Mobile Water for Development and Growth

By Rob Hope - 23 March 2012
Mobile Water for Development and Growth

In this column Rob Hope adds background to his recent co-authored article “Harnessing mobile communications innovations for water security” which is available here.

The twin spectres of a global water infrastructure deficit of USD22.6 trillion and a 40 percent shortfall in water availability by 2030 have resulted in water security rocketing up the World Economic Forum’s global risk rankings since 2010. While the world has achieved the MDG for safe water access by 2015, there are still some 780 million people without basic and reliable water supplies. Four out of five people without safe water access live in rural areas though the challenges in urban settlements, both in developing and industrialised countries, are equally concerning. For example, the United States has a water infrastructure deficit of USD 84 billion to 2020 in comparison to Africa which faces annual deficit of USD 9 billion to achieve the most basic of water supplies. In Global Policy’s forthcoming paper ‘Harnessing Mobile Communications Innovations for Water Security’, we explore how the confluence of rapid mobile network expansion, mobile phone ownership, mobile water payments and smart metering technologies offer new policy pathways to achieve water security around the world.

Mobile communication innovations offer an inclusive, secure and low cost architecture for financial and data flows that can reduce or share risk to enhance water security. For example, mobile money permits simple and low-cost sending/receiving of money using mobile phones that has been exported from Kenya across Africa with 46 mobile banking services now operational. Mobile water payments can improve financial performance for water service providers, time and cost savings for water users, and a mechanism to increase customer loyalty for mobile network operators. For example, the Uganda National Water Sewerage Company estimates it is saving around USD0.5 million per year since introducing its mobile water payment service. With more Africans connected to mobile phone services than those receiving improved water services by the end of 2012 the opportunities for scaling the approach is significant.

Mobile networks also power smart meters which are rapidly being deployed in industrial and developing countries in order to transmit water flow data for more efficient meter reading, theft and leak detection, greater billing accuracy, enable flexible tariff structures and monitoring of resource use. Rapid uptake has occurred in the United States reflecting an estimated loss of 1.7 trillion gallons per day at a cost of USD2.6 billion (1994 data). With urban utilities in the developing regions recording non-revenue water of around 35 percent, opportunities to improve financial and resource efficiency performance is significant and reflected by recent investments in India. Yet mobile payments may only reach the minority of the urban poor served by an individual piped water connection. Here, smart standpipes could help deliver water to the majority of low-income water users with an affordable tariff. This new generation of smart standpipes are accessed with cashless ‘fob’ cards, topped up by mobile money transfers, to deliver measured water to users in secure and flexible systems.

Water insecurity has long been synonymous with living in rural areas in the tropics. Established rural handpump models transfer water supply risks to local water users least able to cope with them. Mobile technologies are now challenging this orthodoxy with innovative crowdsourcing approaches where central maintenance support that exploits economies of scale can be reached via a low-cost text message. This can dramatically reduce handpump ‘down-time’ and the associated health, time and welfare costs. Alternatively, ‘smart handpumps’ installed with a low-cost, mobile transmitter device can automatically sends real-time information on pump use and performance to trigger maintenance alerts. The ‘smart handpump’ information generated allows government and donors to observe performance and impacts at low-cost and at scale in real-time improving accountability and transparency. Water supply risks are pooled or shared at scale with the mobile information platform which can drive cost-efficiencies and generate performance metrics to inform more effective and equitable investment decisions. We argue that mobile communications are charting new and exciting pathways for water security and though it is premature to determine the scale and sustainability of impacts for water resources, finance, infrastructure and poverty reduction, the architecture for transformative change is compelling.

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