Mobile phone technology may help rural communities across Africa to benefit from improved water supplies. UK researchers have developed “smart” hand pumps. Data transmitters will be put inside hand pumps and when a device breaks down, the transmitter sends a text message. Kenya will be the first African country to test these “smart” pumps, they will be put inside water pumps in 70 villages across Kenya within one month.
There are two key points in this project. The first one is that in rural Africa, a lot of people still depend on hand pumps for their water supply. But one out of three pumps is always broken and it takes a lot of time to fix these since they are mostly located in remote areas. Another interesting fact is that Africa has known an extension of mobile phone networks. It is estimated that more people have access to mobile networks than to improved water supplies.
So researchers at Oxford University decided that these mobile networks could be used to signal when hand pumps aren’t working anymore. Patrick Thomson told the BBC that the mobile data transmitter measures the movement of the handle and estimates the water flow of that pump. The information will then be send by text message to a central office. They can look at the data and see when a pump breaks. They can then immediately send a mechanic to fix the problem.
The trial in Kenya is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfiD). They want to see if the new system really cuts the time it takes to repair the pumps. Rob Hope, another member of the Oxford team, said that a repair within 24 hours is the key aim. This should be possible because the breakdowns are usually very small and involve just rubber rings or seals that need to be replaces. Mechanics should be able to fix them in the spot.
The ultimate purpose of this project is to get as much data as possible to see where changes in the pumps can be made to prevent breakdowns from happening and to anticipate a problem before it occurs. Rob Hope said that they hope that because of the trial, they will be able to predict failure before it happens.
The project still has some challenges, like the critical issue of power. The research team hopes to develop a sustainable way of powering the transmitters since they now use long lasting batteries. Another challenge is the vandalism that takes place in Kenya. Rob Hope said there is little they can do but hope for support of the local community to prove an adequate deterrent. If the community feels that the new hand-pump is valuable, they will probably maintain and self-police it.
Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, explained that these systems, that keep the pumps working, means more than just drinking water for the people who live there. He said that having drinkable water is a cornerstone for delivering economic growth and helping countries to work their way out of poverty. That’s why UK aid supports this and more programmes to help the poorest countries harness the full potential of their water resources. They want to help give 15 million people access to clean water by 2015.