the lede Politics

Silver Lining

How Peru’s poorest are solving their water woes

By CLAUDIA BELLANTE | 1 April 2017

On one of the hills on the outskirts of Lima, the capital of Peru, stands an installation by the artist Sandra Nakamura, inspired by the United States’s Hollywood Sign. The large letters of the work say, “UNA PROMESA ES UNA NUBE,” or “A promise is a cloud”—a reference to an Arabic proverb: “A promise is a cloud; the fulfilment is the rain.”

The sign’s full import, though, would be lost on those unfamiliar with Lima’s socio-economic realities. The majority of the city’s urban poor live on its fringes, in slums scattered across the hills above Lima. These localities—called asentamientos humanos, or human settlements—are barely fit for humans. With clouds covering the hills, the settlements are enveloped by fog for most of the year. They have few roads, no property titles for people’s homes and, most importantly, no running water. For people’s daily needs, the Lima municipality’s tanker trucks deliver water, which can be five times more expensive than the running water supplied to more affluent areas. The only other source is the polluted Lurin river, whose water must be boiled before consumption.

But, over the past few years, people living in these hills have found an unusual solution. They harvest the fog surrounding their homes by using atrapanieblas, or fog catchers—large nylon nets that collect dew, held up vertically by bamboo poles. Channels placed under the nets transport the water into storage containers that then deliver water directly to people’s homes through pipes. This water is not potable, but people use it for washing, cleaning and irrigation. Though similar techniques have been used in other countries, including Israel and Chile, in Peru, fog harvesting has become a movement which is called Peruanos Sin Agua, or Peruvians Without Water. People all over the country are installing atrapanieblas to solve problems of water scarcity.

The movement was started by 50-year-old Abel Cruz Gutierrez. He himself dealt with water scarcity 20 years ago, when he came to Lima from rural Peru in search of a better life. He ended up in a settlement surrounded by dunes in Ancón, a foggy desert 40 kilometres north of the capital. “I came alone because my wife, who is a teacher, told me that she had not studied so much to live in a sandpit,” Gutierrez told me last July. “But my dream was to be an environmental engineer, so I enrolled at the National Agrarian University and stayed.”

“In Ancón, as in other communities in the area, there was no water,” Gutierrez said. “Sedapal”—the public company that supplies water in Lima—“told us it would be better if the people from human settlements came down to the city, because water will never come to the hills. So we began thinking of alternatives. And, after much research, we devised the first atrapaniebla ten years ago.”

Gutierrez’s technical knowledge has been key to the movement’s success. “Whenever a settlement asks us to install a fog catcher, we conduct a survey in the area to see if it can work,” he said. “It is essential to assess humidity, altitude and wind direction, especially at night. The cost of a fog-collection setup ranges from 2,500 to 3,500 Peruvian soles”—between $750 and $1,050—“depending on the size and quality of the materials used. Each net captures water from 200 to 350 litres per day and can fill a tank of 1,100 litres in three days.”

The area’s eccentric weather has worked in Gutierrez’s favour. “Lima is a unique city geographically and climatically,” he explained. “It stands on a desert, despite being oceanfront … Its temperatures are not very high, despite its proximity to the equator, and a layer of clouds covers it permanently, raising the humidity to 98 percent. This makes the life of those who live in the hills very hard, but, at the same time, allows fog catchers to work perfectly.”

Peruanos Sin Agua claims to be serving ten million people in the country, in regions where water is scarce. The Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, elected in June 2015, had pledged 35 billion soles—roughly $11 million—for water and sanitation during the five years of his government, but the money is yet to reach Gutierrez. Meanwhile, Gutierrez has already managed to secure nearly over $4 million from private sponsors for Peruanos Sin Agua. This would allow Gutierrez to buy 500 cheap water treatment plants that use vetiver grass to help purify water. “We could also introduce a system of solar panels to be energy self-sufficient.”

The family of María Teresa Avalos was among the beneficiaries of the first atrapaniebla, which was installed ten years ago in Villa María del Triunfo—the largest slum near Lima. The 42-year-old lives with her husband and two children in a small wooden house. “People who came to see us asked how we can live here, why don’t we move somewhere else,” María Teresa told me. “But down there everything is more expensive, we could not survive.”

María Teresa hails from Ayacucho, where the Peruvian state was fighting in the 1980s and 1990s a communist insurgency. When she was ten years old, her family sent her to Lima to work as a maid, in order to protect her from the violence. Like thousands of other Peruvians forced to leave their home villages, she ended up in a human settlement. Water was a problem from the very beginning, until atrapanieblas came along.

“I participated in the placement of the first meshes and started using the water we stored in tanks for showering, washing clothes and watering plants,” she told me. “Our life has changed a lot since then. Being ‘cazadores de nubes’ is incredible”—she used the term that atrapaniebla users call themselves, which means “hunters of clouds.”

But the Avalos family still has to buy drinking water from tanker trucks of the Lima municipality. During winter, when the ground is muddy due to rains, driving up the hills becomes difficult and truck drivers jack up prices. For many families, the expense is 70-80 Peruvian soles a month—around $20—almost 10 percent of Peru’s minimum monthly wage.

But the atrapanieblas have improved the economic condition of the Avalos family. María Teresa has planted wheat, corn, squash and celery in a little orchard near her house. “It’s all organic,” she said. “From the farm to the belly, as my little daughter Arianna says.”

Inspired by Gutierrez, María Teresa’s 20-year-old son, Andrés, has enrolled in a college in Lima, where he studies civil engineering. “I would like to be part of a new generation of engineers who fight for a more equal society,” he told me, “and work for the development of the communities where the Peruvian state is not present.”

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.

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