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Mobile phones to improve rural clean water supply

After the construction of three boreholes in Kabulassoke sub-county, Gomba district, in December last year, the district engineers all went back to their offices and did not inspect these water sources for the next three months. Unfortunately, two of the boreholes broke down after barely three weeks.

The residents had nothing to do but wait for the district engineers to reappear to fix the problem. It was long after district chairman Abdul Kyabangi visited the constituents that the plight came to light. This kind of thing happens in many parts of Uganda. Even in Kampala, a water pipe can overflow for more than two weeks before the responsible parties come to rectify the problem.

This, according to research done by Wilbrord Turimaso and Ali Chemisto Satya, is common in Uganda’s rural areas, which have a wide information gap between water service providers and the public. An excerpt of their research shows that “it can take up to several months [as seen in Gomba’s case] for the relevant technician to know that a particular water source has broken down.”

Inaccurate and obsolete data has not helped in government’s plans, eventually leading to inequitable and ineffective resource allocation. With the growing mobile phone coverage in Uganda, the two researchers argue that the Mobile Telephones for Improved Access to Safe Water (M4W) project, which was launched in October 2011, offers a solution to the problem.

According to their research, this project has significantly improved on the functionality of rural water points through actionable and timely information. The project was first piloted in seven districts of Arua, Kyenjojo, Kasese, Lira, Kabarole, Amuria and Masindi. Altogether, over 8,000 water sources serving over 1,000,000 people were handled.

How it works

This whole concept of mobile phone reporting reduces water point “downtime”, i.e. the time a water source remains broken before being repaired. Here, the water users send a phone text message (SMS) to report a fault at a water source, initiating a ‘fault report’.
The report is received by the assigned Hand Pump Mechanic (HPM) or Scheme Attendant (SA), who is required to attend and assess the fault within 48 hours.

Having attended the water point, the HPM or SA sends an assessment report to the district. Failure to send a report within 48 hours results in a reminder being sent to both the HPM and the district water office. According to the research, M4W has managed to improve efficiency in reporting faults and has triggered action for response to non-functional sources

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For efficiency, all district mechanics and community development officers were provided with Java-enabled telephone handsets to allow entering, uploading and approval of more elaborate information for the baseline and assessment reports. District officials were also trained. With this setting, problems with a water source could be reported by anyone by sending an SMS with any type of mobile phone. Charges for an SMS are usually less than Shs 200.

The research shows that “pilot district water offices and the ministry at large have been able to generate up-to-date reports and the rural water stakeholders can access current information online.” The underlying challenges, however, have been the server breakdowns.

kimbowa@observer.ug

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