Can mobile phones solve the world’s water crisis? This is a big question that my colleagues and I are exploring at Aquaya. The global water crisis affects all countries, rich and poor, and spans many issues that range from the availability and sustainability of water resources to their safety for public health. At Aquaya, we focus on water and public health: infants and children are especially vulnerable to waterborne diseases like diarrhea, and according to the World Health Organization, unsafe water is responsible for approximately 2.0 million child deaths a year, more than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.
In March 2012, the United Nations announced that at a global level the Millennium Development Goal for access to improved drinking water has been met; 89% of the world’s population, 6.1 billion people, now use improved drinking water sources. But thousands of these improved water systems don’t deliver safe drinking water and many more break down each year.
How can we improve the reliability and safety of drinking water supplies? A lot of hard work and research by many people has taught us that more and better infrastructure is just not enough: ongoing oversight of water systems by trained professionals is also important. But this support is hard to provide. Government institutions are often highly centralized, financially constrained, and geographically overstretched. We need simple tools to improve communication between local community water managers and their support agencies in order to promote the efficient use of existing management resources.
This is where mobile phones come in to the picture. Mobile phones are cheap, easy to use and nearly ubiquitous in countries like Ecuador, Vietnam and Mozambique, where we work. Most importantly, mobile phones can transmit multiple types of information – including images and GPS points – cheaply and quickly over long distances.
In October 2011, I traveled with colleagues from UNICEF to Chimoio, a mid-sized hill town in Southern Mozambique that is close to the border with Zimbabwe. UNICEF is collaborating with the Government of Mozambique to develop and maintain hand pumps, which are the primary water sources for rural villagers. We were there to show district health technicians how to use mobile phones to send information on pump status and water quality to their regional and national level supervisors. The mobile phone app that we used for sending this information is called Water Quality Reporter, and it was developed by the iComms Group at the University of Cape Town in South Africa as a reporting tool that runs on basic mobile feature phones.
The district health technicians are on the road constantly; so much so that we had to travel between towns to try and catch them on the road. Each week they travel for hours on unpaved roads to communities of under 100 people to inspect drinking water sources, provide technical support to community water system managers and provide health education lessons to the community.
The district technicians have long had responsibility for monitoring drinking water sources, but the information that they collect generally stays in their logbooks and is rarely reported to their superiors. However, the technicians need resources and technical support from their managers to fix broken pumps and treat contaminated water. We wanted to find out if instant reporting through the Water Quality Reporter would make everyone more responsive to water supply problems.
A few months after training the technicians to use Water Quality Reporter, we saw some concrete changes. The Director of the Ministry of Health’s national laboratory issued formal memos to the local Government, asking them to respond to the high levels of contamination reported from a number of the district’s water supplies. In her letters, the Director noted that many rural supplies are ‘improper for human consumption’ and provided technical guidance on determining the source of the contaminants (mainly bacteria and nitrites) and on how to take action. For local governments that are juggling competing priorities, this kind of guidance and accountability is critical.
As in Mozambique, we have observed poor information flows between field staff and institutional managers in many other countries. For example, environmental health technicians in Ecuador regularly send water samples by bus to a Ministry of Health laboratory in Quito, but they rarely receive the test results. Without this feedback loop, the technicians can’t use the data to inform their health promotion activities – things like hygiene education in schools and delivery of chlorine to water system operators. A mobile phone based data sharing system would allow these technicians to efficiently share field information with managers and receive water quality test results.
Fortunately, a number of groups working in the water sector have caught on to the potential of mobile phones for improving the reliability and safety of water supplies. Some NGOs are now incorporating mobile data collection into their project monitoring surveys and creating dynamic websites to share results with donors and other stakeholders.
But it is also important to remember that implementing mobile phone solutions in low-resource settings is not without challenges: though mobile phone coverage is rapidly growing, the networks are generally weakest in the places where information flows are the most critical. In addition, management procedures must be in place for things like lost or broken phones, topping off phone credit, network configurations, and new user training.
At Aquaya we’re optimistic that although mobile phones may not address all aspects of the global water crisis, they will be important tools for managing many challenges. We are exploring other exciting ways to use mobile technology to support safe water delivery; these include bulk SMS messages for public service announcements and customer alerts (like a boil alert when contamination is detected in a utility network), public submission of complaints and status reports, and automated, dynamic data analysis for managers.
Although the developing world is changing rapidly, particularly through urbanization, much of the urban growth, especially in Africa, is in small and medium sized towns. As a result strategies for linking geographically dispersed actors to support and regulatory agencies remain critical. In his annual report last year, Engineer Robert Gakubia, the CEO of the Kenya Water Services Regulatory Board summed it up with the following comment: “There is no transparency without information, which means that information is key to good governance. Information helps Water Service Providers and customers improve access to water services”.