Smart data can help unlock solutions on clean water

Last week I attended a fascinating lecture, part of the Oxford University’s Water Futures Programme.

Clean Water, Rights and Responsibilities

Professor David Bradley gave an excellent summary of the history and current landscape of water and health, from the early pioneers in epidemiology, Dr John Snow tracking down the source of the 1854 London cholera epidemic to the Broad Street pump, to the current challenges facing the international network of organisations working to promote clean water and sanitation.

Explaining that “it is important to phrase things in the language of the people who are actually going to do something about the problem” (music to my ears) he introduced the 4 categories, based upon the type of interventions required:

  • waterborne: infections caused through drinking contaminated water
  • water-based: caused by parasites that spend at least part of their life cycle in water
  • water-washed: transmitted through low sanitation, and preventable through more frequent hand washing
  • water-related: transmitted by vectors (normally insects) that live in or around water.

The global water map (pictured below) shows just how many of us still lack access to sufficient and safe drinking water. The data behind this map comes from the Joint Monitoring Program agreed between the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.  They chose a 1990 baseline for their measurements, and have improved data quality by switching from Government reported figures (frequently spun) to independent surveys.

UN Access to Clean Water, 2004

The map show’s how East Africa is comes in the lowest percentage group for access to clean water – and demonstrates how important projects such as our Carbon For Water programme in Kenya are in provided much needed finance and innovative approaches to improving supply.

Although water is “one of the most pervasive things to influence the eradication of poverty”, it only appears explicitly in goal number 7 of the Millennium Development Goals: MDG 7, Target 7c  “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation”.  That said, its central place amongst challenges to our future is well recognised, with recent efforts focused on apply a rights based approach leading to the inclusion of access to clean, safe drinking water with the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, with passed the UN General Assembly vote in July 2010.  This is not enough, as Prof Bradley pointed out: as important as talk of ‘rights’ is the responsibility we have for taking care of our global water resources.  Irresponsible water use by some leads to denial of right to clean water for others.

Smart data collection

The second speaker was Dr Rob Hope, Senior Research Fellow, who had some fascinating statistics:

  • there is a $22 trillion gap in financing for clean water up to 2030
  • 40 billion hours of labour per year are lost by women and children in Africa collecting water
  • 443 million school days have been lost to poor water and sanitation in Africa

Despite the challenges, communications technology is providing an interesting and exciting set of opportunities. For example, traditional clean water interventions have often involved the installation of hand-pumps, but evidence suggests that these break far sooner than expected and remain unrepaired. In Kenya 30% of hand-pumps are not working. This represents a huge waste of charitable investment. Cheap mobile telecommunications has “blown the constraints of measurement out of the water” (pun accidental), and Dr Hope suggested that measurement need no longer define what can be set as targets for development projects. He explained his work on a trial project to fit transmitters in hand-pumps in order to monitor their usage and report faults.

The rapid developments in mobile money – with payments made by mobile phone –  that began in 2007 in Kenya with Safaricom’s M-Pesa (with the pilot program funded by the UK Government DfID), also provides an opportunity for payment per litre allowing much more efficient allocation and protection of scarce water resources.

The Carbon For Water programme that ClimateCare is central to, run by Vestergaard Fransen, is an example where telecommunications are helping to transform the long-term sustainability of clean water provision, with every family receiving a life straw being registered for support and follow-up.

Oxford University’s Water Futures Programme includes an MSc and will be hosting the Water Security, Risk and Society conference in April 2012.