Using mobile phones to enhance functionality of rural water sources

Using mobile phones to enhance functionality of rural water sources

Lawrence Angoi, a Hand Pump Mechanic for Ngetta Sub-County, Lira district. Through M4W he receives notification of faulty sources. He agrees that HPMs need M4W to ease their work. Photo by Lydia Mirembe IRC/Triple-S Uganda

One of the key challenges contributing to non-functionality of rural water sources is the time lag between the identification of faults and the rehabilitation. This lag, in WASH parlance, is called service down-time, mainly caused by drawbacks in information flow. Information from Water User Committees (WUCs) is hardly received and not well documented; information received from community development officers and health assistants is often inaccurate and hard to verify compromising the effectiveness of their monitoring programmes; a lot of information collected by different stakeholders is not shared and is often outdated. 

In view of these information gaps IRC/Triple-S Uganda, in conjunction with Makerere University and SNV Uganda introduced the Mobile Phone for Improved Water Access (M4W) project in October 2011. Now in its sixth month, the M4W project is reaffirming the fact that indeed with better information flow, service down-time can be reduced significantly.

By its very design, M4W aids the flow of information from the source to the authority responsible for attending to operation and maintenance of the source. It utilises mobile phone technology and web-based information systems to collect, process and provide real time information to all stakeholders. Typically, each water source is allocated an identification number, which is displayed on a sticker. Sources are clustered according to geographical location, going from sub-county down to village level. Each sub-county is allocated a Hand Pump Mechanic (HPM) who is also provided with a mobile telephone fitted with the M4W software. When a user identifies an issue with the source, he or she sends a text message to SMS Code 8888, indicating the source identification number. Once the system receives the notification, it automatically generates an SMS which is sent to the relevant HPM’s phone. Upon receiving the information, the HPM is expected to go to the source to do analysis and to advise the community on the necessary action.

At the very start of the M4W project HPMs and CDOs were selected, trained and provided with mobile phones. To start with, a baseline was conducted not only to establish the location of sources but also to verify their functionality status and the functionality of WUCs. Results coming out of the exercise indicate that the M4W project is set to bring about many positive developments.

M4W fruits already visible
Already, actors involved are positive that in the areas that have been covered there is more reliable data on the location and functionality of sources. In fact it was observed, particularly in Kabarole that many sources which were previously not recorded in the Water Supply Atlas have now been entered in the database. Stephen Baryebuga, the HPM covering Bukuku and Karangura areas in Kabarole says that while the original list provided by the district captured 86 sources, he has counted 196 since he started carrying out the baseline. All this data can be used to update the Water Supply Atlas. Since the Ministry requires databases to be updated on a quarterly basis, M4W is already filling in that gap.

The other positive outcome of the exercise is that HPMs and their target communities are now known to each other. Previously, community members did not know which mechanic was responsible for which area. But since the HPMs have been personally involved in the source mapping exercise, they have been able to introduce themselves to the communities in their areas of jurisdiction.

M4W has also generated a lot of community interest particularly in knowing the functionality status of their water facilities. When they were sensitised about the M4W initiative, community members in Kabarole are reported to have been receptive and keen. The Local Council leaders in most areas have also been very supportive. This was especially observed in some sub-counties in Kabarole including Kabonero, Buheesi, Ruteete and Rwimi. Water users in these areas were eager to send text messages about their sources.

On the side of HPMs, M4W has been a key motivating factor and has also strengthened their association. A common bugbear for many newly-formed Hand Pump Mechanics Associations (HPMAs) is their inability to compete for jobs with more established private companies.  But with the M4W, HPMs have a common cause and this will eventually reflect that as an association, they are able to deliver. The facilitation in terms of free mobile phone sets and transport refund is also helping to keep their motivation levels high.

Most significantly perhaps, the M4W has so far demonstrated that if everything is in place, M4W sure reduces service down-time. Take the shining example of Telela shallow well in Telela Village, Ngetta sub-county, in Lira district, which serves at least 150 households. When the area HPM Lawrence Angoi received a text message, he visited the source and observed that the well required pipes, rods and bearings. He advised the community to mobilise funds. Although the WUC had been collecting user fees regularly, there wasn’t enough money in the treasurer’s bag. Immediately, the users were told to raise UGX3000 ($1.25) per household. In three days the funds had been collected and the well repaired. 

In its six months of implementation, the M4W initiative has shown that information flow may improve the situation but it has to go along with changes in water users’ attitude and many other factors. Witness the case of Kullu Akwoyo spring well in Ngetta sub-county, Lira district. In December 2011 the sub-county HPM, Lawrence Angoi, received a text message through his M4W phone and went to analyse the situation at the well. He observed that the well needed repair and told users to mobilise money for two bags of cement and some sand. The residents didn’t collect the money saying they were waiting for the area Member of Parliament to provide the materials. If that isn’t an attitude problem, what is?

In other situations, the users may be willing to raise funds but it is far beyond their capability as a community. This was seen in the case of Opelo village borehole in Boroboro West Parish, Adekwokok sub-county, Lira district. The borehole, which was provided by the Ministry of Water and Environment in 2009, broke down in December 2011. Upon receiving an SMS through the M4W phone, the area HPM Okello Henry went straight to the source and did an analysis. He informed the community that they needed to raise money to buy new rods, pipes and valves for the borehole. During a monitoring visit in January 2012, the community had raised only UGX10,000 ($4) out of the UGX750,000 ($300) required. In situations like this, the community is expected to place a request for assistance through the sub-county; however, the Opelo borehole WUC had not yet reported their case to the sub-county authorities.

For service down time to be reduced, WUCs must be functional. This means that they perform such duties as: hold regular meetings with the executive and with users; keep an updated register of users; collect monthly user fees; formulate and enforce rules for the source, among many other functions. In the case of Opelo borehole and Kullu Akwoyo spring well, the WUCs were in place but were not performing their duties. Since they had not been collecting monthly user fees there was no money even to ensure basic maintenance of the sources.
But there are also situations where information may be available but no immediate solution can be offered. This is especially the case with seasonal sources. M4W may not also help situations where there are unresolved community issues like land disputes. In the case of Opelo borehole, in addition to the funds required, they also needed to raise money to compensate the owner of the land where the borehole is located. Apparently, the landowner had not fully consented to the sinking of a borehole on his land and therefore demanded that the community compensate him. The users were wondering whether to first raise money for source rehabilitation or for the landlord’s compensation.

Then there is the time required for HPMs and CDOs to put into the M4W cause. HPMS are often given jobs by private companies and NGOs so they are diverted. On the other hand CDOs have lot of work on their hands. They serve many other departments in the district and may not be able to allocate sufficient time to the WASH sector, and less so to the M4W project. Additionally, HPMs are experiencing transport challenges. Most of the sources are located in remote, hard–to-reach areas with poor roads. The key actors involved in M4W therefore have to motivate both HPMs and CDOs to pay full attention to the project.

Other challenges are to do with the M4W systems technology. While some users are technology savvy, others are struggling with the system and failing to make good use of it. Some HPMs are still struggling to use the system even after the initial training. Some of them for example don’t know how to log in. Others changed SIM cards, which messed up the applications on their phones. Moreover many of them are afraid of asking for help. Meanwhile the architects of the M4W software upgraded it at some point which caused a clash as most HPMs’ phones were installed with an older version. Users also say that sometimes the system administrator is too busy and far removed from the field and that they should speed up the process of giving access to the DWO.

All the challenges notwithstanding, M4W will indeed cause some positive changes. HPMs and DWOs recommended some steps that can be taken to ensure the effectiveness of the project.
There is need to secure political buy-in. So far the local council leadership has been very supportive. But the sub-county and district level leadership ought to be involved in this initiative, especially to market the idea to all stakeholders.

On technology-related challenges, Triple-S, SNV and the other partners involved should aim to recruit tech-savvy HPMs and CDOs or invest some more in regular training. The training should also target sub-county water boards which monitor the functionality of WUCs and also supervise HPMs.

Currently the text message costs ugx220. This may discourage community members from sending messages. The initiators should look into subsidising or making it cheaper.

As the M4W heat picks up, it is important for all stakeholders to realise that improved information flow has to be tied in with other systems and factors. The Community Based Management Systems (CBMS) should be functioning well; WUCs must be performing their duties; users should be paying their monthly fees; the spare parts supply chain should be functioning; ......and users must have the right attitude especially with regard to ownership of the source. 

 A briefing note on M4W can be downloaded here .