Mobile phones are life changing: water should be too.

Why hand pumps are just a bit rubbish.

The hand pump was about two years old when I took this photo. That’s unacceptable.

Why can people get access to mobile phones, and not safe water? It’s a good question and blog I’ve linked to gives some very good reasons why water isn’t like a mobile phone signal. But it doesn’t really address why people choose to spend money on phones rather than water (or sanitation for that matter). A lot of the time you hear that mobile phones are aspirational items, and though I’m not entirely sure what aspirational water look like I’m fairly sure it doesn’t mean we should introduce water sommeliers to rural Uganda. So I’d like to think about how we can make water more like a mobile phone — from the perspective of the end user.

When somebody living in a rural area gets access to a mobile phone the change in their ability to communicate is exceptional. Going from a situation where the nearest town may be a few hours away and transport is non-existent, to being able to pick up the phone and talk to somebody instantly is simply life changing. It opens up a whole host of opportunities to improve income, improve security, co-ordinate activities… the list goes on.

Now consider whether this is the case for getting access to an improved point water source — let’s say a hand pump — when you were previously using an open well. Is it more convenient? Well maybe, maybe not. It’s quite possible that somebody may have to walk past traditional surface water sources to reach the hand pump, so it takes just as long to collect water. Is it safer? Well we’d like to think so, and groundwater is typically free of bacteriological contaminants, but this isn’t always the case, and we usually don’t have the water quality results to back this up. That’s before you consider that recontamination during transport or storage is often a much bigger issue than source contamination, or that bacteriological water quality (which you can’t see, smell or taste) is a fairly abstract concept for many people.

From the user perspective what is the advantage of a hand pump over surface water? At best it’s marginal, and that’s considering a hand pump which is functional and reliable. When you consider that around 1/3 of hand pumps are likely to be non-functional at any time that advantage looks decidedly dubious. With that in mind, why would you pay for this ‘service’ when there are free alternatives? (Yes, I know there are plenty of water-scarce contexts where this isn’t the case, but bear with me.)

So going back to the mobile phone analogy, what if we tried to provide a water service that was so superior to what went before that it was life changing. Something that was so far beyond comparison that paying for it was a no-brainer?

Whilst working on the Community Water plus project during my MSc, one of the ideas we played with was that sustainability of community managed water supplies was correlated to providing not just a good but excellent service. Household connections with water supplied 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Certainly we saw strong suggestions of this in two of the most successful case studies (The state water department in Punjab, and Gram Vikas in Odisha), though we didn’t explore this enough to establish how big a factor a 24x7 supply was. In a similar vein, a recent study from rural Kenya suggested that willingness to pay for water was contingent on a ‘order of magnitude improvement in hand pump repair times’.

So why not offer rural communities an excellent service, rather than always reaching for the most basic option? (Only 9% of Ugandans who have access to an improved water supply are served by piped systems.) A service which will transform the way people access and use water, rather than being the first rung on a ladder: a rung so low it’s often indistinguishable from the ground. There a whole host of technical, financial and operational reasons why jumping straight to piped water systems in rural areas is hard — maybe impossible — but if we’re going to meet SDG6, and offer on-premises water supplies to everyone, perhaps it’s time to start.