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Improving Water and Sanitation through Mobile Phones


Gates Foundation

Mobile users in developing countries learn about water and sanitation conditions while playing games on their cell phones.

In the past few weeks, I’ve come across quite a few articles and research studies that have linked mobile phones to improved water and sanitation conditions, so I thought I would share some of this information with our readers. According to WaterAid, a leading water and sanitation charity, 2.5 million people (located mainly in Africa and South Asia) die from diarrhea and other diseases spread by a lack of sanitation. Surprisingly, these vulnerable people are more likely to have a mobile phone instead of access to a clean toilet. In order to prevent these deaths and the spread of disease, researchers have decided to use cell phones to teach proper hygiene habits and improve access to water and sanitation.

Hattery Labs is one company that is experimenting with mobile games and sanitation practices. Here is a list of a few games they have developed so far:

  1. Soap Wars makes hand-washing an entertaining challenge where players use the soap dispenser as a weapon against dangerous germs.
  2. Sanitation Heroes engages players in the process of sanitation maintenance from capturing, transporting, and disposing of feces to reusing it as fertilizer. It features different scenarios in a memory game that prompts the player to match the solution to each different stage of capturing and treating waste.
  3. Toilet Hunt introduces obstacles along the course of finding a safe place to go to the bathroom. As the player searches for sanitary latrines on a basic map, they must use the clues to decide whether the latrine is safe.

Other mobile strategies that companies are using to improve water service delivery include water management by SMS, where text messages disseminate information about water production levels, account balances, and service disruptions, allowing water-service operators to communicate with national authorities through cell phones. 240 public-private piped water schemes in Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Niger are now using this service.

Rob Hope, a researcher at the University of Oxford, claims that about one third of all hand pumps providing water in developing countries are not in working order. Hope is involved in a project called the Mobile/Water for Development program which works to ensure the maintenance of hand pumps. His team has developed “smart handpumps”, which send text messages to utility engineers when there is a breakdown. Currently, DFID is funding a pilot project in Kenya where researchers are testing this application in 70 villages.

To learn more, visit http://www.impatientoptimists.org/Posts/2012/06/How-mobile-games-can-help-improve-sanitation, http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/mobile-technology-boosts-water-security-for-the-poor/, and Hattery Lab’s report, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Challenges.