”
Bartrop says the technology was invented by Source founder Cody Friesen in 2015 and is already in use in 52 countries and is “getting better every year.”
The big advantage, according to Bartrop, is that “unlimited scalability” and the higher the scale the lower the unit costs.
It’s also easy to install: “You and I can set it up in 15 minutes,” he says.
Before the panels were installed, a thorough process of community participation took place, from house to house, obtaining the understanding and approval of the villagers.
“Members of society are happy with it. It empowers them. Drinking water is what people used to walk miles for; dirty water is what makes people sick. Because of polluted water, people choose high-sugar syrup or a plastic bottle as an alternative. So this is the most socially harmful.” economic and environmental.”
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Twenty people recruited from the local community in Luphoko and Lujazu installed the panels. Locally hired people also maintain it.
In response to a question about the reliability of the water supply, he indicated that “storing water generated from hydro panels is easier than storing electricity from solar panels.” He explains that each board has a battery and a 30-liter storage container built into it, and the boards at Maqulu Junior School have a storage unit of 15,000 liters.
Bartrop believes there are factors unique to South Africa that offer an advantage for scaling up technology, such as everyone’s constitutional right to “adequate water”, as well as the “rare community cohesion” and collaboration.
He says that his visit to the villages “was a life-changing journey.”
Currently, the Source Water technology is limited to one municipality in the Eastern Cape. But Bartrop speaks positively of their associations with the ANC in the region, the national government and the National Water Research Commission. “It’s a human consequence of the villagers but also a potential catalytic consequence of where we think technology can go” to provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people. DM
This story first appeared in Our Weekly 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R29.