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[NAIROBI] Researchers hope to harness mobile phone technology to improve water supplies in rural parts of Africa.

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).