The University of Engineering and Technology of Peru (UTEC) has come up with an innovative solution to the potable water shortage problem that troubles its inhabitants that live in the deserts between the Pacific coast and the Andes Mountains. Rainfall in south coastal Peru averages less than 150mm per year (10mm totals during the summer), and the equatorial glaciers high in the Andes have drastically receded in recent decades, so groundwater is scarce. Yet the region has greater than 95% humidity. So the solution devised by UTEC is to build an experimental billboard that takes electricity from either the power grid or a generator, condenses water from the air, purifies it, and stores it in a tank for dispensing at the base of the sign. This is a great idea, a promising idea. But work must be done to support the promise.
I saw a TED Talk by David Damberger who learned the hard way that great engineering solutions to public problems in developing nations can have many failure modes. The most vexing problem is that the Non-Governmental Organizations, the benevolent groups from developed nations that raise funding, create solutions, and deliver and install them in third-world societies, find that their machinery, their simple solutions, fail at a high rate. Usually, the staff of residents they train to operate and maintain these solutions is largely under-trained and under-funded, lacks the background mechanical or technical knowledge to make informed repairs, or they simply run out of replacement parts. The NGO did their job, patted themselves on the back, and went back home to publish their success while six months later, a year later, their grand world-changing vision stops working, grows vines and rots from disuse.
So what’s to do? Better training? More parts? More oversight? Those are answers, yes. But the best answer is that the planning, installation, operation, and upkeep need to be handled from within the developing country. This is sort-of happening in Peru with the condensing billboard, since it is one of the country’s primary universities doing the research. But what next? It is incumbent on the Peruvian people, and the government that they constitute, to establish a plan for the installation and continual maintenance of a network of condensers to be mounted inside signs, on tops of buildings, anywhere high enough to get sufficient humidity and power. It is then up to the government to guarantee the free and open access to these condensers, by force if necessary, against armed thugs who would block access, as is seen in places like Ethiopia where tribal warlords regularly take the cargo of humanitarian aid missions.
A great idea and a single point of success is not enough. Now repeat that success thousands of times all over the desert so everybody can drink, and you will have a stable, prosperous society. I should hope that the Peruvians are already on this path.