Oxfam in Kenya has been embracing new technology to help vulnerable communities access water. Here, Brian McSorley, WASH Coordinator, explores three practical examples.

Drought preparedness and early warning systems

The frequency of dry periods in Kenya is increasing to every two-three years and yet there is still no common trigger or measurement to define when a drought is a drought. Although droughts are slow onset crises they still somehow take communities, Government and humanitarian organisations by surprise.

Oxfam has attempted to develop an early warning indicator by monitoring a number of triggers at strategic water points, these include the number of hours of pumping, and the number of customers or livestock being watered. Typically there are seasonal peaks in demand as animals migrate between wet and dry season pasture, surface water sources dry up and reliance on boreholes increases. By tracking this over time it should be possible to build up a baseline of the seasonal norms and by monitoring deviance from the base line identify indicators of water stress to inform our work.

We started mapping work in 2010 using mobile phones equipped with simple survey forms to develop a database of water points across the Kenyan counties where we worked. We couldn’t find existing software that would accept dynamic, real time information so we had a web based application developed for us. The platform receives data via SMS or GPRS enabled dataloggers and integrates it into its database, the data can then be viewed as time series graphs or raw data.

We experienced some challenges around the technical limitations of the data capture tool (we started using Nokia data gathering), the willingness of the operators or community members to submit timely reliable data, and the limitations of the web platform as it was initially designed.

Element Blue, the IBM approved software consultant that has been leading on this work, has just won an award for development of this of software and it has recently advised Oxfam that the initial challenges preventing real time data being captured and displayed, have been resolved.

The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) which is the State institution with responsibility for monitoring and coordinating drought preparedness and response activities in Kenya has expressed an interest in this system. Now that we have a functioning tool, we will re-engage with them and individual County Governments with the aim of establishing it as an operational tool which is used and owned by Government.

Water pump performance monitoring

Of more immediate practical benefit to our work in Turkana and Wajir are the solar water pumping systems that Oxfam has been installing since 2013 which keep a digital record of pump performance. This helps to identify and diagnose problems and can indicate the pumping rate and volume of water supplied on an hourly, daily, monthly or annual basis.

For sites where there is mobile network coverage, it is possible – via a computer – to view remotely in real time whether a pump is working and even control its operation. Pumps will send alerts if there is a problem. This should contribute to more timely repairs being undertaken and improved continuity of supply.

For Oxfam this system gives us a level or visibility that we have previously never had without physically being on site. SWIFT programme in Kenya, which is funded on a payment by results basis, is proposing to use this as evidence to confirm the performance and reliability of the water infrastructure they’ve put in, to show the sustainability of their operation.

Pre-paid water dispensers

Unfortunately many of the barriers to sustainable water services are a result of poor governance and internal management problems. Having remote access and being able to view the performance of a water supply via a computer is one useful tool in helping to understand the water production and infer the likely supply and performance level of a system.

Oxfam Kenya has taken this further by piloting automated pre-paid water dispensers, or water “ATMs”, to replace kiosks in two villages in Wajir County. Each customer is given a credit card style water key containing a chip which they top up with money at a designated outlet. Like a contactless payment, when this card is touched against a water dispenser a pre determined volume of water is dispensed and money electronically deducted from the card. The advantage of this system is that the cash is not changing hands, so there are fewer opportunities for money to be diverted. All cash transactions are focused at a limited number of outlets and there is a digital trail that can be followed .

It is possible to compare water credits sold and water disbursed, which over a period of time should balance. Whilst there will be losses, water wastage and customers or institutions who have their own private connections and don’t get water via the ATMs, the amount of water distributed can be measured and used to track the performance of the water system.

It is early days in terms of seeing the benefits of this and applying it as a practical tool but it does have huge potential. Feedback from one of the two villages confirms that the communities have really bought into the concept. They are benefitting from having access to water for a longer period of time each day as a kiosk attendant is not required on site and they appreciate having to consciously set money aside for water saying that otherwise the money would be spent on less essential items. The main challenge is the hardware itself which has experienced several malfunctions and requires maintenance. We are planning to scale this up after doing a more thorough analysis of the market to determine the most robust and appropriate type of ATMs to use.

Photo credit: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Brian McSorley

WASH Coordinator

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