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Published on: 21/01/2014

The Mobile Phones for Water (M4W) system was introduced to enhance functionality of rural water facilities through timely reporting and repair of faulty sources.The success of the system starts with the water users who report faults by sending a text message to the their area mechanic. But users are yet to realise their key role.

Since its inception in 2011, the Mobile Phones for Water (M4W) initiative has been tested in eight districts and results show that indeed the system has the potential to improve the functionality of rural water facilities in Uganda.

The M4W system enables water users to report a fault at their sources by sending a text message using their mobile phones.  The reporting of a faulty water source through text messaging is supposed to trigger a series of actions starting with assessment of the magnitude of the fault by a Hand Pump Mechanic (HPM); advice to the water users and water user committees or the District Water Office (DWO), which then should result into the repair of the water system, hence reducing downtime and ensuring continuous enjoyment of water services (improved functionality).

It emerged that water users don't know yet how to use the M4W system... It will all come to naught if users can't report cases.

The success of M4W largely depends on all stakeholders taking appropriate action at the right time. The Hand Pump Mechanics (HPM), the Community Development Officer (CDO), the Health Assistant (HA) the District Water Officer (DWO), the System Administrator all have their roles to play to ensure that the M4W system functions smoothly. The HPMs respond to messages, conduct assessment of faults and repair sources. The CDOs remains aware of all faults reported and should remind the HPMs of the water systems that require fixing, as well as do monitoring to find out if the reported problems have been fixed. The DWOs regularly monitor the M4W system to ensure it is functioning and also use M4W data for reporting and planning purposes. But the whole process starts with the local water users' group or local managers taking responsibility to report faults as soon as they identify them.

In November 2013, Tripe-S undertook to retrain HPMs, CDOs, DWOs and HAs on use of the M4W system. Numerous issues emerged as deterrent factors to the effectiveness of the system. Most of them were to do with the functioning of the mobile phones, internet access on the phones. Others were concerning the mapping of water systems and improper identification of water points.  

But it also emerged that water users don’t know yet how to use the M4W system. While steps are already being taken to address the key challenges, it will all come to naught if users can’t report cases.

Triple-S and other stakeholders have initiated the process of securing a toll-free line... to enable the water users to report faults at no cost.

In some situations it was reported that rather than send text messages, some users had resorted to calling the HPMs directly through their phones. That may be alright but then it contradicts the set up of M4W system which is based on text messaging and whose other initial intention was to be able to capture downtime in the data base . In fact it is more expensive to make a call than to send a text message. Moreover, when a user calls the HPM instead of sending a text message to the system, there is a likelihood that only the two of them will know about the fault, instead of the whole chain of actors which then would compromise the follow up process.

Most importantly, it was reported that for most users the 220 shillings (UGX220 or some US$0.09) fee charged for sending a text message is prohibitive. In response, Triple-S and other stakeholders have initiated the process of securing a toll-free line to be hosted at the Ministry of Water and Environment. The prime purpose of the toll-free line is to enable the water users to report faults at no cost. A concept note has already been submitted to the Ministry of Water and Environment, which will in turn present the case to Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) through a letter that has already been drafted.

However, there is need to change the mindset of water users so that they start looking at that UGX220 as an investment rather than an expenditure. They ought to realise that spending UGX220 to save a water service is much cheaper than saving UGX220 and continue living without a functional water service, which presents numerous risks and challenges. Additionally, water users should always contribute their monthly fees so that there are always some funds when the need arises to repair a water system.

This situation was blamed on the fact that water users have not yet fully understood how they are supposed to  be involved in the use of the M4W system. While Triple-S has conducted mass sensitisation through radio stations and distribution of fliers, community awareness on M4W is still low. There is also a capacity gap in that community members, even though they are aware of the M4W system, they still don’t know exactly what to do. In fact it was recommended that Triple-S change from airing radio programmes to community dialogues.

The most important intervention for now is to make water users acutely aware that they play a critical role to make M4W work and ensure that their water systems are permanently functioning. “Sustainability of M4W will depend on how well we tell the communities that they are key stakeholders rather than beneficiaries,” says Joseph Abisa, the Triple-S Research Officer who is also overseeing the implementation of the M4W initiative.

In addition to making users understand that they are the linchpins in the M4W bid, Abisa also makes the following recommendations to ensure the sustainability of M4W initiative:

  • The Ministry of Water and Environment should take up the M4W system, own it and expand it beyond the eight pilot districts. Already the Ministry is going to intervene by requesting the Uganda Communication Commission to provide a toll-free line for the M4W system to enable communities to report faults on their water sources free of charge.
  • DWOs should be encouraged to use the M4W data in the planning, reporting and implementation of activities. Currently data generated from the M4W system is feeding directly into the district Management Information System (MIS) and at national level the system has been earmarked to feed into the Ministry MIS. In Lira district, data from the M4W system has been used by the DWO to request the ministry to decommission abandoned water points in the district and in Kabarole the DWO is already using the data for planning and annual reporting. Continued use of the data from M4W will show its relevance and justify its up take by the Ministry and other stakeholders in the sector.
  • There should be continuous capacity building for HPMs, HAs,  CDOs and DWOs.  During the retraining conducted in November 2013, some of the deterrent challenges had everything to do with the capacity of the cadres on how to use the system. Some had tampered with the software on their phones; some had since left and new ones had joined; changes and transfers of district personnel had also affected the flow of things. If refresher trainings are organised regularly, everyone will be up-to-date on how to operate the phones and also keep abreast of changes in the technology.

“M4W has a lot of potential and it would save the Ministry of Water and Environment a lot of resources. We need to market M4W more aggressively.” Abisa concludes.

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