Africa's innovation in mobile technology may form a key platform to resolve one of its oldest problems - safe and reliable water access. The idea of this research project is that a systemic informational impasse has been a fundamental constraint to rural water supply sustainability. Two recent innovations in mobile communications technology have released this constraint: first, a secure, universal and low-cost information and mobile money system that allows an increasing majority of rural and urban Africans to talk and send money at increasingly lower costs; and second, the pilot development by Oxford University of a data transmitter that can automatically, accurately and securely transmit low-cost data on handpump water use. With a regular, reliable and universal flow of handpump data, no longer will governments and donors be able to claim investments have worked based on unverifiable data. Accountable and transparent information will be available for everyone in instant and simple metrics of how much water is available when, where and, critically, over time. When handpumps fail, everyone will know and new ways to provide better maintenance services by sharing risk across multiple handpumps will be possible. Donors and governments will no longer be able to hide and citizens will be able to act with the power of information. As rural Africans remain the hardest to reach and most in need of safe water access globally, the potential developmental impacts of this research, under increasingly unpredictable climates, could result in transformational impacts across time-savings, health, education, income, gender equity and basic human dignity for the 330 million Africans without safe water access.
By 2012 more Africans will have access to mobile communication services than improved water services. By 2014, 90% of Africa will have mobile communication coverage. These very recent changes in combination with a real appetite to address the majority of one billion Africans struggling in rural areas under increasingly unpredictable climates offers a concrete opportunity for meaningful and lasting change. Chronic failure and under-performance of rural waterpoints (handpumps) is central to rural poverty. Lack of improved water services leads to daily and life-cycle costs for most Africans, but particularly women and girls; for example, in rural Africa an estimated 40 billion hours is spent annually collecting water from unsafe sources, mainly by women and girls, with an associated 448 million lost school days each year and a related 1.5 million deaths in children under five years from drinking unsafe water. Despite significant efforts and billions of dollars of investment between 1990 and 2008, 67 million more rural Africans now lack safe water access, a statistic symptomatic of Africa's faltering progress towards meeting the water access global safe water target twenty years late in 2035.
With one in two rural Africans owning a mobile handset and government, donors and mobile operators actively seeking new collaborations and ideas, this project aims to harness this swell of technology innovation and policy support to test at scale an innovative new device designed and piloted by Oxford University. The technology alone has little value but it is transformative potential to capture and share data from remote and dispersed regions seamlessly and instanteously opens up new and exciting possibilities for change. No longer may living in rural Africa be synonymous with being chronically poor and water insecure. This project aims to challenge and change this situation to maintain and accelerate safe water supplies for rural Africans.
The research has influenced policy and practice in the wider goals of delivering universal and safe drinking water services. In Kenya, the national government has highlighted the work in its annual reporting for the national water services regulatory board (WASREB, 2014). This includes regular dialogue with ways to scale up the approach including uptake and support by two separate counties, Kwale and Kakamega. UNICEF at the global and regional levels are also trying to build the work into their programmes and potentially contributing to new reporting metrics for SDG 6.1 for universal and safe drinking water supplies. In 2018, UNICEF/Bangladesh and the Government of Bangladesh's Department of Public Health and Engineering has supported the installation of 500 transmitters in schools, clinics and communities. This pilot phase (Feb2018-Jan2019) will inform a wider programme of work on monitoring water service delivery and, if successful, will lead to a larger programme of work. Initial results will be released and shared from May 2018.