The role of technology in improving access to clean water and sanitation

Clean drinking water and sanitation are essential for public health and are the basis for social and economic progress. Increasingly, both people and organisations are advocating for the use of technology to increase access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation facilities. New technologies have the potential to provide sustainable access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, and to present sustainable solutions where piped water and flush toilets may not be feasible.

Previous attempts to solve WASH-related challenges have been limited in scope. They have typically focused around the construction of wells or funding for wells. While this approach is helpful, it does not address the full depth of the challenge, and the mismanagement of funding and maintenance is a common issue.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) estimates that up to US$360 million has been spent on building boreholes and wells, which have since become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down.

Improving Decision Making

Technology can be used to reduce maintenance response times to infrastructure breakdowns. It can also enhance transparency in water usage, giving communties a better understanding of their water usage. With greater oversight, this can improve decision making processes regarding how resources are invested. In turn, this technology can empower local communities to take greater control over their WASH facilities whilst increasing the efficiency of WASH investments.

Mobile and internet-ready technology allow automatic messages to be sent to those responsible when water wells or other WASH infrastructure require maintenance, reducing breakdown times.

Technology can also be utilised to locate leaks and sites of contamination in a water supply to improve efficiency and reduce the risk of waterborne disease outbreaks. Combining physical and digital data, and relating to water provisions and resources via the internet and associated computer services can increase the transparency of data relating to WASH. This empowers decision-makers to make more informed and sustainable investment choices.

The Example of Pee Power

Adopting a holistic approach to WASH challenges is necessary to combat the full scale of the problem. It is useful to consider water supply and sanitation as an integrated issue, whilst understanding the technical and cultural context of an area to apply relevant and appropriate solutions. A new technology called ‘Pee Power’ has been advocated by many NGOs as having the potential to improve  access to water and sanitation facilities. Research conducted in Kisoro, Uganda, found that many girls fear using toilet facilities at night due to the potential of being attacked. Other dangers such as trip hazards and slippery floors also prevent people using sanitation facilities at night. This not only contributes to hygiene-related health problems, but also psychological stress. Among women, stress relating to sanitation and hygiene can be very high, especially during menstrual and pregnancy periods.

Pee Power technology utilises a microbial fuel cell to convert organic substances such as urine into electricity. This can then be used to provide lighting for toilet blocks and paths.

After introducing Pee Power technology in Kisoro, 85% of women said they felt safer using toilets. Improved education outcomes have also been reported, including increased school attendance and academic performance.

It is important to acknowledge the challenges and limitations of implementing this type of technology universally. Currently, the technology required to light a toilet block through Pee Power costs between USD$5,000 – $10,000. Additionally, there is a shortage of chemical engineers in developing countries who are required for constructing and maintaining the technology. However, this may provide a good opportunity for partnerships with local universities which offer related degree courses.

At the same time, technologies like Pee Power  may not always be the most appropriate solution. Instead, it is essential to gain a thorough understanding of the specific and unique challenges a community faces, in order to provide the most effective technologies.

Community Driven Approaches

It is common for complex technologies and systems to require long term and often external technical support. As such, some communities may lack the facilities and infrastructure to maintain the use of certain types of technology. For this reason, it is imperative not to implement wholly top-down technological approaches to improve access to WASH facilities, but to adopt solutions which are co-developed with local communities.

Technology has the potential to improve access to WASH facilities. But to do so effectively, it needs to be embedded within broader plans and policies at local, national and international levels. Only then can technology improve access to water and sanitation to achieve universal access.

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