STOCKHOLM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Imagine this: while strolling to your local park, you come across a huge puddle and spot water gushing out from a burst main. You take out your mobile phone, photograph the leak and email or text the picture to your local water authority.
Returning home a little later, you see engineers working on the pipe and you get a text message telling you a crew has been sent out to fix the problem.
If you think this sounds like a scene from an ideal world, think again. It could be happening right now in Nairobi, Kenya, where water authorities have introduced a platform – called Maji Voice – through which Kenyans can communicate quickly and directly with their water company via text message or the Internet, and vice versa.
Technologies like this, which connect governments, regulatory bodies and water consumers, could bring vast improvements to the water and sanitation sector worldwide, said industry experts at World Water Week, a forum held in Stockholm to explore water-related challenges.
“The long-term potential of technology is in governance,” Jaehyang So, manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), said on Wednesday at the event. “It is the fastest and most direct link for governments to be in touch with their citizens and for citizens to give feedback.”
A range of low-cost applications that use mobile phones, cameras and geo-referencing maps are increasing transparency in the sector and changing the way water is governed. Modern technology can speed up the exchange of information between citizens and governments or service providers and can help inform decision-making and responses at the local level.
MAKING DATA AVAILABLE TO ALL
The water sector is just one area that is benefiting from improved access to information.
Other online tools such as IATI Registry, an index of data published on international development activities around the world, is enabling individuals and organisations to track money spent on aid programmes.
Open access to data is key to transparency: when money can be followed from the donor to the project it is easier to find flaws in the system and address them, said experts at the event.
For example, a lack of open data and poor monitoring systems in Afghanistan means that Afghans are not able to find out what happens to most of the money the United States donates to the country, according to Pontus Westerberg of UN-Habitat who gave a presentation during World Water Week.
Out of $32 billion pledged by the U.S. government for 2001-2008, less than 20 percent ($6 billion) is recorded in the government’s database.
However, the experts said it is important that governments are presented with various sets of data so they can assess the situation accurately, not only based on the amount of money being spent in a region, but also based on the situation on the ground. This will create incentives to address specific water and sanitation needs.
For example, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has the highest concentration of open defecation in the world – one in eight people who defecates in the open around the world lives in Uttar Pradesh.
Data shows that government spending on sanitation and the urban poor in Uttar Pradesh is huge, but the reality is still dire.
Thanks to platforms like India Water Portal (IWP), which allows people to read about, discuss and address water issues, the situation on the ground can be verified.
With this information, organisations such as Arghyam – a foundation that gives grants for water management and sanitation projects in the country and that launched IWP – can work with the Indian government to ensure accurate sets of data reach the decision-makers so appropriate actions can be taken to improve the situation.
Information and communication technology enables people to monitor infrastructure at a local level and use their findings to make decisions about what needs to be done.
The experts, however, said they had no doubts about the obstacles that stand in the way of implementing such technologies on a wider scale.
“The extent of how technology can be used is limited really by the core development factors that are affecting every country (...) If a country that doesn’t have a mobile network or where electricity is not working, then technology is limited by those same things that are limiting economic development,” said So.