Given estimates posted on Water.org stating that one child dies from a water-borne disease every 20 seconds, the need for effective engineering solutions regarding water systems in third world countries is beyond question.
The challenge lies not just in providing infrastructure, but in making sure the infrastructure measures implemented work properly. Researchers at Oxford University reckon that at any one time, around one-third of hand pumps – the main source of drinking water for rural communities in Africa – do not work.
Given that it can take up to a month or more before they are fixed, any such breakdowns have devastating consequences for the communities in which these failures occur.
Those researchers, however, hope to change this. In August, they will begin a pilot project in Kenya to install new, low-cost data transmitters that work in a similar way to mobile phones.
When a breakdown occurs, the pumps will automatically send a text message to district and national water managers, letting them know when and where there is a problem, and subsequently, when a problem is fixed.
The idea works quite simply. A transmitter no bigger than a mobile phone fits inside a hand pump, automatically registers the movement of the handle at the pump and, from this, calculates the amount of water extracted. An automatic text about the water usage at each pump is sent at regular intervals to water supply managers, who then immediately know when and where a pump needs fixing.
By doing this, the researchers say, problems will be able to be addressed more quickly and transparently, thus reducing the amount of time communities have to endure without a working pump.
Dr. Rob Hope, senior research fellow at Oxford’s School for Geography and the Environment, is excited about the new technology.
“Reliable water supplies lead to healthier people and more productive livelihoods,” Hope says. “We hope that by applying mobile communications technologies within the rural water sector, we can improve water security and reduce poverty for the 276 million people in rural Africa who currently don’t have safe and reliable water supplies.”
The initial trial, funded by the UK Department of International Development, will involve installation of the technology in 70 village hand pumps across the Kyuso District of Kenya – an area which commonly experiences droughts.
From this, the researchers will gather data and refine the technology if necessary before rolling out a further national trial in Zambia.