Q/ Who would be responsible for the sensors and how they would be maintained?
A/ Two objectives we have are ensuring involved parties understand the role of sensors in the project and instilling a sense of responsibility for the maintenance of the technology. We will try to achieve these with a user-centric perspective. We want to emphasise that sensors and new technology do not replace human reporting (or people!), but rather complement the information transmitted by human reports. Moreover, we hope to show that these technologies rely upon humans for management and maintenance.
The sensors are deliberately kept simple and built from simple components that can either be easily replaced, using locally available materials, or have affordable components ‘swapped out’. Our engagement with the water provider makes sure there are technical skills in the system to undertake or supervise this process, whilst the provider can also act as a repository for those spare parts that cannot be replaced locally. We have given some thought to the incentive scheme -- that we intend to refine with the use of user-centric design principles -- which can motivate selected local citizens to help supervise and maintain the sensors, in cooperation with the water provider.
Q/ How is this project related to other initiatives building resilience in the community?
A/ For us the empowerment of community members is a vital piece of the puzzle - both to engender their active involvement in reporting on services received (and thus improving their management) and to harness existing community structures to promote the dissemination of information. Naturally this takes us quickly beyond the narrow realm of water supply - as communities face many issues and don’t ‘compartmentalise’ their concerns.
In Lilongwe, for instance, our approach is highly influenced by work conducted the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN) and ActionAid Malawi who find that challenges around water are inextricably linked to questions around community empowerment, land tenure and tenancy and sanitation. We see this in engaging Lilongwe’s many Water User Associations, whose members are active in other structures (such as women’s groups and community savings organisations, SACCOs). As expenditure on children’s health care is a key concern for women’s groups and they see access to clean water as one key contributor to reducing this, there is strong interest in bottom-up approaches such as ours.
Likewise in Goma we have reached out to CBOs and other organisations whose mandates cross-cut. An example is Humanitarian Assistance for Development (HAD) who work with communities to prioritise needs and mobilise communities to act. HAD look not just at water supply, but issues such as youth unemployment, HIV and primary health care. HAD believe, given the primacy of ‘water needs’ in Goma, that participatory approaches around water can be a bridgehead into more wide ranging community action.
Q/ What is the underlying cause of the water problem in the area? What other initiatives are complimentary to this?
A/ A recurrent problem in developing countries is the limited electricity supply which hinders the pumping capacity of water providers. This is especially the case in Goma, DRC where pumping is supposed to happen at night when electricity supply is better due to a less intensive use by other services or infrastructures than during the day.
Lack of electricity is not always the issue however, and pumping might not occur for various reasons, several of which can be addressed through better information. Hence a great demand from those running water networks (whether Regideso in Goma or Lilongwe Water Board) for information that can assist those managing pumping to improve.
For instance, in Lilongwe the lack of telemetry at reservoirs means that pump station operators do not know when unmanned reservoirs are full. Consequently they continue to pump water even when reservoirs are full, leading to the excess water overflowing - a needless waste of water, power and chemicals.
Our solution can assist here, for instance sending SMS to pump operators to cease pumping when the reservoir is full and start again should water levels be running low. In this way better data availability can thus lead to better water bulk water availability and provision, not only by enabling improved planning longer-term, but also having a short-term and immediate impact.
Moreover, local technical challenges (e.g. a stuck valve) lead to unintended cut-offs of water to standposts - and no easy mechanism currently exists to indicate this to the water provider. As such our solution improves not just the macro availability of water in the network but local level (micro) problems too - with tangible impacts in either case.