ATM-op­er­ated wa­ter dis­pensers bring safe wa­ter to poor com­mu­ni­ties

Africa Renewal - - Africa Wired - BY

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.

Verah Okeyo

Youth us­ing “wa­ter ATM” cards in Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya.

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