Chile - El Tofo / Chungungo 1987 - 2002

Update 2009 The success of the proof-of-technology project at El Tofo and the ten-year fog-water supply for the village of Chungungo continues to attract journalists and reporters. There are also many suggestions to revitalize the fog water collection system. However, until there is a major change in the community and municipality and a commitment to work on utilizing the fog as the main water supply for the village the project will not be resurrected. The fog continues to roll over the ridge at El Tofo but without the fog collectors there to remove some of the water the only users are the eucalyptus trees planted many years ago by the miners.


The large fog collectors, on the ridge line at El Tofo, were developed as a result of a proposal, from three Chilean institutions, to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada in 1985. The proposal was evaluated by Dr. Robert Schemenauer who was then working on fog chemistry and fog deposition projects for Environment Canada. This led to a proof-of-technology project in the form of a scientific/technical investigation in Chile beginning in 1987 and a concurrent pilot fog collection project (The Camanchaca Project), which led to an operational fog-water project for the village of Chungungo beginning in 1992. The work was a collaboration between IDRC, Environment Canada and the originating Chilean institutions. The Chilean institutions and their principal investigators were the University of Chile (Humberto Fuenzalida), the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (Pilar Cereceda), and the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) in the Fourth Region (Guido Soto). Support was provided as part of IDRC’s mandate to utilize scientific and technical assistance to improve conditions in developing countries.

At the time the pilot project was initiated, in an area with about 60 mm of precipitation per year, there had been sporadic studies of fog collection in Chile for perhaps 25 years and serious studies for seven years. Several prototype fog collectors had been built and different collecting meshes had been compared. There had also been a number of early attempts in various other parts of the world to construct successful fog collectors. These attempts went back to about 1900 and had failed for a variety of reasons. The goals of the proof-of-technology project in Chile were threefold: to understand the meteorological and microphysical conditions suitable for fog collection; the design of a functional, low-cost, operational fog collector; and the construction of 50 large fog collectors to provide water for a forestry plantation on an arid ridge line. IDRC was the primary funding source for the pilot project in Chile and Environment Canada provided instrumentation, scientific expertise and travel funds. Environment Canada’s contribution was through the Cloud Physics Research Division of the Atmospheric Environment Service (now Meteorological Service of Environment Canada).The three Chilean institutions provided support for their staff, instrumentation and an infrastructure that enabled the project to succeed. This project lasted from 1987 to 1991. At that time, 50 fog collectors had been successfully built and large amounts of fog water were being produced on the ridge at El Tofo.

In 1992, as a result of a year of efforts by Dr. Robert Schemenauer and Professor Pilar Cereceda, funds were provided by the Canadian Embassy in Santiago, Chilean institutions, and subsequently IDRC, to build a pipeline from the ridge collection site to the village of Chungungo on the coast. This seven kilometer buried pipeline, storage tank, and distribution system in the village were constructed under the supervision of the National Forestry Corporation in Chile’s Fourth Region (CONAF). The field site at El Tofo, Chile was also used to teach interested individuals from South America and Africa about both the science behind fog collection and how to construct fog collectors. The inauguration of the fog water supply system for the village of Chungungo took place in May 1992 with a major celebration in the village. The previous water supply, which consisted of bringing in water by truck and storing it in old oil drums, had now been replaced by running fog water in each of the more than100 homes. The system grew until there were about 100 fog collectors providing water to the village of Chungungo. An average of 15,000 L of potable water was provided each day of the year, with peak water production exceeding 100,000 L per day. The system was in operation for ten years and the village grew in size from 300 to over 600 permanent residents, with a population of several thousands in the summer. This effectively reversed the migration to the large cities. As well as an increase in population, gardens and fruit trees, electricity and a gas pump appeared.

Around 1992 there was a decision made by local politicians to cease repairing and maintaining the fog water supply system and to find an alternative conventional water supply to serve the growing community. As a result, the local politicians have been asking for a pipeline or a desalination plant, with a cost of up to $1,000,000 US for the installation alone. This matter was directly involved in the decline and cessation of the fog collector array on El Tofo. It was a means of applying local pressure to justify the expenditure by the Government on a pipeline. In early 2002 there were about 25 functional fog collectors and in 2003 there were none. The water is being supplied once again at a high cost by truck. The trucks haul the water to the ridge at El Tofo and dump it in a reservoir. From there it flows through the fog-water pipeline to the village. The achievement of providing water from fog, to a village in a desert, for ten years, is remarkable. However, this does not mean that the village needs to receive its water this way forever. Indeed, if it has served as a means to improve the life of the villagers until funds are found for a pipeline, it will have served its purpose well. One would wish though that the transition could be made more gracefully. We will have to wait and see what the future brings. As of 2009, there is no conventional pipeline.

It is also very important to remember that there is a need to separate El Tofo, where the water is produced, from Chungungo, the community on the coast. The two are not necessarily tied together forever. FogQuest has suggested an approach that would seek new, effective uses for the water that can be produced on the mountain. These might involve people or committees from the village, or they might involve other groups with other aims. The premise that only drinking water for the village of Chungungo should be considered is too restrictive and ultimately may prove to be only one of several appropriate choices for the fog collection technology in that region. It may be, for example, that to take water east to the dry cuenca to use for agriculture is preferable to taking it west to Chungungo on the coast. Or the building of a forest may be the priority of the municipality that makes the most sense both practically and economically. Efforts should be made to study social issues and community organization in Chungungo, with the aim of better understanding how to do future projects, but to do only this is unduly restricting. Fog water is available in large quantities on the mountains in the area and the mechanism needs to be found to utilize the resource in the best way possible for all the people of the region.