8 June 2012

Africa: Mobile Technology From the UK Gives Villagers Access to Clean Water

press release

Thousands of families affected by the ongoing drought in East Africa are set to benefit from improved water supplies, thanks to innovative mobile technology designed by Oxford University.

Hand pumps provide the main source of drinking water for rural communities in Africa, but around one-third of them do not work at any one time and can take up to a month or more to fix, leaving communities without easy access to clean water. Oxford University has designed new, low-cost data transmitters that work in a similar way to mobile phones - they automatically 'text' a local engineer when there's a problem.

Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell, whose department is funding the pilot project in Kyuso District, Kenya, said:

'This is a fantastic example of British innovation helping some of the poorest people in the world. Water does not just save lives in the short term - it is also a cornerstone for delivering economic growth and helping countries to work their way out of poverty.This is why UK aid will give an additional 15 million people access to clean water by 2015 and supporting a number of programmes, like this one, to help the world's poorest countries harness the full potential of their water resources.'

The transmitter simultaneously sends data by text to district and national water managers, so they know when and where there is a problem, as well as when the problem has been fixed.

Lead researcher Rob Hope, Senior Research Fellow at the School for Geography and the Environment, said: 'Reliable water supplies lead to healthier people and more productive livelihoods. 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 without safe and reliable water supplies.'

The Oxford researchers will roll-out the technology this summer to 70 village hand pumps across Kyuso, which commonly experiences droughts. It will be the first place in the world to use this new mobile technology to improve the functionality of its hand pumps. It also has the potential to provide a reliable, lasting source of clean water for the poorest communities.

Lack of reliable access to clean water is an enduring problem in rural Africa. Yet mobile technology in Africa is booming: the number of people within range of a mobile signal has already overtaken the number with an improved water supply and, this year, the number of people with a mobile subscription will pass the same benchmark.

Researcher Patrick Thomson said: 'The technology is simple and robust. The transmitter is no bigger than a mobile phone and fits inside the hand pump. It automatically transmits water usage from the hand pump by SMS to water supply managers, who then immediately know when and where there is a pump that needs fixing. This should enable problems to be addressed more quickly and transparently than they are at the moment, so people don't have to do without safe water and all the resulting health problems that can cause.'

The research is set out in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Hydroinformatics and is available online as from Friday 8 June at www.iwaponline.com/jh/up/default.htm.

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