Water-from-air extractors could revolutionise rural life

A water-from-air system at a CapeNature reserve.

Two Cape Town companies  are on their way to solving South Africa’s water crisis by turning air into water.

Keenan Lawrence, who spent 19 years in East London with MBSA on the production side, is the founder of the Sustainable Operations Group.

“The concept of capturing water vapour dates back to ancient Greek times. But we now have local technology, backed by working installations, that prove that the ‘water from air’ concept is more than a pipe dream, and it is far cheaper and cleaner than any other water in South AFrica, especially bottled water,” he said.

Lawrence was the production manager at Cirrus Water before starting SOG.

Mike Murray, retired CEO and a director of Cirrus, works closely with Lawrence. He says atmospheric water generators have the potential to supply every rural village in South Africa with enough clean water for drinking and hygiene.

“I got into the ‘water from air’ business in the early 2000s while living in Zimbabwe. I imported  atmospheric water generators machines from China  and sold them in many African countries. But they were not as efficient as I wanted. My daughter was doing a Master’s degree in microbiology and virology at Rhodes University. She assisted me with taking a machine apart to find out why.”

Murray and his daughter discovered that African conditions demanded a machine to cope with lower humidity and temperature, and to use less energy. “It was then that we started ‘Built in SA’ and began manufacturing locally.”

Lawrence said that compared to atmospheric water generators the cost of building a new dam for small users was unaffordable and slow. Steps include securing the land, planning, clearing the area, building the infrastructure, reticulating the water and getting it to its point of use.

Keenan Lawrence is the founder of Sustainable Operations Group, which harvests moisture from the air.

“In fact, even extending pipes over a large area simply costs too much.”

Taking into account the full cost and the fact that dam and river water carry a host of disease risks, atmospheric water comes in at a fraction of the price. Lawrence said water from atmospheric generators can be made anywhere, and even though larger systems do need assembly they are effectively portable.

In comparison to bottled water they have a low carbon footprint, and a much lower cost.

Atmospheric water generators  are operating at various Standard Bank outlets, Siemens (Midrand), Altron, Makro, Microsoft, CapeNature, Fruitspot and several small hotels and guest houses in Cape Town.

Lawrence said the systems working in several CapeNature reserves convinced him that atmospheric water generators were the ideal solution for rural areas, with schools an ideal example of an immediate solution to a problem that is dragging on.

“I’ve got Eastern Cape blood in my veins, and I can get water to all the villages that are struggling. Without water, schools will have no option but to close during the pandemic, and who knows how long that will last,” said Lawrence.

On the money issue, he says machines that can produce 1,000 litres a day cost R400,000. But they have a long lifespan and can be powered by the sun.

“There is a lot of talk about rural economies, growing crops, beneficiation of raw materials before exportation and setting up tourist attractions. None of these things are possible without a consistent source of water. We have approached villages, set out plans for plants and are investigating cost feasibility. We are looking at irrigation, aquaponics, hydroponics and agribusiness, all adding to job creation.”

He said it was a waste of time discussing short-term water shortages without bringing the long-term issue of climate change into the picture.

“Just how long is the government going to allow people to undermine the underground water asset? There are far too many incidents of boreholes being pumped dry, creating a vacuum that is filled with water unsuitable for consumption or irrigation.

“The world does not have a water shortage problem,” said Lawrence. “The world has a critical water harvesting problem.”

Lawrence said SOG was continually investigating new technology.

“We have signed non-disclosure agreements with a few international companies but we cannot take our eye off the ball. Our immediate strength is that we have a working system, it is cost-effective, we produce locally and we are 100% BBBEE.”

By Ted Keenan

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