Smart hand pumps promise cleaner water in Africa

By Matt McGrath
Science reporter, BBC World Service

image copyrightOxford University
image captionFlow data from the hand-pump transmitted by text

Rural communities across Africa may soon benefit from improved water supplies thanks to mobile phone technology.

UK researchers have developed data transmitters that fit inside hand pumps and send text messages if the devices break down.

The "smart" hand pumps will be trialled shortly in 70 villages in Kenya.

Details of the new approach have been published in the Journal of Hydroinformatics.

Hundreds of millions of people across rural Africa depend on hand pumps for their water supplies. But it is estimated that around one third are broken at any given moment. Often located in remote areas, repairs can sometimes take up to a month.

But one of the big changes in Africa in recent years has been the expansion of mobile phone networks. It is now estimated that more people in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to these networks than have access to improved water supplies.

Speed is the key

So researchers at Oxford University have developed the idea of using the availability of mobile networks to signal when hand pumps are no longer working. They have built and tested the idea of implanting a mobile data transmitter into the handle of the pump. Patrick Thomson is a member of the research team and explained how it works.

"It measures the movement of the handle and that is used to estimate the water flow of that hand-pump," he told the BBC.

"It can periodically send information by text message back to a central office which can look at that data and when a pump breaks, very quickly a mechanic can be despatched to go and fix it."

image copyrightOxford University
image captionThe technology is located inside the pump

In just over a month, some 70 villages in Kyuso district in Kenya will have the smart hand pumps installed. The trial, which is funded by the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), will see if the new system can cut the time taken to repair pumps. Rob Hope is another member of the Oxford team.

"Twenty-four hours is the key aim. Eighty percent of breakdowns are small, involving rubber rings and seals and a mechanic would be able to fix them on the spot," he explained.

In the course of the Kenyan experiment the researchers hope to get enough data so that small changes in the way the pumps are handled could be used to anticipate a problem before it occurs.

"We think we can get to the point of predicting failure before it happens." said Rob Hope.

"That's exactly the type of thing we hope the trial will deliver."

Power in their hands

A number of big challenges remain to be ironed out, including the critical issue of power. The Kenya experiment will use long lasting batteries but the research team hopes to develop more sustainable ways of powering the transmitters.

Another larger trial due to take place in Zambia later this year will look at renewable resources such as kinetic energy from the motion of the handle and solar power.

Another challenge is the threat of theft and vandalism. The researchers acknowledge there is little they can do once the devices are installed but Rob Hope feels the support of the local community will prove an adequate deterrent.

image copyrightOxford University
image captionIt is estimated that at any one time a third of hand pumps are broken

"My sense is that if the hand-pump is of value to community they will maintain it. If we deliver maintenance in 24 hours, they will self-police," he said.

Speedy repairs to hand pumps could have dramatic effects on local communities - broken pumps mean more hours spent gathering the precious resource and people often turn to unsafe sources of drinking water.

And according to Andrew Mitchell, the UK's Secretary of State for International Development, keeping the pumps working means much more than drinking water.

"Water does not just save lives in the short term - it is also a cornerstone for delivering economic growth and helping countries to work their way out of poverty," he said.

"This is why UK aid will give an additional 15 million people access to clean water by 2015 and supporting a number of programmes, like this one, to help the world's poorest countries harness the full potential of their water resources."

The technology has other potential benefits. It will allow scientists to compile a real time database of how much water is being used across the continent. Greater predictability of breakdowns could also help drive down the cost of repairs.

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