State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Good to the Last Drop: Mobile Tech to Advance Water Infrastructure in Africa

Prepaid telecommunications systems have revolutionized healthcare and small business operations in many countries without reliable infrastructure. So, to extend the benefits of mobile communications and payment systems, The Earth Institute met with representatives from Ericsson, Eni, Microsoft, Vulcan Capital and Western Union in Nairobi, Kenya, to develop new strategies for applying mobile communications to irrigation and potable water systems in Africa.

The High Cost of Uncertainty

In spite of recent progress, the provision of universal, safe, reliable, and consistent drinking water for much of sub-Saharan Africa still remains out of reach.  Because of a lack of communication between water providers and consumers, many water distribution kiosks are poorly maintained and frequently unable to provide a minimum daily amount of water for each household at a reasonable cost.  The lack of reliable payment systems further compounds this problem as providers are unable to raise funds for further maintenance and water tariffs for the poor are difficult to implement.

To guarantee the universal reliability of drinking water supplies, The Earth Institute is working to promote mobile telephony, mobile payments systems, and electronic money transfers combined with metering or dozing technology to carry out transactions normally characterized by uncertainty and inefficiency. With the help of its Corporate Circle partners, The Earth Institute hopes to develop new and innovative methods for reducing the high transactions costs associated with supplying water by facilitating the flow of information between water suppliers and water consumers.

Millenium Village Members Using a Recently Constructed Water Kiosk; Photo Courtesy of Vijay Modi

Employing Private Sector Resources to Serve the Public Interest

Using experience gained from recent deployments of drinking water and irrigation systems and deployments of SharedSolar for pay-as-you-go electricity systems in the Millennium Villages, The Earth Institute seeks to merge the efficient nature of many private operations with public needs and interests.

A partnership between private telecommunications companies and public water providers does just that. Through mobile telephony and data monitoring, water suppliers can ensure timely maintenance of water kiosks, reliable water supplies and reliable data collection concerning the daily water requirements for a given area. With smart metering and the use of smart cards, water suppliers can allow some basic minimum amount of potable water to be dosed every day. These technologies also carry the potential to quickly map weaknesses and strengths in infrastructure, weather conditions and help governments and organizations plan projects.

Additionally, the dissemination of mobile technologies will enable payments for a wide array of services, thus facilitating service and output-based contracts. The successful implementation of such systems has the potential to transform the current paradigm of centralized, state funded and contractor built infrastructure to one where public-private partnerships streamline the process of building, maintaining, and financing water supply systems, reducing uncertainty and ensuring a stable water supply for those who need it most.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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