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In Uganda, the Mobile for Water project gives communities an SMS hotline to a handpump mechanic.

It is Saturday morning, and handpump mechanic, Ramadhan Baluku, is travelling through Karambi sub-county, putting stickers on water pumps and talking to anyone who comes to fetch water. He is good at this and is enjoying himself, chatting to community members and trying to give them a number, or better still, two numbers.

The M4W (Mobile for Water) Project is tracking and monitoring the performance of more than 8,000 water points in seven districts

The numbers he shares will work magic if anything goes wrong with the community water supply. One number identifies the water point on a sticker while the other is the mobile phone hotline where community members can send a text message to report a faulty pump or tap.

The mobile phone revolution that has put handsets within reach of almost every family offers an opportunity to transform communications between communities and service providers. In Uganda, the M4W (Mobile for Water) Project is tracking and monitoring the performance of more than 8,000 water points in seven districts. The system is designed to ensure that districts and sub-counties have current, accurate information and can respond rapidly to faults.

Although the Ministry of Water and Environment has been collecting data on rural water points for many years, compilation of baseline data costs so much that the national survey has been repeated only twice since 2000. Almost one in five water sources is missing from the Ugandan Water Atlas database and information that costs billions of shillings to collect goes rapidly out of date.

M4W text screen

 

System strengthens district database

M4W is a flexible low-cost system, put together by software developers at the College of Computing and Information Sciences (part of Makerere University), with the Ministry of Water and Environment, Triple-S, WaterAid and the Netherlands Development Corporation (SNV).

The system then automatically delivers a message to the relevant hand pump mechanic and to the district water officer, who can track how quickly the repair is carried out.

The system is managed by District Water Officers. When handpump mechanics register water points on M4W, and send information about the status and condition of the water point on their mobile phones, the data is checked by sub-county extension workers and automatically routed to the district water management information system.

When a water point becomes faulty, a community member can report the problem by sending an SMS to the designated number, 8888, with the unique identifying number of the source. The system then automatically delivers a message to the relevant hand pump mechanic and to the district water officer, who can track how quickly the repair is carried out.

Hand pump mechanic Stephen Balybuga adds an identifying sticker to a water point in Ikabende, in Karambi sub-county, Kabarole

Triple-S is road testing and refining this system in Kabarole and Lira districts where efforts are being made to step up public awareness. This explains why Baluku, together with his colleagues, John Mugisa and Stephen Balybuga are at the pumps in Karambi sub-county in Kabarole. They distribute Rutoro language leaflets, add identifying stickers to wells and mobilise a small crowd of nearby families to hear about the system.

Baluku is actually from Kabonero sub-county, but as secretary of the Kabarole Hand Pump Mechanics Association, he has come to support Mugisa who has prime responsibility for Karambi. He says, “What I am doing today is very good and is very popular. I am sensitising them on operation and maintenance and then making sure they know the number of their water point.”

He says that the system has speeded up the flow of information. “When people get problems with their water points, they click on M4W and we get to know about it quickly. As an association, it has forced us to go out on the ground and get information. We get to know the number of water points that we have and whether they are functional or not.”

In Kabarole, 1,628 water points have already been added to the system and this will rise to 2,500 when registration is complete.

 

Lira gets its message across on the airwaves

M4W has also been introduced in Lira District, in Northern Uganda, following discussions between Triple-S and the District Water Officer. Here, 1,230 water points have so far been registered, 7% more than were on the national database. The system is being promoted on the airwaves as well as directly by hand pump mechanics in communities. Triple-S has helped to prepare radio spots encouraging the community to report faults using M4W, and these have been broadcast three times a day in local languages during prime time slots on Radio North and Q FM.

"The community must understand that if repairs are needed, they must mobilise funds and meet the transport costs of the handpump mechanic."

With this initiative, a good relationship with the media was formed and each radio station provided 50 free bonus spots and invited handpump mechanics and water users to share their experiences on popular talk shows.

Children study a leaflet telling them how to report a fault at their water point. Karambi sub-county, Kabarole, Uganda.

Before the latest round of awareness raising, the use of the system by the public across the seven districts had been modest, with 84 faults reported by mid-May 2013, of which 27 had been fixed. The apparent low rate of repairs was mainly due to the time it takes communities to raise funds to pay for them.

Martin Watsisi, the Kabarole district Triple-S Learning Facilitator, says that M4W is effective at linking communities and handpump mechanics but does not resolve funding problems. “The community must understand that if repairs are needed, they must mobilise funds and meet the transport costs of the handpump mechanic and engage the handpump mechanic to repair that water source.”

 

Message needs reinforcing so it will stick

M4W is seen as a very strong means of tracking water points and functionality. However, the roll-out of this initiative in Lira and Kabarole has encountered a few snags. Many of the stickers that identify water points have been washed away or removed. It is also the case that some community members prefer to speak to the mechanic personally rather than send a text message.

"M4W gives real time data... That information can help shape the direction that the District Water Officers have in terms of planning their work and being able to improve water services."

During a Lira sub-county coordination committee meeting, health assistant, Milly Okullu, said that most of the stickers put up in 2011 were no longer there and they had agreed to put them back and to spend more time explaining to the community why they were there.

Jimmy Otim, Lira Assistant District Water Officer, checks the details of a pump at BoroBoro in Lira Sub county, where the original sticker had been washed away by leaks.

“We are always in the community and we interact with them. I am saying, please, if we go there for any activity we should not forget to tell the community about the stickers and their use and how important it is.”

Grace Okello, a parish councillor in Lira sub-county and the Secretary for Community Based Services, said that committee members should also go into schools to educate children about the system, because many children are involved in fetching water. “You have to tell them about the importance of the stickers and that they should not remove these things.”

Mechanics are also leaving leaflets with key members of the water point committees so that instructions are always available.

Despite ‘teething problems’, M4W is believed to have great potential and the teams in each district are working hard to make the system better known and to solve problems.

Robert Otim, the Triple-S Learning Facilitator for Lira, said that M4W was enhancing the capacity of extension staff as well as providing a basis for much more responsive service delivery. “The system supports easy upload and access to information and provides a reference point in terms of data for planning and follow up in terms of repairs.”

Ann Mutta, SNV Uganda sector leader for WASH and renewable energy, says that the system has already proved its value by validating national data about functionality and identifying and recording more water points than are on the national data base. “M4W gives real time data so that if you went to the districts where we are doing the work you would be able to tell how many water points at that time are down. That information can help shape the direction that the District Water Officers have in terms of planning their work and being able to improve water services.”

Peter McIntyre