Sunday, January 11, 2009

Water: the hi-tech and the low-tech

For many years before coming here I was employed as a consultant, working on IT projects. I'm not a computer expert but the work related to the information and data rather than the technology. The work was often interesting but many of the projects seemed to be rather pointless or to miss the point.

For example, there were too few social workers in a local authority and they had too much work to do. Therefore, a lot of mistakes were made and the people who were supposed to benefit from social work either didn't benefit or suffered adverse consequences.

Another example, people didn't have enough money to pay certain bills or they had the money but they hadn't received the services. The result was that the authority didn't get the revenue they expected, but they also didn't know that their constituents were not getting the services and that that is why they were not getting the revenue.

You might think that more social workers and better investigation services would help with both of these problems. But a number of years ago, someone must have told the UK government that all their problems would end if they were to 'e-enable' everything. All they needed was ‘e-delivery’, 'e-government', 'e-payments' and anything else that you put 'e-' before would be miraculously transformed and would never cause problems again.

Well, I accept that you can do a lot with technology but only with certain sorts of problem. And it’s just one tool, depending, like any tool, on how it is used. Now, water services in some parts of the UK are terrible, not because people can't report faults in their area using their palm top. The people who live in the worst affected areas were unlikely to have palmtops. The problem was with the infrastructure.

If technology is a solution to administration and communication problems, why is it not a solution to infrastructure problems? Some of the water infrastructure in the UK dates back more than a century and the technology goes back a lot further than that. Apparently the water companies like spending money on certain sorts of technology, it makes for great publicity. But they are not so keen on other sorts of technology. So pipes continue to leak, bills continue to go up and more and more people have problems with their water supply.

Well, there is little comparison between London and Nairobi. Indeed, there are far worse places than Nairobi, but as a densely populated city where more than half of the inhabitants live on less than 2 dollars a day, the problems here are extreme enough. The water infrastructure is not as old as that in London but it was built for a much smaller population and doesn't even extend to many of the most densely populated areas. Most of these places have no running water, no electricity and no proper roads.

Other infrastructures are similarly dilapidated and oversubscribed. There are some fortunate (and relatively posh) areas where there is always water at the turn of a tap. But there are other areas where water is an expensive commodity that requires either a lot of work, a lot of money or both. Of course, if you have the money, you can avoid the work. But if you don’t have the money, and many people don’t, then you are in big trouble.

So, I didn't know whether to laugh or be angry when I heard the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, announcing his plans for 'e-government'. This is the PM suspected of trying to rig the last elections. Perhaps he and the President, Mwai Kibaki, who was 'e-lected' under highly suspect circumstances think that 'e-government' is one where there can be no rigging or gerrymandering? Odinga went on to talk about the many possibilities of ‘e-enabling’ and the benefits people could expect.

I don't know whether the election chaos was caused by politicians, the police, the army, civil servants (and the Electoral Commission of Kenya is certainly getting a lot of the flack), business people or other interested parties. But 'e-enabling' the election process, or any other aspect of the administration of the country, will not cut corruption, inefficiency, lack of resources, accessibility or anything else that matters.

And if people don't have water, there is no abstruse technological process that will give them access to it. The technology required is so simple that it is not even called technology. I'm not saying there are no complications, just that Nairobi is not waiting for some spoddy geek to come along and sort it all out. There is a water authority here already, with engineers and other experts. They need to be enabled, whatever that involves, not 'e-enabled'.

When people have adequate access to water, food, education and other social services, then it will be time enough for the 'benefits' of high technology. That high technology, also, can wait until the country is able to afford it. If there is not enough money to improve the water supply, nor is there enough money for technological frippery.

I'm quite sure there are Western companies falling over themselves to supply technical equipment and services, there always are. No doubt they were behind Odinga’s speech. Well, they are finding it increasingly hard to palm their innovations off on Western countries, who are just beginning to realise that they have long been hoodwinked by glossy brochures. I hope the leaders of Kenya are not swayed by promises of modernisation and technological enhancements when there are far more basic and more important things to worry about.

Finally, I hope that these leaders will not be hoodwinked into believing that privatisation will solve all their problems with public utilities and services. They only need to ask some of their neighbours about their experiences of privatisation. The word Biwater springs to mind when anyone mentions water privatisation in developing countries, but other words spring to mind too.

PS: I got completely distracted from what I wanted to talk about! There is a cheap and simple method of purifying water in areas where there is plenty of sun. It’s called the Sodis technique (Solar Water Disinfection). It costs little or nothing, it’s accessible to most people, no matter how poor, it’s sustainable and it provides many benefits. Just check out the manual!

Exposing water in clear plastic water bottles to the sun for up to six hours reduces or eliminates micro organisms because of the effects of ultraviolet radiation and the rise in temperature. In strong sunlight, where high temperatures are reached, the water can be purified in as little as one hour.

Of course, you need to be careful about certain things. Small bottles need to be used, no bigger than about two litres, the bottles need to be kept clean and when they get too scratched they need to be replaced. Also, you cannot remove chemical contamination by this method.

But it is a true empty pocket scheme in a place like Kenya, where many areas are strewn with used plastic bottles. Now that they have a value when kept clean and usable, perhaps there won’t be so many of them thrown out along with other household rubbish.

I was pleased to see an item about the Sodis technique on national television yesterday, just after I returned from a meeting about water and sanitation in Kibera. There isn’t much space in Kibera, (unless you include the well watered golf course next door) but there is enough scope to put bottles out in the sun to provide drinking water for the family. The only problem is that it is so simple, people are not very impressed with it!




Claire Risley said...

Solar disinfection's a great idea. Do you see people using it? I wonder if it requires an understanding of the causes of diarrhoea, and bacterial growth and death, if people are to achieve disinfection this way?

Simon said...

I don't really know, it's worked well elsewhere, apparently. I need to ask some people who may be working with it now and then follow it up later. But it's a good start. Some people here, such as people at the meeting yesterday, feel that the only solutions come from outside. Whereas I and other people at the meeting felt that this is not true and that they had better come up with their own solutions. Personally, I don't think outsiders are going to do much net good, no matter how well meaning. But with regard to the water, people just drink whatever they get here and it's already expensive enough without having to boil it or buy bottled water. At least there is something affordable available. I use the technique myself and haven't been struck down with anything yet!

Anonymous said...

Check out for information on SODIS. There is work being done in Kenya.

Simon said...

Cool, thanks Rod, this is very interesting. Perhaps catching people early in life is the trick!