By Mark Heywood, Maverick Citizen
Two remote villages in the OR Tambo District of the Eastern Cape, Luphoko and Lujazu, and two primary schools, Maqulu and Mtambalala in nearby Cutwini, have become the beneficiaries of a revolutionary new technology that literally turns air into water.
Between August and November 2022, each household in the two villages received two hydro panels, capable of creating six to eight litres of potable water a day. Then early this year Maqulu Junior Secondary School received 150 panels, and Mtambalala 50.
Today an estimated 2,500 people are benefiting from access to a reliable stream of clean, safe drinking water.
When the panels began to be installed in 2022 they had to be flown in by helicopter, such is the remoteness of the villages and homesteads and the lack of roads to them. Since then, villagers and children have been relieved of the daily burden of collecting water from rivers. In an area of immense poverty, access to clean water has led to an improvement in the quality of life for residents.
According to Rob Bartrop from Source Water, the US company that makes the panels, the technology has unique applicability to villages such as these. Because many homes have thatched roofs, JoJo tanks are not suitable to collect water; and the use of pit toilets means the water tables are polluted.
When it comes to schools that need water for cooking as well as drinking, the hydro panels save money that had to previously be used from National School Nutrition Programme grants to buy water – meaning more money can now be spent on food.
The novelty of the technology means the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Process, Energy, and Environmental Technology Station (PEETS) has also been drawn in as a partner and is studying the impact of the project on school attendance, gender-based violence (women and girls are vulnerable when walking for water), unplanned pregnancies and economic gains. PEETS’s goals are to “demonstrate the technology, engage with local governments, publish research findings, and develop policy briefs”.
Enter Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong
Providing clean water to schools and villages is the brainchild of billionaire philanthropist Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong. Everything from the helicopter to the panels themselves has been funded by the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation.
Soon-Shiong is a ground-breaking medical scientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He grew up in Gqeberha, studied medicine at Wits and says he “was the first Chinese-South African to work as an intern in a white hospital”, the old Joburg Gen (now Charlotte Maxeke). He left South Africa in 1977 and has had an enormously successful career in medicine in the US, including inventing and developing the successful cancer drug Abraxane.
In an interview with Daily Maverick, Soon-Shiong said he regarded access to clean water as a vital aspect of South Africa’s ability to succeed as a country, but also as a “low-hanging fruit”. The partnership with Source, he says, is a beginning towards building affordable and accessible clean water infrastructure. “Hydropanels are a short-term solution [for communities without water infrastructure]but to create scalable water we need huge desalination projects,” he says.
Soon-Shiong says he was one of the first investors in Source Water. After using it successfully to provide water to the Apache and Navajo nations in the US, he says he saw its potential value in South Africa. As a result, it became an initiative of his family’s foundation, which he describes as a “do tank, not a think tank. It’s a very quiet foundation that literally just quietly does things,” he says.
Soon-Shiong was coy about how much it costs to fund the hydro panels, estimated to be quite a few million dollars, saying that “he doesn’t look at it in terms of the financial cost, but rather at its impact”.
“The only reward we want is a song” from children who are happy, he says.
Soon-Shiong is deeply committed to South Africa and in the course of the interview reflected on other ambitious health projects he has initiated here. “Until you show something like we did with Source, you are not going to get change to happen… Source is an important beginning, but the real opportunity is to really create infrastructural change for the good in the country.”
Bartrop, Source’s chief revenue officer, who spoke to Daily Maverick from his home in Australia, explained that the two Eastern Cape villages were chosen precisely because of their remoteness, saying that the Source technology – one of a kind in the world – is “the only option for the most vulnerable rural settings” when it comes to access to clean drinking water.
Problems that necessitate a technology like this include a lack of infrastructure and a “general lack of access to water and water quality”, all features of the rural Eastern Cape.
However, says Bartrop, in contrast with the water scarcity in many villages and small towns across South Africa “there is an abundant reservoir of water in the air which is constantly replenished by sea water evaporation”.
“The technology makes drinking water where people need it. It draws from a pure, renewable and climate-resilient resource, and needs no electrical lines, pumps, treatment plants or miles of water pipes.”
Bartrop says the technology was invented by Source founder Cody Friesen in 2015 and is already in use in 52 countries and is “improving year by year”.
The great advantage, according to Bartrop, is that “the scalability is infinite” and the greater the scale the lower the unit costs.
It is also simple to install: “You and I can set it up in 15 minutes,” he says.
Before installing the panels a thorough process of community engagement took place, going from homestead to homestead, getting villagers’ understanding and consent.
“Community members are thrilled with it. It’s empowering them. Drinking water is what people used to walk miles for; dirty water is what makes people sick. It’s because of polluted water that people choose a high-sugar drink or a plastic bottle as an alternative. So that’s the most damaging from a social, economic, and environmental standpoint.”
Twenty people recruited from the local community in Luphoko and Lujazu installed the panels. People recruited locally are also maintaining them.
Asked about the reliability of water supply, he pointed out that “water generated from hydro panels is easier to store than electricity from a solar panel”. He explains that each panel has a battery and a 30-litre storage container built into it, and the panels at Maqulu Junior School have a storage unit of 15 000 litres.
Bartrop believes there are unique factors in South Africa that offer an advantage for scaling up the technology, such as the constitutional right of everyone to “sufficient water”, as well as our “rare community cohesion” and cooperation.
His visit to the villages, he says, “was a life-changing trip”.
At the moment Source Water’s technology is confined to one municipality in the Eastern Cape. But Bartrop speaks positively about the engagements they have had with the ANC in the area, the national government, and the National Water Research Commission. “It’s a human outcome for the villagers but also a potentially catalytic outcome on where we think the technology could go” to provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people.