Advanced hydropanels. Clean drinking water.

An estimated 6 million people in South Africa don’t have adequate access to water and sanitation. Of this number, some 3.5 million don’t have access to safe drinking water. This not only affects their ability to drink, eat, cook, grow crops and clean, it also makes them more susceptible to diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid.

While these are national issues, the Eastern Cape is one of the hardest hit provinces. With some of the highest levels of poverty, unemployment, and underdeveloped infrastructure in the country, access to clean water is just one of its many problems.

In 2023, the University of Johannesburg’s Process, Energy and Environmental Technology Station (UJ PEETS) launched the Eastern Cape Water Provision Project to address this. UJ PEETS supports capacity-building and policy-influencing initiatives, and provides engineering and technology development assistance to SMEs. Its primary priority is the growth of the green economy. The project also involved UJ’s Faculty of Health Science Water and Health Research Centre.

“The Water Provision Project aimed to improve access to quality water in selected villages in the Eastern Cape,” explains Dr Kousar Hoorzook, UJ PEETS’ Programme Manager for Water Quality and Management. “We did this by installing advanced hydropanels that are capable of harvesting clean water from atmospheric vapour and providing it directly into the hands of community members.”

Laying the groundwork

In deciding where this groundbreaking project would be rolled out, the PEETS team looked for remote and isolated villages that had no reticulated water supply. Whether these villages had plans in place for future infrastructure investment, and how they were affected by water scarcity and climate change, were other contributing factors. The villages also had to be small enough for every household to receive two panels, since only a limited number were available at the time.

The villages of Luphoko and Lujazu in the OR Tambo District were ultimately selected, as were two primary and high schools in Mthambalala and Cutwini. By installing panels at the schools, the project ensured that learners had access to water both at home and during their school day, and made additional water available to villagers.

Before the project came into being, residents — typically women and children — would walk to rivers several kilometres away multiple times a day. They also harvested rain water, which wasn’t treated, and put people at risk of contracting water-borne diseases. Since the villages are located in mountainous areas and don’t have access to electricity, the installation of boreholes has never been an option.

“The project was deeply collaborative, and we worked closely with local communities to assess their challenges and needs,” says Dr Hoorzook. “Once the project was fully under way, we also ran several training sessions, where community members were taught how the hydropanels work, how to take care of them, and how to collect and store the water the hydropanels produce.”

How the hydropanels work

“There are several different types of technology that involve extracting moisture from air to produce potable water,” says Dr Hoorzook. “But the technology we chose to deploy is one of the first built within a solar panel. This made it ideally suited to our villages, which required a totally off-grid solution.”

The hydropanels are developed by SOURCE Global, a US-based company on a mission to perfect drinking water for everyone, no matter where they are in the world. SOURCE’s hydropanels create drinking water using only sunlight and air, and also purify and treat the water so that it is immediately safe to drink. “You can literally open a tap attached to the panel and water comes out,” Dr Hoorzook adds.

SOURCE also provides 24/7 monitoring of its panels, and trains people to keep an eye out on the ground. A local resident has been trained on the panels in the Eastern Cape. He regularly checks them to ensure that they’re working correctly and, if there are any issues, he has a direct line to the team at SOURCE, who can help to arrange for repairs to be made.

There are challenges, however. Some hydropanels are best placed close to the ground, and have had their antennas and taps broken by children playing nearby. Ensuring that community members understand some of the more technical aspects of the panels has also proven to be problematic at times. A small amount of water, for example, always needs to be left behind in the panel — it shouldn’t be drained completely. This is important for the panels to function properly.

Cross-contamination between river water and the clean panel-produced water has proven to be another concern. “The communities we’re working in are poor, and they don’t have multiple containers in order to keep their river water separate from their drinking water,” says Dr Hoorzook. “SOURCE has stepped in here, and is providing additional containers to households and schools. Different interventions are required every time we visit the villages.”

While SOURCE provided the technology for this project, the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation provided the funding, including transporting the panels to the villages by helicopter. Soon-Shiong is a medical scientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist who grew up in Gqeberha and studied medicine at Wits University. He has lived in the United States since 1977.

An ongoing journey

About 400 hydropanels have been installed since the project began. In the process, they have transformed the lives of over 1,000 local residents who no longer have to carry potentially contaminated drinking water long distances every day.

While the project is self-sustaining at the moment, the relationships that have been formed are ongoing — UJ PEETS is still working with SOURCE. With additional funding, it would be possible to make this technology available to other villages across the Eastern Cape and the rest of South Africa.

“As different organisations come to address the world’s most pressing issues through technology, ingenuity and good will,” Dr Hoorzook adds, “there is no limit to the changes we can create.” Read more here…

harvesting-air-for-water

“The Water Provision Project aimed to improve access to quality water in selected villages in the Eastern Cape,” explains Dr Kousar Hoorzook

The villages of Luphoko and Lujazu in the OR Tambo District were ultimately selected, as were two primary and high schools in Mthambalala and Cutwini.

“The communities we’re working in are poor, and they don’t have multiple containers in order to keep their river water separate from their drinking water,” says Dr Hoorzook. “SOURCE has stepped in here, and is providing additional containers to households and schools. Different interventions are required every time we visit the villages.”

“As different organisations come to address the world’s most pressing issues through technology, ingenuity and good will,” Dr Hoorzook adds, “there is no limit to the changes we can create.”