Getting clean water to the millions of people who don’t have it is a signature goal of the development community. But the truth is, it’s not always very good at following through with its work. Aid-funded water projects are notorious for working at first, then faltering. USAID says 40% of “rural water systems fail prematurely.”
As Dutch aid agency SNV explained in a damning 2012 report: “[Development] programs are still oriented too much towards short-term delivery of physical infrastructure and institutions, partially driven by the emphasis on visible short-term results and by spending pressure. The need for institutional maintenance of services…is insufficiently recognized.” In other words, aid groups are good at putting in water pipes and wells, but not necessarily great at monitoring and maintaining them after the fact (see here for a country-by-country failure list).
That’s why Austin McGee and his team at WellDone, a nonprofit, are developing cheap sensors for rural water systems. The hope is that by linking up mobile phone-connected monitors to pumps, the technology can improve visibility and ultimately keep pipes flowing more often.
“The basic problem comes from not having a good, efficient way to measure long-term functionality of these projects,” McGee says. “That’s because, traditionally, if you have rural infrastructure, you have to send some one physically to work out if it’s working or not. That’s expensive and often it’s not incentivized by the funding organizations. They’ll say ‘Here’s $10,000, build me a well as cheaply as possible’ and there’s no good way to test the long-term functionality.”
The kits, which are designed for hand pumps, check the flow of water hourly and send out alerts to local maintenance crews if water hasn’t come through for more than a day. WellDone, which is based in San Francisco, is currently testing the modules as part of two pilots in Tanzania, in East Africa. Mechanics are paid on monthly service contracts tied to the pumps working properly.
WellDone started in 2007 as a traditional water non-profit looking to spread infrastructure in the developing world. But after McGee joined as a volunteer in 2012, the organization changed its focus to monitoring instead (“because it’s such a big problem”). The core team includes McGee, previously a software developer at IBM, and PhD candidates from Stanford and MIT. The project recently won the top award at MIT’s Water Innovation Prize.
The basic WellDone platform is modular, allowing different sensors to be plugged in for different purposes. McGee hopes to work on rural electrification and refrigeration issues in the future, but not before getting the water sensors out there first.
“We’re trying to get water monitoring on as many of these projects as possible, so we can start to change the dialogue in funding organizations and among governments,” he says.