Fire Island Sundome Project


“Water! Water! We have water!” I yelled, “We did it”. The relief, after many setbacks and months of preparation, flowed over me like the fresh clear drops dripping at my sandy feet.

For a moment I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away after he managed to make fire with two sticks. The fire changed everything. It asserted his dominance, if only in a small way, over the merciless expanse that surrounded him. There was new hope for life.

“The water will change everything”, I thought to myself.

ilha do fogo

Ilha do Fogo

We found ourselves on Ilha do Fogo (Fire Island). The name makes sense once you have felt the midday heat on this beautiful but deserted island. It’s deserted for a good reason.

Even though the island is lush with vegetation, there is no drinkable water. If you want water, you have to bring it with you. A 30km trip as the crow flies on a Dhow, which is a traditional, one-masted sailing vessel. After day three, despite our best-laid plans, we realised we are going to run out of water on a five-day trip. We had to make a plan. The extreme heat on Ilha do Fogo led to most members of the expedition drinking more than the planned quota of water.

When I was a boy I dreamed of being stranded on a tropical island, trying to survive by making smart plans and inventing all manner of devices to make life on the island liveable, even luxurious. I guess many young boys and girls have island fantasies, however, this expedition did not quite play out as Blue Lagoon.

It was more like an episode of the Survivor series.

The perils facing turtles

The main aim of the expedition was to explore Ilha do Fogo, for conservation, marine research and potential eco-tourism. The island is a nesting ground for the critically endangered Hawksbill and endangered Green turtles, of which there are only about 40,000 laying females left. It is an oasis for these ancient creatures, but poachers have also made themselves at home on the island.

Although the island is in a marine reserve, it is remote and difficult for the authorities to police. The two wardens on the island are often outnumbered by more than 20 poachers and have very limited means to enforce the conservation status of the island.

Ilha do Fogo is about 30km from the mainland, between Mozambique and Madagascar. It is oval-shaped and it takes about one hour to walk around it.

The bright idea

It was my responsibility to make sure that we have a sustainable freshwater solution on the island. Due to the harsh environment and remote location, previous solutions usually broke down swiftly and were difficult to maintain. Reverse osmosis and water from air solutions were very expensive, and needed a lot of electricity, and maintenance. What was required was an inexpensive and robust solution.

During the 2018 day zero water crisis in Cape Town, our team started the development of a solar still that would use minimal energy input to accelerate the evaporation and condensation process that occurs in nature and creates rainfall. Our idea was simple. By mimicking and enhancing the natural process, we would be able to distil fresh water from salt water in a simple and reliable way.

On Ilha do Fogo we had the opportunity to prove the concept. It was the perfect laboratory; lots of salt water, lots of sunlight and a harsh exposed environment that would be a real-world testing ground. If it works on Ilha do Fogo, it will work anywhere.

That said, there were many hours sweating away on the island that I wondered, “How did I end up here”!

Putting notions into action

We transported the prototype and equipment via a dhow to the island. A bit of a logistical nightmare, but not a problem for Jan van Deventer, a logistics guru, Fire Island Project Manager and leader of the expedition.

The expedition consisted of ten specialists including master divers, macro marine photographers, skippers, marine mechanics and Lynette Whittaker from Grindstone Advertising, our marketing communications expert. It was her responsibility to tell the Fire Island story to the world and gather support for the conservation projects.

There is no accommodation on the island. We arrived at sunset and everyone helped to pitch the tents and set up camp in the growing darkness. Thank goodness for a full moon! In the following days, we worked on our various projects in this pristine, proverbial Eden.

Every night we settled in for a barbeque, locally known as a ‘braai’, around a big fire on the beach boma as this was our only way of preparing food on the island.

We did it!

We succeeded with two solar stills working and produced around 20 litres per day. Enough drinking water for about 10 people.

It was a beautiful experience in a beautiful place and thanks to the water produced by the Sundome, we should be able to eventually have a more regular presence on the island, which would enable Earth Legacy Foundation to protect the marine habitat of this unique place.

Please support our efforts to further develop the SunDome and conservation on Ilha do Fogo and beyond.

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