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Can technology get more water to people?

As World Water Week draws to a close, Joseph Pearce, WaterAid’s Technical Advisor on Mapping, discusses the potential role of information technology in improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation.

4 Sep 2013

Today there are more people in the world with a mobile phone than with access to safe sanitation. Take Ghana: there are now more mobile phone connections than people, but only 13.5% of those people have access to improved sanitation.

Over the last decade few things have increased as substantially as access to mobile phones. The opportunities for innovation have increased exponentially. While more traditional information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as television and radio, have provided essential communication channels for broadcasting and sharing information to the most remote areas, mobile phones are now connecting those communities with each other, and linking back to service providers to demand more. They are creating and strengthening social and economic networks.

Community health workers can send and receive information relating to patients and their treatments. Farmers can enquire about current market prices for their crops. Water users can report on broken-down infrastructure. In short – innovations in ICTs can improve people lives.

With 768 million people without access to water and 2.5 billion people without access to sanitation, can this increase in communication and information sharing lead to more access to these basic but essential services? Can increased communication channels and ICT innovations improve the sustainability of water systems? Or can they address equity issues surrounding service delivery?

A collective of eight leading WASH organisations held an event at Stockholm World Water Week to debate the current knowledge of ICT and share their recent learning from programmes where ICT tools have been used.

"Results with ICT go far beyond what we could have imagined," said Jaehyang So, Manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, while delivering the keynote speech.

Of growing relevance are methods for increasing participation in the design and development of ICT systems to ensure the tools address relevant issues and are in demand by their potential users.

Stephen Mbugua of Nairobi Water, the largest water service provider in Kenya, identified five key attributes for good ICT governance: transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation and responsiveness, and claimed that since implementing the MajiVoice ICT system, which enables citizen feedback as a driver of performance, they have seen an increase of 50% in major water leakage reports.

And how is this data being used by the governments and institutions collecting it? “Very little,” says Vincent Casey, Technical Support Manager in WaterAid’s International Programmes Department. “The challenge is in establishing a link between the ICT innovations and real improvements in the quality and sustainability of water and sanitation services.”

While there are, of course, exceptions, he continues to explore the challenges of achieving use of data, through greater reliability of the information, adequate decision-support tools, sufficient financing, political will and external support.

To achieve the link between local government ownership of the process, ICT and data, for the data to be valued, used and updated, what do we need? “Simplified indicators, local access and ownership,” says Casey.

An example of where data has effectively been used for mobilising funds, allocating resources and planning for the rehabilitation and extension of water supply services was delivered by Abera Endeshaw, Senior Policy Officer in WaterAid Ethiopia.

Highlighting a pilot in 14 rural districts in Ethiopia, Endeshaw said, “The water point mapping led to the district government placing a higher priority on water, sanitation and hygiene service delivery, evidenced through significantly increased budget allocation”. He continued, “The availability of maps, generated by the local staff, made it easy to identify the areas of greatest need, and plan for the construction of new water points.”

The Water Point Mapping process in Ethiopia, seen as a success by the Ministry of Water and Energy, will now be up-scaled to a larger pilot across 58 districts, by the ministry, with support of WaterAid Ethiopia.

Please follow this link for more information about the Water Point Mapper >