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From Cotton Candy
                                  to    Beer

Fog catchers bring

Chile's Atacama Desert into bloom

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Sandra Weiss




It comes unexpectedly and is feared because it mercilessly makes you lose your orientation in the desert of Chile. The Atacama Indians have therefore christened the Pacific coastal fog "camanchaca" - darkness.


Carlos Alberto Espinosa was seven years old when he saw the "camanchaca" for the first time: "I was visiting relatives in the saltpetre mine Maria Elena. One morning the fog suddenly appeared. We had never seen anything like it before and initially thought it was candy floss, so we ran after it," he says. Today Espinosa is 90 years old and frail, but his eyes light up when he talks about the dense fog that forms over the coastal mountains of the South Pacific. Two decades after this key experience, Espinosa was professor of experimental physics at the University of Chile and the child's play had turned into a scientific obsession. How do humans manage to imitate insects and plants that survive?

The Atacama Indians have christened the Pacific coastal fog "camanchaca" - darkness. 

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„Here on this mountain there has always been fog, but we didn't pay any attention to it," says farmer Daniel Rojas, his grey hair ruffled by the icy wind. With a sweeping movement of his hand he points to what the "camanchaca" of the Cerro Grande shows: stones, cacti, bushes. Rojas is the mayor of Peña Blanca, a village of 85 inhabitants south of the coastal town of La Serena.

When he first took office in 2000, the place was doomed to extinction. The desertification swallowed up the arable land and a free trade agreement with the USA dealt the deathblow to the region's traditional wheat cultivation. The subsidised wheat from the USA was much cheaper, and the wheat from the desert was no longer profitable.

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Espinosa fiddled about - and finally found the answer in a dense net made of nylon. "Previously we tried metal threads, but they polluted the water. Nylon, on the other hand, has a similar cooling effect and leaves no residue," says Espinosa.


The condensed drop caught in the net and gravity then caused it to fall into a groove that led into a plastic barrel.


IIn 1956, Espinosa's home town of Antofagasta suffered from a severe drought; drinking water became scarce so together with an engineer friend, Espinosa sat up the first fog collectors.

They didn't really solve the problem - the amount was far too small and the wind knocked the construct over several times - but it worked.

"The greatest treasure of fog water is its purity; thanks to the high UV radiation in the Atacama Desert, it is completely germ-free."

The challenge was to fine-tune the prototype and find financiers. This made him the pioneer of Chile's fog catchers.


But science is expensive, and to most financiers the idea seemed absurd. "Until we tried polyethylene nets," explains geographer Pilar Cereceda, who joined the fog collectors a few years later as director of the Atacama Desert Centre. The cheap nets, which are also used in construction or in tree nurseries, were stretched between wooden stakes. "This pays for itself within two years," says the pragmatic scientist.

In 1992, she installed the first nets in the fishing village of Chungungo. The village of 400 inhabitants lived from fishing, but families had to buy drinking water from the iron ore mine El Tofo, 40 kilometres away. When the mine closed, the village became depopulated. Until the fog catchers came and set up 85 of their nets.



This enabled 300,000 litres of water per year to be condensed. At the same time, Cereceda's students taught the fishermen how to use the water sparingly. Many emigrants returned to the village. Some years later electricity came; finally the government even installed a seawater desalination plant which made the fog catchers superfluous.

Chile is a centralised country: in the capital Santiago, everything revolves around large-scale projects and profit maximisation. Politicians rarely took an interest in communities like Peña Blanca, which struggle to survive. Once again it was Cereceda who heard about the problems of the place and sent the student Nicolas Schneider to sound out the installation of a fog catcher. "It wasn't easy, in the desert every metre of soil is valuable, and the hill was good pasture land," Rojas recalls. But the mayor himself liked the idea. "Water was scarce, the village was dying out. It was worth a try," says Rojas. The municipality ceded 100 hectares for the experiment.

Sixteen spider webs were installed in Peña Blanca. Each condenses 2000 litres per year.

The water is mainly used for reforestation and as water for livestock. In addition, a small environmental centre has been installed, which is mainly attended by schools from the surrounding area. "Theoretically, one could increase the amount of water and use it for irrigating the fields. But they are seven kilometres away, and pipes are expensive", says Schneider.

Politicians rarely took an interest in communities like Peña Blanca, which struggle to survive.

One man's suffering, another man's joy: in this case the beneficiary is Miguel Carcuro.

Once a week, the brewer from La Serena comes to Peña Blanca in his pickup truck to pick up a canister of 250 litres of fog water.

From this he brews ‘Cloud Beer Scottish Ale’ together with his brother. "The fog water has less suspended matter and lime - you can taste it", says Carcuro. A dozen restaurants and hotels are among his regular customers. Some have even visited the environmental centre in Peña Blanca. The Carcuros are now planning to install a small branch of their brewery in the village. "It would be a great tourist attraction," says Mayor Rojas.

But Espinosa is convinced that the fog water is much more than a marketing gag. "The greatest treasure of fog water is its purity. Thanks to the high UV radiation in the Atacama Desert, it is completely germ-free, while the atmosphere and the groundwater are becoming increasingly polluted," the scientist emphasises.


Will humanity one day depend on fog to quench its thirst? Espinosa will probably not live to see it. Nor will he derive any financial benefit from it. In 1963, he gave the patent to UNESCO; since then, it has been used in countries like Haiti, Yemen, Namibia, Cape Verde and Peru. "You are either a scientist or an entrepreneur", pronounce the 90-year-old. "You can't do both."

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