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People who Harvest Fogs

November 01, 2014

Drought has hit parts of Indonesia. Climate change has exacerbated the sufferings of impoverished farmers, leaving only a handful who managed to stay in the rice fields. This is a story about farmers who try to survive amid the drought, and find a way out by harvesting fogs.

Ekuatorial.com, Semarang. All afternoon Kasilah had been weaving a net. The edge had frayed from prolonged use. She had to quickly close the hole in the corner of the net, or else, her ripening golden rice would be eaten by birds. From the walk path she pulled a long bamboo stick on the edge of the net to shoo the birds away.

This year, the dry season had been too long and her rice fields had cracked. Nevertheless, Kasilah, 64, kept her spirit up. The grandmother of 12 had only the 200-square-meter rice fields for her family to depend on.

Dusk was coming in September and she was still holding on to the hope that harvest would be abundant at the end of the month although every single day she had to fight the pests that wanted to eat her rice.
“This paddy field has to be looked after because our daily needs depend on the harvest,” she said. But Kasilah knew, the harvest had been less and less reliable for her family to depend on. The problem was the rice that started out to grow well often ended up withered and died because of lack of water or eaten by pests.

She had been waiting for rains that never came.

“In the past few years, rains rarely come in July or August, unlike it used to be, when rains came in the middle of the year,” she said.

Her rice field had been getting water only from irrigation channels that received liquid waste from nearby housing complex. “If I don’t tend to this rice fields, I would not have anything. Harvests are possible but not like before. I would be lucky if I could get 10 sacks because many husks are empty. I get only few grains, whereas the cost to buy net can reach Rp 1 million (US$69),” she said.

Kasilah said that ever since many rice fields were converted into housing complexes or shops, the number of pests that preyed on her rice was multiplied and quickly destroy her rice. “Before, rice fields spanned from there until that end,” she pointed at the end of the road.

Kasilah’s rice field is only one among dozens others that dried and cracked. In Meteseh, the neighboring village in Semarang, Central Java, the rice fields had been deserted by the owners. Wild plants had replaced the rice.

No one hoped for rains anymore.

“The owner has never visited the rice fields anymore,” Karjo, 34, a Meteseh villager, said.

Not far from Meteseh village, in Deliksari Kampung and Kalialang Kampung in Semarang, the Sendang Gayam spring that used to supply enough water for 900 families had no longer given enough. The volume of the water had steadily been decreasing.

“The water trickles so we have to take turns now and can only take two containers per week. And we have to walk two kilometers up the hill,” Marsudi from Deliksari said. “The water tank from the government comes but only once in a while.”

To supply the clean water, the government sends water tanks, build a water storage installation, and builds wells to minimize the impact of drought.

The Disaster Mitigation Board of Semarang has prepared 3,000 water tanks following the increasing number of areas that suffer from drought. The head of exploitation section at the Water Resource Management Office, Arus Horizon, acknowledged that the water volume in several large dams in the area, especially Kedungombo Dam, which supplies water to agriculture fields in Grobogan, Demak, Pati, Kudus, and Jepara, had been decreasing.

His office even estimated that the water supply would not cover the needs for the start of planting season in early November, two months from now. Last year, he said, Kedungombo recorded a water surplus.
“Kedungombo needs special attention because of the rate of evaporation is high because of the extreme weather. The water level has been decreasing. Actually, about 5 million cubic meter of water there has been evaporated,” Arus said.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) in Central Java has predicted that the air temperature from September to October 2014 would be extreme. The analysis came from the position of the sun that would be right above the equator line ini September to October. The close position to the sun has made equatorial countries like Indonesia get a high intensity of sunlight, which leads to the increasing temperature on the earth surface.

In addition, the monsoon wind from Australia in the southeast is hot and dry.

“In a situation like this, the temperature could hit an extreme 35 to 40 degree Celsius,” said Reni Kraningtyas, the head of data and information section at the BMKG in Semarang. “We call it extreme when the temperature has hit 35 degree Celsius and above,” she said.

She said this year the drought had little to do with El Nino because the condition in the Java Sea were equally warm so it allowed for the formation of clouds. Therefore, rains still poured in several parts of Central Java, but not at a normal intensity.

However, the global climate change has made rainy season hard to predict anymore, whereas 10 to 20 years ago, in Semarang the farmers could always plan their planting and harvesting season regularly because the seasons were not erratic.

“In the past, the start of the rainy season would be off a week after or before at the most, so we could time the planting season with the water supply from the irrigation,” several farmers interviewed by Ekuatorial said. “But now, it can be off a very long time and the irrigation water has been drained by the time we start planting.”

Drought Emergency
Semarang is one among 12 regencies and municipalities in Central Java that have declared drought emergency status. “Almost 60 persen of the 35 regency-municipality in Central Java are prone to drought. [The 12] are the worst from 24 regencies-municipalities that are prone to drought,” J. Tambunan, the Director of Emergency Disaster Management, said in Semarang.

The head of Horticulture and Crops Protection Office (BPTPH) in Central Java, Siti Narwanti, said that from August last month, at least 9,691 hectares of rice fields in 20 regencies/municipalities dried and 319 hectares were arid.

Combining statistics from January until the middle of August, the drought has dried 118,081 hectares of fields and rendered 10,700 hectares arid. The widest harvest failure was recorded in Grobogan and Cilacap. “And the number is likely increasing because the dry season is predicted to stay longer,” Siti sadi. “But we still hope it won’t derail the rice production target on the 1.6 million hectares of fields because fields in Batang, Pekalongan, Pemalang and Brebes are still yielding.”

Meanwhile, BMKG’s Climatology Station in Semarang has predicted that the dry season would stay until November with highest temperature at 34 degree Celsius.

The longer dry spell would happen in east part of the Java’s northern coast like Rembang, Pati, Blora, Demak and Semarang. “The prolonged dry spell is caused by low category El Nino that leads to a wet dry season. Rain would come in the third week of November,” Reni of BMKG said.

The head of Indonesian Prosperous Fishermen Farmer Association in Central Java, Riyono, said that drought happened because of the manmade environmental damage. “The failure in the irrigation system, the disappearing water retention capacity in productive land and the dysfunctional on-farm reservoirs. Not to mention the deforestation or land conversion. This has been an accumulation of problems,” he said.

Riyono said this situation had become a cliché that never found any breakthrough methods to adapt. He mentioned the great drought in 2007, when about 118,000 hectares or 50 percent of the rice fields in Central Java had harvest failure, threatening the rice stock in the province. “Central Java’s harvest rate stays at 4 to 6 metric tons of dry-milled rice for every hectare of field while the potential is actually 8 tons per hectare,” he said.

Missing Information
In the past few years, BMKG Semarang has utilized technology to distribute information about weather and climate. They use radio to release such information every hour. There is also a real time information the public can access through BMKG’s website. The office also used phone app Whatsapp for messages, not to mention wires to send information on the latest weather reports.

However, as Sukarno said, “Although the public or farmers can register to get the reports, so far no one has done so.”

Farmers like Kasilah, Karjo or Masudi had indeed never heard of such service from BMKG. They said officials from the agriculture office had never come to tell them about the weather reports nor they ever received any phone short messages about it. Moreover, not many farmers in the area had cell phones, therefore an actual visit from government officials are still needed.

Harvesting Fog
Although no information has ever come, there is hope amid the parched land and the crackle from the heated rice stalks.

In the middle of last year, 2013, four students from Civic Engineering and Environment Department at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) did a community development program in Ngoho in Kemitir Village, in Sumowono District in Semarang.

“The villagers were facing a water crisis and we notice that the village is on a highland and foggy,” Aditya, one of the students said. “We want to help them with a solution.”

Many Ngoho villagers had neglected their fields and let them parched on the heels of water shortage. They usually return to planting when rains come. During the waiting period the farmers would go to cities to find seasonal jobs.

Out six of absorption wells, 25 to 45 meters deep, only two produced water in the village. Even the artesian well provided by Central Java’s Geology Board, which was 185 meters deep, could not supply enough water for the 350 families of Ngoho. The pipes channeling the water from the wells to the households were no longer filled with water.

Some villagers pitched in some money to buy water from tanks for drinking and cooking while for washing and bathing they would go to Bandungan or Sumowono River by chartering a pickup truck.
It turned out the solution like Aditya said had been right in front of their eyes.

“The village’s fog is plenty and can be used. A year later, we introduced to them fog harvesting technology,” said Puji Utomo, member of Fog Harvesting Technology Development Team from UGM. Using only Rp 9 million of grants from the education ministry, they started the project.

Puji said the fog harvesting technology was developed from simple tools. To catch and collect water in the fog, villagers would need mesh, drain pipe, pole, pipes, hose, and jerry cans. “We have tried with 1 x 1 meter mesh and we installed the drain pipe along the edge to catch the dripping water. Calculating the wind direction and the altitude, that size of mesh can harvest 2.74 liter to 10 liters of water per day,” Puji said.

In ideal condition, with assumption of 80 percent of efficiency rate, the water supply from fog harvesting using 1 x 1 meter mesh could reach 8 liters a day, Puji said. Using 16 square meters of mesh could harvest 102.4 liter of water per day.

Fog harvesting can be employed to supply water needs for a household with estimated of 10 liter per day per person and 20 liter per day per person for cooking.

“Besides observation, the potential of yield is predicted by calculating meteorology data, the water drop amount, the size of mesh, velocity of wind and fog duration. We can only modify wind direction and the mesh because other factors depend on the weather and the environment,” Puji went on.

“We install the fog harvesting using 8-meter mesh, shaped like an L to increase the harvest,” said Vianita Meiranti Yogamitria, another team member. All the fog harvesting materials like mesh from polypropylene plastic, hollow iron, gutter, containers, PVC pipes, hose, wires, cement, sand and small gravel stones only cost the villagers Rp 400,000. The cost can be minimized by using materials that are easily found nearby.

The villagers would only need to buy mesh at Rp 10,000 per meter, PVC pipes, hose and gutter, while hollow iron can be replaced with bamboo poles that are planted only several centimeters in the ground. The frames for the mesh can also use bamboos.

“We adjust the materials to the availability and the funding so it can be applied easily. We try hard to use local materials without compromising the results. We only need to adjust the efficiency of the mesh,” Vianita said.
The types of materials of course influence the water yields, especially the mesh because different type would result in different water volume. One example of substitute for mesh is fronds of palm that grow in Ngoho. Another experiment was using fiber material.

The harvesting equipment can work manually. Only by “netting” the stratocumulus cloud, the cloud that bring millions of water droplets blown by the wind came close to the ground in the mountain and stick to the mesh. The gravitation will drip the droplets down to the gutter along the bottom of the mesh, and then channeled into the pipes and ended in the jerry cans.

“Fog is actually low-lying cloud on the surface of the earth that contains millions of very small water droplets that float in the air. That is why this equipment can condense fog into water,” said Vianita.

The fog harvesting is later combined with drip irrigation system on the farms to allow for a more efficient use of water from fog. The drip irrigation system also uses gravitation principles. “We use drip irrigation system equipment, which are tubing and drip the water into the ground. The investment is also affordable for the farmers,” Puji Utomo said.

Weather has a significant role in the application of the innovative technology of fog harvesting, which is actually traditional and simple. But water resulting from the different equipment also different in volume. The volume will depend on fog duration, amount of droplets in the fog, wind velocity and direction, and efficiency of the mesh. Humidity and temperature also influence results.

“In the dry season we usually could not plant, but with the fog harvesting equipment we can deal with the water shortage and we can gain yields from the crops. The main equipment of the fog harvesting is the mest with small holes that can trap the fog,” a villager said.

In Kemitir village, the 8 x 1 meter mesh is divided into two 4 x 1 mesh, and planted 2 to 3 meters from the ground using bamboo poles. Throughout night and dawn, the droplets trapped in the mesh would drip into the gutter, either from plastic or half bamboo, and from there flow into the hose into a large bucket.

The fog harvesting equipment installed on the Sumowono hill, 1,500 meters above the sea. The village in Semarang regency in the Ungaran highland borders with Temanggung regency and has fogs all year long. Almost every morning, the low-lying clouds appear, even during the dry season. But fog decreases during rainy season. “Fog harvesting is more suitable during a long dry season,” Puji said.

Although located in highlands, the villagers rely on rainwater for their water supply and their absorption wells. Therefore, from July to October in the dry season the villagers who are mostly farmers face hardship. They often experience harvest failure because of the water shortage. Water for daily needs is hard to come by let alone for watering 75 hectares of farmland. The problem is the absorbed water “runs” down to lower villages.

In Indonesia, fog harvesting technology has been initiated in Ngoho, Kemitir village. “But in other countries the technology has developed. The results are also different, depending on the fog potential, altitude, and wind velocity,” said Aditya Rizki Taufani, one of the initiators of fog harvesting in Ngoho.

He said the fog harvesting can also be combined with drip irrigation, where water coming out from the hose can be controlled and distributed to as many plants as possible.

According to Puji, each equipment in Kemitir can harvest 25 liters of water per day for agriculture. “This is a simple technology and the fog potential is high here, even during the day,” he said.

Fog harvesting has shown promising results. “I have harvested chilli on this land eight times,” Utomo, a vegetable farmer in Ngoho, said while sorting his chilli harvest. He had 1,000 chilli plants that are six months old and had to be renewed. “I water them with fog water every day,” said Utomo, who is the head of Kemitir village. He got the water from the fog equipment planted on the edge of his farmland. Every morning he got 20 to 25 liters of water and it was enough to water his field.

Dry season had pushed chilli prices up to Rp 24,000 (US$2.40) per kilogram. The high prices encourged Utomo to keep his farm well. That day he decided against harvesting his chilli after seeing many were still green. But he was sure the plants, which had yielded hundreds of kilograms of chillis, would give him the last harvest. “The water is enough, I am sure I can harvest one more time,” he said.

Sumowono district is the biggest chilli supplier in Semarang regency, with chilli fields as vast as 600 hectares and produce up to 35,000 cubic meter of chillis every year. During the dry season, the harvests are satisfactory although no rain came in the last four months because, thanks to fog harvesting, the farmlands still get some water.

IGG Maha Adi, Nonie Arnee (Semarang)


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