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Remote water monitoring – no more excuses?

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

This might sound obvious, but when you build a water system for a poor community, the point of it is to provide safe water to those families, reliably, for a long time – if not forever.  That’s what charitable organizations are telling their donors, at least:  “$25 will save a life!”  Well, that water system is not saving lives if it breaks, is it?

So how does the charitable organization, or the donor, know if the water system is still working?  The customers in the community know right away when it breaks, of course, but they often don’t know who to call.  Governments in developing countries focus more on providing new water systems to communities than looking back to see whether old systems are still working. The organization that built it could send staff to visit the communities, but many say they don’t have enough funds or staff time to check all of the water systems regularly, or ever.

That’s why many people are looking to cell phones to help fill in the information gaps. If we armed community members with cell phones to report on their water system functionality, maybe we could get more real-time information. But what if we could get the handpump to directly report when it’s not working to the government, the handpump mechanic, the charitable organization, and/or the donor?  Below I’ve described some new efforts that are interesting.  However, as the lead Oxford researcher caveats: “There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos and devices out there, but those alone don’t really resolve the enduring problem of rural water supply sustainability,” says Rob Hope. “It’s really the institutional reforms that emerge from using the information in a more effective manner. That’s where our research is really focused.”

  • Smart handpumps: A team of Oxford University researchers in Kenya are testing a new device that uses cell phone technology to send data from handpumps.
  • The Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory, the SWEETLab™, at Portland State University, is testing remote monitoring in water, sanitation, household energy and rural infrastructure programs in several countries including Indonesia, Haiti, Guatemala and Rwanda.
  • Google recently gave $5 million for a pilot project with charity:water to develop remote sensor technology that will tell whether water is flowing at any of their 4000 projects.

Remote monitoring alone won’t create sustainability, but if it these pilots show that it works over time, and the costs come down, these devices/tools can be built into program costs. Governments can require them, and use the data for decision-making.  Donors can expect them, and use the data to decide where to give. Customers will finally have a connection to the people trying to help them.  Then there will be no more excuses for not knowing whether water is flowing.

9 Responses

  1. Susan, thanks for those links. I’m trying to keep an eye on all these projects as it is a promising area of handpump research and when the technology has matured a bit then there needs to be a discussion about whether or not it would be worthwhile establishing international public domain standards, as was done for many handpump designs. It’s probably too early to have that debate yet because we need to find out what works and how cheap and robust these devices can be made.

    Another team working on this problem is in San Francisco:

    If anyone knows of any more then please get in touch!

    In a previous job I relied heavily on telemetry for hydrometric data and it worked – even in major flood events. Waterpoints with telemetry seems a achievable goal that can help untangle some of the deeper problems around management, service delivery and transparency.


    1. Sean – thanks for this comment and sharing another organization. Thanks also for the re-blog. I’m curious too about the cost and durability. Let’s hope that information (good and bad) is shared along with the water point data.

  2. Thanks for this Susan!
    As Rob says, and many have noted, its not so much about the gizmos, but the institutional reform that they can induce. The Daraja folks realised this early on in their Maji Matone project.

    With that, I’m always unsure if the capacity building that we assume is needed with these pilots (i.e. improved service provider ability to address malfunctions) as well as financial sustainability, are actually being included as a major part of the pilot. While small-scale testing of the tech piece alone is needed, I think the overall pilot has to bring forward both pieces simultaneously. What can be done with a reported failure without the capacity to address it? The way these projects are typically presented, and perhaps when funded by tech companies, they seem more about the tech trials, and its hard to get a sense of what is (or isn’t) going on the capacity building side.

    As the demand for greater accountability drives such innovations, should we push to know more about the institutional and capacity building components of these pilots, rather that how the sms and database systems work?

    Perhaps the info is there, but it doesn’t seem to be as important to the story as I think it might be. All thoughts welcome of course!

    1. Ilana, thanks for the comment. I totally agree. Wouldn’t it be great if we could make “capacity building” as attractive to donors as the gizmos? Or maybe it’s the implementers who like the things they have more control over.

  3. mi organización AHJASA surgió precisamente por el mismo problema que ustedes están comentando pero, mediante nuestra asociación encontramos la solución,
    si gustan puedo compartir nuestra experiencia en ese tema,

    1. Omar’s comment was “my organization AHJASA arose precisely from the same problem that you are describing but, through our partnership we find the solution, if you like I can share our experience on that topic”

      Omar – I would be happy to see more information about AHJASA and your solutions.

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