A quick fix, restoring access to water

    Photo by: Rob Hope

    Foreign aid agencies invest in technologies that promise to improve the lives of the poor. But what if it breaks down and no one is around to fix it? The danger of being criticized as wasting taxpayer money looms large.

    A group of researchers from Oxford University has developed a battery-operated data transmitter to avoid this scenario. Attached to a hand pump, the transmitter monitors the number of strokes a hand pump user makes. The device then sends the data via text message to whoever is in charge of maintenance, such as a local water manager. Over time, these data help predict when a pump warrants repairs.

    The transmitter is part of the Smart Handpumps project funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, which taps existing technologies to ensure the availability of water in rural areas, where many continue to rely on hand pumps for clean water. It requires a GSM network or mobile signal to function.

    The device was tested in a few pumps in Lusaka, Zambia, in 2011. But researchers plan to conduct further tests this August in 70 villages in Kenya to ensure the device is compatible with different kinds of pumps, and to find ways to improve it.

    They also want to look into the possibility of using solar power or kinetic energy instead of batteries to power the device. This will help drive down costs, and it reduces negative effects on the environment.

    The innovative idea behind it – automatic alerts – can already be seen in other sectors, including health and agriculture: Pill bottles that remind people to take their medicines, and clip-on chips that notify farmers when plants need watering up are just two examples.

    A lack of capacity often complicates development initiatives around the world. The right staff isn’t always around to check if equipment works. And repairs often take days or even months.

    In the case of the Smart Handpumps project, the goal is to get repairs done fast and keep pumps running. But the innovation can also improve service and promote accountability among those in charge of maintenance. It can inform future decisions or investments as well, according to a paper published online recently in the Journal of Hydroinformatics.

    Donors will know which kinds of hand pumps are better or last longer, and that can reduce waste.

    Read our last #innov8aid.

    About the author

    • Jenny Lei Ravelo

      Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.