Water is a necessity to sustain all life, but millions of Kenyans struggle daily to find a steady source of it. The solution? Data gathered in real time. Discover how the efforts of an international partnership and an IBM innovation at one of its African Research Labs is helping to transform the future of the country.
Mesiamo Lengima would regularly leave her home in Ulauli, Kenya, and walk an uncertain 20 kilometers in search of water for both her family and the livestock she owned. Success was never guaranteed. The shallow wells she drew from were often contaminated and the possibility of contracting a serious waterborne disease was high. Lengima’s children frequently helped, causing them to either miss school or get ill from what they consumed.
The struggles for clean water are not unique to this family.
41 percent of Kenya’s 46 million citizens turn to ponds, shallow wells, and rivers as their primary water source. Only nine out of 55 public water service providers offer a continuous supply. “The writing is on the wall,” says Dr. Nathan Wangusi, Research Scientist at IBM Research - Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. “We need to do a better job at understanding the cycles of supply and demand, both through technology and by implementing policies that support sustainable water management.”
While there are two annual rainy seasons in Kenya, concern increases during the dry seasons, when everyone needs to get water from machine-drilled boreholes that can be 100 or more meters deep. “One of the big challenges is management of that groundwater,” says Evan Thomas, Chair of Global Engineering at the University of Colorado and the CEO of SweetSense Inc., a company focused on low-cost sensor monitoring technology.
“Often times the pump will break and it doesn't get fixed very quickly. What we're trying to do is reduce drought emergencies. A drought emergency happens when water is not available where it needs to be, when it needs to be.”Evan Thomas, Chair of Global Engineering at the University of Colorado and the CEO of SweetSense Inc.
To alleviate this severe problem, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation funded the Kenya Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development. The project, also known as Kenya RAPID, tapped IBM Research - Africa to develop a water management software platform that would help the nearly three million residents of five northern Kenyan counties (and their animals) gain access to safe drinking water. Kenya RAPID is led by the Millennium Water Alliance (MWA), and includes more than 21 partners including World Vision, CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Food for the Hungry, SweetSense Inc., IBM Research and others, who work with county and national governments across the region.
Building trust amongst the county and national Kenyan governments was one key aim for Kenya RAPID. “The water management system in the arid and semi-arid land counties has previously been community-managed with lack of accountability being a key concern. Mechanisms for revenue collection were not transparent,” says Doris Kaberia, of the Millennium Water Alliance – Kenya Program Director, and Chief of Party for Kenya RAPID program.
Developing technology that would help overcome the ongoing problem of water shortages was another. For the latter, SweetSense created a satellite-connected borehole pump sensor, capable of transmitting data about groundwater extraction volumes in areas that often don’t have cell coverage. The technology is already monitoring water levels for more than a million people. IBM, in turn, has developed a cloud-based system (known as WMaaSP) which can be viewed online both locally and internationally, with a mobile version currently in development. Based on the internationally recognized stoplight system, partners and government officials can regularly view the site to determine if a pump is working, and whether repairs are needed.
“When we have a sensor on a borehole pump, we can identify that a pump is broken, and you can see that on IBM’s cloud-based dashboard. You’ll see that as a red light.”Dr Jon Lenchner, Chief Scientist at IBM Research - Africa
“We can relay this information to the county or sub-county water office, or to non-profits on the ground that do maintenance — all in the effort to repair the water pump. Instead of spending $100,000 to drill a new borehole, you’re often spending mere hundreds of dollars to fix it.”
The SweetSense technology also has the ability to use machine learning to detect likely imminent failures. “Reducing downtime of the pumps even further increases value to the customer,” adds Thomas. “This increased reliability discourages the user of the so-called non-revenue water, such as privately drilled non-permitted boreholes.”
In addition, the IBM online platform will be able to do much more than determine whether a pump is working or not.
It will allow water managers to make decisions based on demand and supply factors such as population trends, climate patterns affecting water supply, and changing land use. An interactive map will provide crucial information that include water location in each county, contact information of local government officials and historical records about water drawn, as well as repairs made. Eventually, a mobile app will enable citizens to report problems with the water infrastructure.
“Improved supply of the water has positively impacted the lives of the women in the village by creating more time to attend to their families,” says Kaberia. “The livestock owners have access to a reliable water source for their animals, while the women are now engaging in productive activities such as kitchen gardening, which has improved the nutrition status of their children.”
Kaberia further illustrates that the lack of a central data management platform “significantly affects the quality of decisions meant to improve water service delivery, especially in the counties where water scarcity is a real challenge. With this platform, the water officers from the five Kenya RAPID focus counties, working at their desktop or mobile device, have access to credible data to make decisions: planning of new water points, decisions about repair and maintenance, or decisions on decommissioning of water points that are no longer viable.”
To date, MWA Kenya RAPID has helped improve access to safe drinking water for nearly 800,000 people and animals.
That includes Mesiamo Lengima, who has seen her daily quest for clean water reduced from 20 kilometers to just 500 meters. The school which her children attend has re-opened and enrollment has increased. “With the water supply and support from the Kenya RAPID program, we are planning to initiate vegetable production using shade nets,” Lengima says. “Now that we have secure access to water, we will focus on enhancing food security and increasing the household income.”
“Improved supply of the water has positively impacted the lives of the women in the village by creating more time to attend to their families.” - Doris Kaberia, Millennium Water Alliance, Kenya Program Director and Chief of Party for Kenya RAPID program.
During the dry season everyone needs to get water from machine-drilled boreholes. “One of the big challenges is management of that groundwater.” - Evan Thomas, Chair of Global Engineering at the University of Colorado and CEO of SweetSense Inc.
Millions of Kenyans struggle daily to find a steady source of water. Children often help their parents to collect water, causing them to either miss school or become ill from what they consume.
To date, the Kenya RAPID program has helped nearly 300,000 Kenyans gain access to safe drinking water.
Water officers from the five Kenya RAPID focus counties have access to credible data - via desktop and mobile devices - to make decisions regarding the planning of new water points and the repair and maintenance of current locations.
The Kenya RAPID water management software platform aims to help almost 3 million residents in Kenya gain access to safe drinking water.
On top of helping local Kenyan communities, the Kenya RAPID project has given nearly 500,000 animals access safe drinking water.
Many residents, like Mesiamo Lengima, have seen the distance of their daily quest for clean water reduced from up to 20 kilometers to as little as 500 meters. In some areas school have re-opened and enrollment increased, while water-related illnesses have been reduced.
Kenya RAPID is led by the Millennium Water Alliance (MWA), and includes more than 21 partners including IBM Research, SweetSense Inc., World Vision, CARE International, Catholic Relief Services and Food for the Hungry, among others.
The new central data management platform significantly improves the quality of decisions related to the improvement of water service delivery, especially in the counties where water scarcity is a prominent challenge.
“When IBM and SweetSense go out to the counties and see people using our technology, moreover witnessing that we are empowering them to be masters of the technology themselves, I get inspired because we are adding value to the community. It's quite rewarding.” - John Lechner, Chief Researcher at IBM Research - Africa.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce drought emergencies. A drought emergency happens when water is not available where it needs to be, when it needs to be.” - Evan Thomas, CEO of Sweet Sense.
With secure access to clean water, benefits for locals include enhanced food security and increased household income from crop sales.
With the improved water supply and support from the Kenya RAPID program, local Kenyans are planning to increase their own vegetable production.
Building trust amongst the county and national Kenyan governments was one key aspect for Kenya RAPID. Developing technology that would help overcome the ongoing problem was another. Over 21 partners are now working with county and national government officials across five remote northern counties in Kenya to improve water access.
This is just the beginning. The residents are able to see the technology helping them on a daily basis. As it does, there are plans to build on what has become known as one of the first successful public/private partnerships in Kenya. The coupled technology of IBM and SweetSense, joined with the expertise and long-time presence and reach of MWA, could be a milestone in African innovation, as it has the potential to address similar problems well beyond the continent, including other countries where MWA works. “Water is seemingly not the most obvious area in which to apply information technology, but we're changing minds about that,” says Lenchner.
“When IBM and SweetSense go out to the counties and see people using our technology, moreover witnessing that we are empowering them to be masters of the technology themselves, I get inspired because we are adding value to the community.”Dr Jon Lenchner, Chief Scientist at IBM Research - Africa