Bringing Accountability to Rural Water Systems


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Safe drinking water shouldn’t be an issue for people living in the small Ugandan village of Kikondo on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Geography provides villagers with an ample supply of water from Africa’s largest lake. But, like elsewhere around the globe, pollution taints the lake, especially water close to shore fouled with waste and untreated effluent. Now, a nonprofit U.S.-based humanitarian aid group is operating a safe drinking water system in Kikondo built around a delivery model that requires villagers to “buy in” to the system, hires and trains them to maintain it, and provides a stake to keep maintenance costs down and ensure the long-term stability of the system.

For rural Africa, it is also surprisingly high-tech. The proprietary packaged water filtration and disinfection system is dispensed from a tapstand by villagers using an electronic key card, similar to ATM cards used to get cash. Villagers purchase the card from a local “water agent,” who promotes and manages the system. The nonprofit owner can monitor usage from data obtained through the card and analyze individual customer use as well as trends or swings in the system.

“There are a lot of charities run by people who have really big hearts,” says George Green IV, vice president of Water Missions International (WMI), a Charleston, SC, faith-based engineering organization that developed the system. “But we think there needs to be a bigger push on sound business practices and business skills.”

The village of Kikondo, Uganda. Image: Water Missions International (WMI)

WMI now operates in eight countries since its founding in 2001, and partners with a number of global and national corporations to help in its mission. The Kikondo project pivots off of the LifeLink system, essentially a secure payment and GSM monitoring system built into a tapstand. It was developed by one of WMI’s partners, Grundfos Pumps, a leading global manufacturer based in Denmark.

LifeLink is an offshoot of WMI’s TradeWater program, which breaks from traditional community-owned systems. Under the new model, WMI provides the engineering and equipment and installs the system but maintains ownership.

“The projects are set up as little businesses and run on the nonprofit model,” says Green. “This adds the ability to monitor all aspects of the project and access information in real time.”

George Green III, WMI founder and chairman, says the new program is a break from a typical community-owned system, put together by an organization that donates the equipment and provides design, construction, and training to locals. After startup and testing, typically 12 to 18 months, the donor organization withdraws and the community takes ownership and maintenance responsibilities.

Before WMI, villagers either drew water themselves or relied on numerous small providers who brought water to them. Image: Water Missions International (WMI)

Often, however, there are problems. Even when a community agrees on a business structure that typically calls for payment by volume or a monthly household charge, problems arise when it comes time to collect money. Local operators often struggle to track financial transactions or put money away for repairs. Sometimes, the money just gets “lost.”

“It’s also a way to deal with the issue of corruption in rural communities,” says Green III. “We’re prototyping this.”

Green III and his wife founded WMI after a successful career operating their own environmental engineering firm. Change occurred in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America and devastated Honduras. Friends of the Greens living there reached out to them, seeking help in regaining access to safe drinking water. When they couldn’t find equipment or a system that fit the need or the budget, they designed their own. In 2001, they formed WMI.

The above site map illustrates the layout of the water supply system in Kikondo. Image: Water Emissions Internationa (WMI)

“It was my parents’ midlife crisis,” says Green IV. “They started a charity with the proceeds from the sale of the firm.”

The package water-supply system they designed, the Living Water Treatment System, was “designed on the fly,” says Green IV. “Now we’re on the fifteenth revision. We can’t stop tweaking.”

Unlike many charities or humanitarian aid groups, WMI is an engineering group, boasting 11 engineers on its full-time staff of 26 employees. “We feel there is a void in the humanitarian aid world,” says George IV. “Our core strength is our technical ability.”

Introducing electronic payment and monitoring to rural Africa is not as far-fetched as it may seem, says Green IV. He points out that people throughout rural regions of many African countries already rely on cell phones and commonly use mobile banking platforms to conduct common transactions. “This is really big in Kenya, and is growing in Uganda,” he says.

In Kikondo, villagers are new to the concept but are increasingly embracing it. About half of the village’s 2,000 or so residents now purchase between 3,500 and 6,000 liters of water per day, according to WMI data. Green IV says weather accounts for the wide range of consumption. During the rainy season people collect runoff, turning to the WMI system when Mother Nature turns off her spigot.

The solar-powered system has capacity to produce 20,000 liters of water day and could double that if it were fitted with batteries to store energy. “We only make water when the sun shines,” notes Green IV.

Before WMI, villagers either drew water themselves or relied on numerous small providers who brought water to them. Keeping the system sustainable is the challenge, say the Greens.

“Selling water can be challenging,” notes Green IV. “If it’s losing money, it’s going to fail.”

Using LifeLink to monitor usage and purchases makes accounting much easier. To supplement sales, Kikondo’s local water agent also takes advantage of the solar system to charge batteries and cell phones for small fees. Proceeds go back into the system, per the nonprofit model.

“Most people have mobile phones but there is often no power source so that they can use them,” says Green IV. “We can add a low incremental cost in charging platforms and triple returns.”

WMI now is expanding the LifeLifLink concept to Kenya and Indonesia, says Green IV, and hopes to install another 35 tapstands this year. In Uganda, it is changing the way people think of daily tasks and somewhat changing local habits where drawing water typically is a task performed by women.

“People now get dressed up to get their water,” says Green IV. “And now, even men are actually coming in to get water.”

There are a lot of charities run by people who have really big hearts. But we think there needs to be a bigger push on sound business practices and business skills.

George Green IV, vice president of Water Missions International

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August 2012

by John Kosowatz, Senior Editor, ASME.org