Smart Handpumps to Improve Africa’s Water Security

A Guest Post submitted by Sara Zipf

Smart Handpumps to Improve Africa’s Water Security

The University of Oxford has launched the Smart Handpump Project in order to improve access to drinking water in rural Kenya. Innovative low-cost mobile sensors now attached to handpumps are enabling remote monitoring and data collection of water availability. The project ultimately aims to improve drinking water security for millions across Africa.

 Improving water access and safety
An earlier trial in Kenya oversaw the installation of smart hand pumps in 60 villages, which were able to accurately record the depth of well water (groundwater availability is over 100 times greater than freshwater availability in Africa’s lakes and rivers). Technology was used to monitor pump usage and volume of water extracted per hour. If a pump broke, a repair company was immediately notified — drastically decreasing the average repair time from over one month to under three days. “It’s quite a simple and elegant solution to estimating groundwater and how it varies over time,” commented Dr Rob Hope of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. Access to clean fresh water is especially important in Africa where water can commonly be contaminated with bacteria and mould. Exposure to black mould, in particular, can result in health issues like vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhoea, and cognitive impairment. Back mould removal and treatment is therefore also an essential service to minimise health risks of elevated mould levels.

Waterpoint data transmitters 
The Smart Handpump Project features waterpoint data transmitters (WDTs) placed within pump handles. Each unit was developed to be lightweight, strong, and affordable with commonplace, easy-to-source components and no moving parts. When the pump handle is moved, an in-built accelerometer discerns the movement while a microprocessor monitors the specific angle the handle’s tilted to. The microprocessor tracks the number of pump strokes and estimates the volume of water pumped. Mobile network coverage facilitates remote monitoring and data collection for rural handpumps, offering an improvement on the standard field visits traditionally used to collect data.

Accurate data collection
The WDTs collect data once an hour before sending a data summary every six hours to a central server. A duplicate message is also sent three hours later to help avoid data loss. The SMS messages are sent with FrontlineSMS — meaning no internet connection is needed. And, although the data is viewed via a web interface, it’s also still readable offline. The data includes a map of the handpumps along with each pump’s status (whether it’s in working order or requiring repairs). Issues can therefore be quickly identified and resolved. Ultimately, the technology allows for improved pump maintenance and policy planning for pump operation.

“This project is a great example of using the latest developments in low-cost mobile sensors and machine learning,” said lead author Dr David Clifton, associate professor of engineering science at Oxford. Around 300 sensors are now installed across Kenya with the researchers aiming to soon expand the project to other communities. Africa is home to over one million handpumps, creating significant opportunity to harvest beneficial water data.