By Elizabeth Buhungiro
Operation and maintenance (O&M) is an integral part of sustainable rural water service provision. Studies show that newly constructed rural water points break down and are subsequently abandoned within three to five years unless steps are taken to keep them functional.
In the last decade, governmental bodies and civil society organizations in the water sector have increasingly measured functionality. Measurement methods have largely been rudimentary; they are based on spot functionality checks, and borehole breakdown postmortem data collected from community members, water source caretakers and hand pump mechanics.
In 2018, charity: water embarked on the development of a smart sensor for India Mark II handpumps with Twisthink, a product design engineering firm. The goal is to create a truly scalable solution to remotely monitor the health of boreholes with handpumps continuously, resulting in sustainable functionality of these boreholes.
To be scalable, the sensor needs to be durable, maintenance-free, GSM connected, low cost, and most importantly, suitable to the needs of those on the ground-providing maintenance and repairs needed to keep water flowing. Lifeline has been active in construction and rehabilitation of water points with handpumps in Northern Uganda since 2008, and in 2017 launched EverFlow, a community-funded provider of professional maintenance and repair services for handpumps.
Lifeline’s Director of Business Development Igor Markov talks about why a scalable smart sensor could be a game-changer in rural water service provision.
First, let’s talk about measuring functionality. Why does accuracy matter?
If you achieve 90% borehole functionality, it doesn’t sound like a bad number. But what that actually means is more than one month without water every year. In terms of water access, that is appalling. Accuracy matters because every time a community’s access to water is interrupted for more than a few hours, the health and livelihood disruption impacts begin to accrue. For our customer communities to reap the benefits of continuous clean water supply, we have to be as close to zero down–days as possible.
How did the handpump smart sensor pilot project partnership with charity: water begin?
In March 2017, I was introduced to Christoph Gorder of charity: water. I told him about Lifeline’s upcoming preventative maintenance initiative, EverFlow, while he told me about the sensors that charity: water had developed for handpumps in Ethiopia. I was excited because it was obvious that having a sensor would be a technical quantum leap. We could use the data from sensors to get ahead of breakdowns and impartially assess our performance. Unfortunately, at the time, no sensors existed for the India Mark II handpumps, commonly used in Uganda.
In late 2018, I heard that charity: water had embarked on the development of the new-generation India Mark II sensor. I got back in touch with Christoph to share some of the pump health data EverFlow was manually collecting from water source caretakers. I told him that our postmortem analysis was telling us that we could detect faults weeks ahead of breakdowns, but the data was of little use since it didn’t arrive in time to trigger an alert. From that conversation, we decided to partner to make a sensor suitable for scaling by service providers like EverFlow.
Which process was used to develop sensors that are tailored to the Ugandan market?
Our first input was on measurement specifications: we wanted to know not only the volume of water, but the time and number of strokes users took to pump a given volume – a key input to our health checks. By 2019, we measured clearances on many handpumps to ensure the final design would fit all pumps. We later received the first mechanical prototype, which we installed in a handpump and ran through millions of stroke cycles to ascertain that it was durable and suitable for water supply. We provided feedback and the technical team upgraded the design. In October 2020, charity: water sent us a batch of eight 3D printed fully functional sensors for another round of testing, this time including ground-truthing to verify that the measurements transmitted by the smart sensors were accurate.
After incorporating the learning from this prototype testing, the technical team produced a final industrial design and charity: water ordered the first batch of 500 sensors from a factory in China. In the meantime, we got the opportunity to lead a pilot across Uganda to test the scalability of 396 of the first mass-produced smart sensors.
How does the charity: water smart sensor work?
This is the first handpump technology of its kind. A handpump mechanic replaces a component called the “third plate” with the sensor, which takes about 20 minutes. The only thing needed for the sensor to “wake up” is to pump 50 liters of water. Then the sensor transmits its serial number, system status and GPS location.
Thereafter, the sensor measures both volume of water [output] and strokes of the pump handle [input] and transmits hourly data every week through cloud computing. When the sensor detects an anomaly or breakdown it transmits emergency data earlier, to enable a quick response. The sensor is designed to last 10 years without a battery change.
Where are you now in terms of implementation?
We spent the first quarter of 2022 launching the smart sensor pilot for handpumps with 16 partners across Uganda. In May alone, we measured 39,022,143 liters across 288 handpumps. In the second quarter, we have been busy checking the accuracy of the sensors in terms of volume measurement and breakdown detection and this is where the fun begins. As our partners use the technology, we will be discussing: what is their ideal service if they were to buy the sensors commercially? How do they use the data? What data is redundant? What data is not enough? What’s the community’s reaction to the sensor? What challenges have they identified? All of this is to improve the data services and create a system that actually works at scale.
Now the question: can the charity: water smart sensor revolutionize the sustainability of rural water supply?
Yes, it can. As someone who has devoted a lot of time to the technical challenges of water supply, I know there are many possibilities with this technology.
The main goal is improved functionally of handpump-operated boreholes on a global scale – improved uptime. The second goal is better informed decisions, and the third one is unlocking new opportunities, primarily unlocking the funding gaps for Operation and Maintenance (O&M). This is achieved by the sensor providing you with transparency, neutrality, and visibility. One of the reasons why WASH funders do not typically fund O&M is because there is very little ability to see what your money is doing.
One thing is for sure: we already know these sensors will not allow us to turn a blind eye to the sustainability of water service provision in rural Africa.
When I dream of a future with the charity: water smart sensor, I see how an accurate understanding of water demand can inform infrastructure upgrades, such as small and medium piped water networks. At the same time, I dream of being able to measure the dynamic water level inside the borehole, to have a timelapse picture of how the aquifer changes over time so we can inform water security in the future. Having access to safe and reliable water is very important. But having access to water in a way that we do not consume more than nature regenerates is the next frontier, I think. The charity: water smart sensor is definitely a game changer, and I am grateful to be part of the pilot project.
To find out more about charity: water’s smart sensor, please visit their website: https://www.charitywater.org/our-work/sensors
The countrywide handpump sensor pilot would not be possible without our partners: The Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment, Drink Local Drink Tap, EverFlow Africa, Gema Investments Ltd, Hydro Concepts Uganda Ltd, Link to Progress, Lutheran World Federation, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, The Water Trust, Ugandan Water Project, UNHCR, Water For People, Water Mission, Welthungerhilfe, and Whave Solutions.