Satellite Monitoring: An Innovative Solution for Water Management

Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, yet people are suffering due to a lack of this necessary substance. In Turkana County, Kenya the rural population is hungry and livestock are dying due to drought. The rainy season of March through June did not arrive, leaving agricultural production little to none. People are forced to spend entire days walking to fetch safe water from a working borehole and not all are young enough to make the trek. Relocation seems to be the only answer, but technology proves differently.

Akai Akiru, 40, is going to fetch water. It takes her three hours to walk there, and three hours to get back, carrying the full 20-liter (5-gallon) jug on her head. Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services

Turkana County happens to have a large source of ground water, but negligence of the few resources available forces residents to flee in case of drought or flood-causing rains. According to Joseph N’aganga, manager of the Diocese of Lodwar Water Project “There should be no water scarcity in Turkana County, if only the water resources were managed efficiently.” With a plethora of boreholes planted throughout the county, one would assume the water source would be sustainable. However, as soon as a borehole breaks the process to repair it takes longer than necessary. It was originally thought that repairs would occur by technicians after a notification through mobile phone. This process quickly proved inefficient as the majority of villagers have no access to modern communication devices and phone networks are impossible to find in such a remote location.

With the help of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), boreholes in Turkana County have since been repaired by the Diocese of Lodwar, allowing villagers to move back after the drought. The borehole repair in Lolupe and many others have been completed as part of a CRS emergency response to the hunger crisis in Kenya. These repairs led to an awareness of the need for prevention technology. Consequently, CRS, Lodwar Water and Sanitation Company, the county government, and SweetSense Inc, an American company that creates and maintains monitoring sensors for development projects, have partnered up to implant remote satellite sensors in several of these wells throughout arid Kenya. The sensors instantly alert local technicians of a breakdown and mitigate the effects of water mismanagement.

The green SweetSense sensor is installed on the roof of a borehole attached to a small solar panel to keep the sensor running. Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic relief Services

The remote sensors are solar powered and send reports via satellite to make up for the lack of available mobile networks. Reports show that weekly flow of water can range anywhere from 5m3 to over 2,600m3, depending upon the density of the local population. If one of the popular boreholes were to break, that volume of water would instantly show a 0 for so many villagers dependent on it. SweetSense Inc. uses an online platform that lists the current status of all remote sensors and whether the borehole is working, the pump is down or in need of repair, there is low water volume, or if there is no present sensor. Through this satellite technology, there is hope for a consistently functioning water source for villagers just a short walk away. Livestock will stay hydrated, plants will grow, and the population can stay put.

A screenshot of SweetSense Inc. map of remote sensors. SweetSense Inc. is a Portland, Oregan based company that fits global development projects with low cost remote sensors for sustainable monitoring purposes.

Technology is essential for prevention methods in today’s development projects. The question is, why aren’t we using remote sensors on all sorts of resource-based solutions? The issue with many projects is sustainability. Once the project is over, who will upkeep the solution put in place? Wells will inevitably break, but without some sort of notification, they will never be fixed. Remote sensors can help address this issue of sustainability, and similar projects should use this preventative method to promote a lasting impact. Fortunately, this realization has stuck with CRS and the Turkana County government. Styvers Kathuni, the WASH program manager for CRS in Kenya relayed, “Over the next 3 years, CRS is keen to work with the Turkana county government, the Diocese of Lodwar, well repair operators’ other stakeholders to support water point mapping and to strengthen the coordinated approach to water resource development.” With so many boreholes scattered throughout the arid Kenyan lands, a remote sensor on every well would be a difficult task. By using GIS technology, maps equipped with borehole locations will make it easier to monitor each water resource and distinguish which are most plentiful and equipped with non-saline water. With remote satellite sensors and GIS capacity, water scarcity should no longer be an issue for the villagers of Turkana county.

ICT4D Training and Communications Assistant at Catholic Relief Services