ATM-operated water dispensers bring safe water to poor communities
An automated teller machine (ATM) is the last piece of technology the residents of Mathare expected to see in their informal settlement in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, especially one that dispenses water, not money. However, ATM-operated water dispensers are starting to pop up across the community, to the delight of the residents.
The ‘water ATMs’ in Mathare work in a similar way as their traditional counterparts that dispense cash. Patrons use smart cards that can be easily topped up at a local kiosk or through a mobile phone, and simply swipe the cards at the ATM-style device.
The water that flows from the tap into jerry cans brought by the customers is up to 100 times cheaper than that from private vendors. It costs only half a Kenyan shilling (less than half a US cent) for 20 litres of water and is guaranteed to be clean and safe to drink. The public-private partnership that spawned the initiative, between the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and the Danish engineering firm Grundfos is the first of its kind in a peri-urban area.
Maintaining security is typically the primary challenge to the success of water dispensers in informal settlements, a task this programme has allocated to groups of young people living in the community. They are responsible for ensuring that it is safe at all hours of the day for members of the community to draw water from the four dispensers that have thus far been installed. In informal settlements such as Mathare, residents are often unable to take advantage of amenities offered 24 hours a day due to security concerns, but because of the community’s own security arrangements, the water can be drawn at any time, day or night.
In this way, the system offers greater safety and freedom to the residents. “It ensures that the people in the informal settlements have direct control over their water supply,” says Phillip Gichuki, the managing director of the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company. In exchange, these communitybased security groups receive 40% of Ksh25 (about 25 US cents) garnered for every cubic metre of water.
The youths also keep the water points clean and prevent vandals from tampering with the devices in a city where illegal car wash operations are rampant. In the absence of security, the main pipes supplying fresh water to the city are punctured to divert water to these illegal car wash setups. After use, the pipes are left to spill out until the reserves are depleted. This leads to widespread water shortages in many parts of the city.
Now that the new dispensers have provided an alternative water supply that is easily accessible and affordable, as well as security, those who were conducting illegal carwashes have been forced to collect the water they need legally from the taps instead of destroying valuable pipelines.
The implementation of the ATM water dispenser has not been without challenges. The system features a single tap with water flowing at a slow rate, which results in long queues. Residents report that it can take up to two minutes to fill a 20-litre container.
Grundfos, which is also providing technical support, is working to increase the water pressure on the taps to increase the speed of the water flow, a measure that is easy and not so costly, according to the company’s director of global partnerships, Rasoul Mikkelsen.
One of the greatest assets of this technology in a settlement like Mathare is its ability to track revenue collection, which has always been a challenge to the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company. Installing an internal system in which no cash is physically exchanged helps to track monies collected more reliably, transparently and efficiently.
So what’s next on the agenda for the ATM-water dispenser?
Mr. Gichuki says the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has so far identified 611 more points to install the dispensers and aims to eventually install one every 100 metres throughout the city, especially within the informal settlements.
There are also plans to extent the technology to the rest of Africa. “There are already many potential partners from other African countries who have shown interest in the project,” Mr. Mikkelsen told Africa Renewal. Already, the company has signed agreements to install the ATM water dispensers in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Tanzania.
“Ultimately, the project will have a huge positive impact on health. It is an affordable system with sustainable, good quality water,” says Mr. Mikkelsen.
Youth using “water ATM” cards in Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya.