As water development charities and agencies have built out water projects around the world, they've sometimes been accused of placing too much emphasis on digging wells and not enough on monitoring and maintaining them afterwards. The question "are the wells working?" hangs over the sector, and there's a big need for better analysis. USAID has said that up to 40% of water projects in developing countries fail, placing in doubt some of the positive progress reported by non-profit groups.
New York-based Charity: Water is known as a particularly modern and effective charity. In the last nine years, it's dug more than 16,000 water projects in 24 countries, raised more than $200 million from donors, and set new standards for donor engagement and public communication.
But, like other groups, it faces something of a visibility problem. When chief water officer Christoph Gorder opens his laptop in the morning, he can see all the thousands of wells the group has helped install plotted on a Google Map. But, at the moment, he can't see how well each well is functioning, how many people are using the equipment, or get any sense of when in the future problems might arise.
But at least Charity: Water knows its limitations. That's why it's been investing in its own series of sensors, starting with the Agridev hand pump sensor it's now piloting in northern Ethiopia.
"The average hand pump will go five million strokes a year. These things are not precision-engineered. Most of them were made in India and Pakistan, and it's very rudimentary technology. All sorts of things go wrong," Gorder says.
Funded with a grant from Google.org, the sensor wraps around the water pipe, measuring the water level in a central chamber. Data from the sensor is sent out from a universal mobile SIM and fed into an algorithm that analyzes patterns and generates alerts if the water flow falls too low. Once rolled out—4,000 have been manufactured so far—the sensors should allow Charity: Water to track flow rates across wide areas.
"We're going to tell with real precision how often they break down," Gorder says. "We believe we'll also be able to look at patterns and predict breakdowns. We'll be able to see demand where we might need more wells dug. And we're going to find interesting ways to engage supporters who've helped us."
Charity: Water has long sought to personalize its fundraising, linking donors to specific projects. During our interview, Gorder showed me an example from northern Ethiopia—a village of 200 people, roughly 40 families. In 2012, 55 donors had paid for the well, which costs about $10,000 all in. Afterwards, the donors had gotten a full report, complete with photos and testimonies from grateful villagers. Now, Gorder says, donors will be able to see how the flow-rate is going as well and exactly how many people are using the equipment.
Donors may not be checking their wells on a daily basis, but a notification now and again may be welcome. Certainly, it's a way for Charity: Water to appeal to its donor base for repeat dollars and maintain its presence in the crowded philanthropic marketplace.
It helps that all of Charity: Water's operating expenses are paid by an elite group of 110 wealthy backers, who include Square's Jack Dorsey and Spotify's Daniel Ek. Donations from ordinary funders go entirely to water projects, side-stepping the "excessive overhead" questions non-profits normally face.
To its credit, Charity: Water has decided to open up its sensor software, so other non-profits can use it as well. It's all here. Gorder hopes they'll take up the offer, even though it may add marginally to the cost of project delivery (the sensors cost about $100 each, but should fall in price as more are manufactured).
"It's unlike other sensors that reduce operating costs. In this case, it costs more money in mechanics coming out, and operationally and logistically. It creates a new set of challenges because they can see what's going with their wells years after the fact," he says.
Like it or not, it seems like water non-profits will have to aspire to the kind of data visibility and accountability that Charity: Water (and others like WellDone) are proposing. In the future, digging wells and walking away will not be enough.
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