Mobile Phones Help Divine Water Supplies in Angola Slums

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Ana Paulino, a 40-year-old street vendor in Luanda, balances plastic cans of water four times as heavy as a bowling ball on top of her head every morning and night for quarter-mile trips to the nearest well.

That’s a burden shared by many women in the capital of Angola, sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing city. The country is the continent’s second-biggest oil producer yet household running water remains only a dream for most.

Now, modern phone technology is helping ease the water collection chores in the $122 billion economy, part of advancements making inroads from Angola to Tanzania and India that enable people like Paulino to find the nearest working community taps where the public can buy water at less than 1/10th the price of what suppliers with trucks charge.

Mobile Enabled Community Services, an industry body supporting almost 800 Groupe Speciale Mobile Association operators worldwide, and aid agency Development Workshop are rolling out a program this year to locate the closest working taps, report breakdowns and pay for water at a fraction of the usual price.

That’s good news for Paulino, a mother of seven who spends 70 to 90 kwanzas (70 to 90 U.S. cents) for a container of water from private sellers because there isn’t a community tap. “It’s tiresome and disappointing to have to carry cans of water on my head every day in the 21st century,” she said.

Each 25-liter (6.6-gallon) container weighs about 28 kilograms (62 pounds) for Paulino’s eight daily journeys, an ordeal she shares with many in slums such as Sambizanga that contain two-thirds of Luanda’s residents.

With running water elusive and shortages common in the southwest African nation of 24 million, authorities estimate the country’s informal water trade at $250 million a year.

Luanda currently lacks enough water in its system to connect all homes as usage typically rises 10-fold when a family switches from community taps to internal plumbing, Development Workshop director Allan Cain said in an interview.

Now rusty pipes that often break after neglect during decades of war that ended in 2002 may become relics of the past. State-run Jornal de Angola reported in August that the government plans to spend $139 million to upgrade water distribution centers and build new reservoirs in the capital.

Helping will be the 200,000-pound ($324,000) mobile project. It has been funded by the U.K. with aims of winning matching funds from Angola to expand the program after a pilot effort in Huambo, Angola’s second-biggest city, Cain said.

Each tap has a manager with a mobile phone to collect 5 kwanzas per water can and report issues using a series of codes to a central database that plots operations in green or red dots on a map of the city. Smartphones with the capability are common even in slums, or musseques, he said.

“If you’re living in a high-density musseque, you can find where the water’s running today because if you have to walk a couple of hundred meters with a bucket on your head, you want the closest one,” Cain said.

Angola, second to Nigeria in African crude oil production with estimated output of 1.87 million barrels a day last month, has probably spent as much as $2 billion on its Water for All program since it began in 2007, according to Cain. The goal is to serve 80 percent of the urban population with a tap within 100 meters and all rural dwellers, he said.

The New York-based non-profit group mWater similarly develops open-source software to improve water, sanitation and health in six sub-Saharan African countries, India and Bangladesh.
Turnkey App

It has a $100,000 program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development in Mwanza, Tanzania’s second-largest city, to map and monitor water sources for contamination, mWater Chief Executive Officer Annie Feighery said in an interview.

“It’s a turnkey app that’s as easy to use as Google docs and it’s free,” said Feighery, who’s looking for partners to bring the service to Angola. “We’re trying to help aid agencies and governments that wouldn’t be able to pay for high-quality software.”

Health workers use a mobile phone to photograph water samples left overnight in petri dishes, she said. Software detects colonies of coliform and E. coli bacteria that can tint the water.

Source; Bloomberg Business Week 16 Ocotober 2014