Providing sustainable drinking water services in rural Africa with the application of modern technologies
The majority of rural settlements in Africa lack easy-to-access, safe drinking water. Water is often transported from large distances, mainly by women and children, limiting their options to pursue other activities, including education. Aid programmes regularly help to create local wells that supply safe drinking water. These wells, however, are not maintained once the aid programme leaves the village, the pumps and other components break down, and the supply discontinues, thus hastening a return to the original situation.
The eWaterPay programme goes one step further than the average aid programme in the field: not only is the technology supplied, but the people pay a nominal fee for the water, from which a fund is created for maintenance and repair to ensure long-term, sustainable operations. This scheme has been tried in several villages, to the satisfaction of the local population.
The majority of rural settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa lack easy-to-access, safe drinking water. Water is often transported on foot from large distances, mainly by women and children. The time and effort spent carrying water can be substantial, limiting time available for other activities, including the education for children. To help with this situation, aid programmes regularly create local wells from which water is pumped to serve local water needs. However, there are some problems with the operation of these wells. If water supply is insufficient to meet all needs, quarrels can break out among the local population. Moreover, in many villages, well maintenance stops when the aid stops, and pumps and other components break down after a while and supply discontinues. In some locations, the village council or a committee is entrusted to collect fees to cover repairs, but these bodies are often ineffective, sometimes corrupt, and funds rarely accumulate in any quantity to ensure continued maintenance. At any given time, roughly one-third of the water infrastructure is broken and the population has to revert to the old ways of fetching water from a distance — water that may not even be safe to drink.
As a response to this situation, a British start-up (eWater) introduced a system called eWaterPay. Under this system, wells are created from donor money, usually using solar power for pumping. The local population pays for the water: in fact, they pay up front with smartphones (a widespread means of payment in rural Africa) at local shops, and in exchange they receive an electronic tag that they can use to receive water from the public tap. The payment goes directly to the fund that will cover maintenance and parts replacement, and water costs about EUR 1 cent. This system has already been successfully introduced in seven Gambian villages. The taps are connected to the mobile network, and they transmit usage data signals to alert repair personnel when problems occur.
At present, 110 taps have been installed in the seven villages, but eWater hopes to have a total of 500 taps serving 50,000 by the end of 2017, mainly in Gambia and Tanzania.
Experience shows that paying for the water makes it more precious for water users. The women and girls that collect the water are cautious not to spill any of it, which not only saves water but also leaves fewer puddles in which mosquitos can breed.
Since funds are available for repair and there are clear lines of responsibility, broken taps are repaired within three days. In other schemes, the average repair time has been 27 days.
Local populations have responded positively: water is always available, and because it is acquired in exchange for payment, they do not have to fight over it. Furthermore, the scheme is on a sustainable path. In the Gambian village of Jarreng, for example, in the first three days after the taps had been installed, over 500 households registered within the system and started to use it. Women expressed their satisfaction with the fact that most of the payment covers maintenance and repair (a small portion is taken as a fee by the mobile payment system). Electronic payment is important in ensuring that the repair fund is not misused: cash payment often results in corruption and the loss of a portion of collected funds.
- The eWaterPay scheme has succeeded in ensuring sustainable drinking water supply operations in rural Gambia and Senegal.
- Long-term perspective
- Inclusion of local population, especially women
- Involving payment as part of the scheme, since that helps to establish a fund for maintenance and repair
- 110 taps installed so far
- The price paid for water is about EUR 1 cent per 20 litres
This tested, replicable measure ensures a sustainable, long-term water supply. If everything goes as planned, 500 taps will be installed by end-2017.
The Long Close. Rectory Rd. Hollington. Staffordshire. UK. ST10 4HH
- The Economist, “Pay as you drink: A better way to provide drinking water in rural Africa”, March 4, 2017. https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21717766-innovative-cure-broken-pumps-better-way-provide-drinking-water