11 July 2012 | EN
At any one time, one third of water pumps in rural Africa are broken, say researchers
Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection
A team from the University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom, proposes installing handpumps containing devices that automatically send text messages to local water engineers whenever pumps break down or dry up.
The device, known as a waterpoint data transmitter, is fitted into handpump handles, and automatically monitors the number of strokes made when a pump is operated.
This data, which provides estimates of daily and seasonal demand, including critical under- or over-usage information, is then transmitted to a central hub — thus informing engineers, cheaply and regularly, of the need for repairs, and helping to ensure a constant flow of water.
The researchers will trial their idea, which is known as the 'Smart Handpumps' initiative, in 70 villages in Kenya next month (August). A prototype transmitter was successfully trialled in Zambia in 2011.
"We came up with the project in response to the widespread failure of hand pumps [largely because of wear and tear, and mechanical faults] and associated health and economic failure impacts on the 276 million Africans who do not have improved water services," lead researcher Rob Hope, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, told SciDev.Net.
"It is estimated that at any one time, one third of handpumps in rural Africa are not working. Unimproved water access is associated with 1.5 million unnecessary deaths of children under five," said Hope.
"Women and children spend close to 40 billion hours collecting water each year in Africa, and 448 million school days [are] lost because of unreliable water supplies," he added.
Julius Kabubi, an East African Commission risk reduction adviser, said that the initiative would particularly benefit arid and semi-arid areas, which require a constant water supply.
"A minor [pump] breakdown in a remote area can cause a well to be abandoned, and this is what the technology is trying to address," Kabubi said.
He added that for the project to be effective, it needed to work closely with mobile communication providers to ensure good signal coverage, as in some remote areas the mobile network coverage, upon which handpump technology depends, is not very strong.
Furthermore, Kabubi believes the initiative will work better if more water engineers — who are in low supply in Africa — receive training.
The researchers hope to expand the technology to other African countries, including Malawi, South Sudan and Zambia.
The project is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
ironjustice ( Canada )
15 July 2012
Placing monitoring equipment on a well is too expensive. A simple collect phone call from someone would be MUCH less expensive ?
Gemma Hume ( Practical Action | United Kingdom )
17 July 2012
I think the technology is good but will not have much impact in many rural areas such as Mandera in North East Kenya (one of the areas where my organisation Practical Action http://practicalaction.org works under existing circumstances where pump technicians/engineers are hard to find. Training engineers is one thing but motivating them enough to work in fragile environments where they cannot make a lot of money as private consultants is another ball game all together. One of our immediate recommendations in this case is to train community based pump technicians who are then linked to the system. This would be much more effective, especially if there is adequate telephone coverage in rural areas, which is not the case at the moment.
E.Africa Net ( Kenya )
19 July 2012
As far as it is an interesting use of technology, the funds would be better used to repair the many pumps that have already been identified as broken.
Mike Lane ( Kenya )
14 January 2013
As someone who has been active in GW engineering in EA for the better part of 30 years, the chief problem I have seen is in retaining trained handpump maintainers within their community. You train them, they hang around for a couple of years, then depart.
The smart pumps will provide valuable data on pump failure, though not always the cause of pump failure. Pump failure is not only a maintenance issue: I have recently seen (in Southern Kenya) an increasing trend where boreholes are backfilling with fine sands because the slot size selected for screens was far too large for the aquifer in question. Pumps fail, and will continue to fail, if they ingest sand - it simply wears away the washers in any reciprocating pump. Removing significant aquifer volume also leads to collapse and enhances the risk of contaminated surface water entering the aquifer.
Regards, Mike Lane
Alison Tottenham ( www.tigergreen.co.uk | United Kingdom )
14 January 2013
It is always a good idea to bear in mind that aquifer water is finite, not infinite. The more water an area has, the more crops and thus people it can support - for a while. Inevitably the available water does not stretch with the population size; thus when the water runs out, even larger populations suffer the horrors of drought and starvation. A sad but very real fact, that was proved by those who sank artisian wells in the 1970s and 1980s in the Sahel region. They pulled out; wisely deciding that their humane activity was doing more harm than good.
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