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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.