CellPump - Rwanda

Driving along rural dirt roads in many developing countries, you see frequent evidence of the generous intent of global humanitarian aid agencies. Most tangible are hand driven water pumps that dot the landscape. These pumps are the concrete and steel outputs of a global intent to provide more clean water to more people. Thousands are installed every year in developing countries, funded and implemented by organizations large and small. But, sadly, in many cases a flip of a coin may be your best judge of if the next water pump you pass will be surrounded by people, often women and children, filling their jerry cans, or if you’ll see a decrepit artifact of wasted resource.

Studies show that between 30% and 80% of water pumps fail within a year of their installation. While the proximate failures may be a leaky seal, a broken riser or a missing handle, these are only symptoms of the ultimate failure in how we fund, incentivize and monitor these efforts.

Some experts suggest that for the cost of installing a new hand pump, operation and maintenance could be funded on its neighbor pump for a century. Or, put another way, an implementer with a cohort of 500 existing pumps, tasked with installing 100 new hand pumps in a year, could double their maintenance budgets for 20 years. But only if funders could be persuaded to consider maintenance as equally interesting as new construction.

Instead, funders continue to incentivize construction, and lip services is paid to sustainability in the form of ‘participatory community development’, where local communities are, in theory, empowered to manage their own water supplies. In reality, this approach has not resulted in cost effective interventions.

And these challenges exist not just for hand pumps, but for myriad health and environmental interventions both in developing as well as developed countries.

Some organizations are now proposing and testing alternatives – moving the mindset of funders toward pay-for-performance models of humanitarian and environmental interventions. Instead of pushing money toward projects based on promises, pay interventions for successfully demonstrating impact that meets this intent. This may move from intent to impact via a combination of aligned standards, metrics and evidence.

There are business models, metrics, and policies that can help move programs in the direction of incentivizing impact. But technology can also play a role. Our team at Portland State University have designed sensors that are connected to the cell phone networks to automatically report to the world how things are going with interventions like water pumps.

With support from the UK Department for International Development and the GSM Association and in partnership with Living Water International and the Rwanda Ministry of Natural Resources, our team is trialing this new approach.

In 2014 and 2015, we’re installing over 200 sensors and running a longitudinal cohort study. In three different experimental ‘arms’ we’re going to compare the current model of operation and maintenance against a ‘best practice’ circuit rider model that includes a ‘call us’ feature for communities to report pump outages, against a ‘ambulance service’ model where the sensors directly notify technicians that maintenance is required. Sensors are installed in all three arms, but only in the ‘ambulance service’ are the technicians going to see what the sensors are saying. 

With over half of water pumps failing in some countries, if we reduce that failure rate even by a quarter through better maintenance and accountability, these fancy sensors will pay for themselves. 

These and other approaches can start to align intent with impact, and start to ensure that pictures are kids drinking clean water match the reality on the ground.