By Katie Nguyen
Hand pumps are a lifeline providing drinking water for many communities in remote, rural parts of Africa, but it is thought that around one third are broken at any given time, putting the health of many at risk.
In an effort to reduce the problem, a group of University of Oxford researchers have turned to mobile phone technology, developing data transmitters to automatically send a text message alerting local water officials and engineers when the pumps break down.
Fitted inside the pumps, data transmitters measure the movement of the handle, which in turn give an indication of water usage.
"If, for example, a pump is pumping 800 litres of water a day, and then it suddenly drops down to a very, very low level, that would be an indication that there's some problem with the pump," researcher Patrick Thomson told AlertNet.
"Within a few hours of usage of the pump stopping due to a fault, someone can be dispatched to go and fix it."
The new mobile application is going to be tested in 70 villages in Kenya's drought-prone Kyuso district as part of a pilot project funded by Britain's Department for International Development (DFID).
Not only can broken pumps result in communities being forced to use contaminated or unsafe sources of water, but it can mean more hours spent in search of clean water.
"Water does not just save lives in the short term – it is also a cornerstone for delivering economic growth and helping countries to work their way out of poverty," said Andrew Mitchell, secretary of state for international development.
If the year-long trial is successful, the researchers hope the technology can be rolled out in other African countries.
"Reliable water supplies lead to healthier people and more productive livelihoods. We hope that by applying mobile communications technologies within the rural water sector, we can improve water security and reduce poverty for the 276 million people in rural Africa without safe and reliable water supplies," lead researcher Rob Hope said.
The project is the latest to harness the boom in mobile technology in Africa which has, for example, led the way in mobile money transfer.
It is estimated that in 2012 more people in sub-Saharan Africa will have access to the mobile phone network than access to improved water supplies, researchers said.
According to a World Health Organisation report in 2000, Africa has the lowest total water supply coverage of any region, with only 62 percent of the population having access to improved water supply.
The situation was worse in rural areas with coverage reaching only 47 percent, compared with 85 percent coverage in urban areas.
Unclean water can lead to the spread of such diseases as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea.