To stimulate discussions on the role of mobile in the water sector, we’ve launched a blog series, “Water Voices”, which will present testimonies from water service providers, entrepreneurs, academics and NGOs leveraging the mobile technologies and services to improve or create reliable water services.
The first in this series is a contribution written by Andrew Mang, Co-Founder at Aswanet, a water service provider operating in Uganda.
Aswanet Ltd. is a private company that was founded in Uganda in 2012 to provide continuous water and sanitation service to users not served by national water utilities or NGOs. Our team will engineer, construct, operate, and maintain infrastructure to ensure that water keeps flowing and service keeps being delivered. A core part of our service will be the use of mobile technology to rapidly transfer information and funds, thus ensuring rapid response to incidents and a reliable, closed-loop payment system. In this post, I’m going to discuss why our company is so interested in mobile technology, and a follow-up post will discuss ways that mobile technology can be integrated into a comprehensive development strategy to increase access to safe water and sanitation.
In order to understand the real need for these kinds of technologies, it’s important to understand the full context of the problems being faced. Clean water is one of the most fundamental and important needs for life. Hundreds of millions of people, mostly in low-income countries, lack access to vital infrastructure that provides drinking water. It’s not a new problem – policymakers fight hard to allocate funding towards infrastructure construction and nonprofits around the world gather millions of dollars in donations to bring water infrastructure to those who need it most. Investments in water infrastructure around the world have generally been planned according to the Millennium Development Goals, which set the goal of halving the proportion of people who lack access to an improved drinking water source by 2015. Globally, this goal was reached recently, but there are many countries (mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa) that are projected to miss their targets.
Unfortunately, all of the focus on access has masked what I like to call a ‘hidden water crisis’ – the crisis of poor service delivery. In general, Aswanet thinks about delivering water service as solving two problems simultaneously. First is an engineering problem: How do we physically convey a certain amount of water to a location and ensure it’s safe to drink? Past efforts to improve water access focused almost exclusively on solving this specific engineering problem and resulted in the construction of expensive infrastructure, per the above-mentioned goals.
The second problem is more difficult, and is an economics problem: How do we ensure that there’s an appropriate service model to ensure water keeps flowing indefinitely? Too often, the original sponsors of a project leave a community to fend for itself after infrastructure is constructed, which leads to project failure and forces users to use dangerous unprotected sources. In order to achieve lasting results, both of these issues must be solved simultaneously. Service must be delivered in a financially sustainable manner that ensures that repairs are handled quickly and effectively.
What does poor service delivery look like? A few years ago, I was with my team in a small town in Uganda and we passed by a broken handpump while going to a meeting. When we visited the town several months later, we noticed that the handpump was still broken and we decided to figure out why. We paid an appropriate sum to the local mechanic, who disassembled the pump and found the cause of the problem – a small stone had fallen into the well, jamming a valve. Unfortunately, while reassembling the pump the mechanic performed an incorrect procedure that caused a failure we couldn’t fix. After speaking with others in the sector, we found that similar experiences are very common – information doesn’t flow freely to people who can fix problems, financing isn’t easily arranged, and service providers practice poor quality control.
At the root of many, if not most, service delivery problems exists a common theme – problems with information transfer. Users in a village may know a pump is broken, but they need to convey that information to a repair team. A repair team has to know that finances can be quickly collected and transferred. In the event of a major problem, response teams must be able to arrange for emergency water supplies while the issue is being fixed. Service providers need to be able to communicate effectively with their technicians so issues are fixed properly. At the end of the day, mobile technology on its own won’t provide water service – but it can help bridge those crucial information gaps that prevent effective service from being delivered.
As a final note, when considering the potential impact of these developments, remember that it’s not just people lacking access to water that can benefit. Water services serving billions around the world need to improve, and ICT innovations can help solve the range of challenges that service providers face. We need to focus on this kind of development – rapid, adaptive iteration – when moving forward, and ICT needs to be integrated into a broader strategy to provide continuous, sustainable service to those who need it most. In my follow-up post, I’ll outline what such a strategy could look like, and I’ll discuss more about the potential impact ICT can have on the developing world.