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Piped Water Details

Why is safe drinking water so expensive?

If you live in an industrialized country you can probably rely on drinking tap water.  Including the cost of the connection and basic plumbing fittings, the cost works out at about USD 2.50 per 1000 liters (one metric tonne of water, almost the same as a US ton), based on current urban water charges in Australia.  Similar costs apply in most industrialized countries.

In countries where one cannot rely on the safety of tap water, drinking water becomes very expensive because of the need to prepare, transport, and maintain safety of the water from source to drinking cup.

One could be forgiven for wondering why there is such a problem, given the apparent success in meeting the Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of people without access to an improved water source.  Widely reproduced statistics report 783 million people living without access to safe drinking water, implying that most of the world’s population have access to safe drinking water.

According to UN statistics, 93% of the population in Pakistan have access to piped drinking water which counts as an improved water source[1].  The remainder are in relatively isolated rural settlements which are expensive to service.

Unfortunately, reality is not accurately portrayed by official statistics.  The widely used term “improved water source” does not mean the same as “safe drinking water”. “Access to piped drinking water” means that a physical water connection is available.  However, as explained in our application, even a good water utility in South Asia only manages to provide water 1 – 2 hours every 2 – 3 days.  Even then, the water is almost certainly unsafe to drink.  The vast majority of people in South Asia have to filter and boil this water or rely on other sources for their drinking.  During times of shortage, there may be no water for weeks or months at a time in many neighborhoods and when it does come, is likely to be contaminated with fecal matter and pathogens. Billions of people, possibly more than half the world’s population, have to live with contaminated water, even though they may not realize that.  See for example:

Even if drinking water comes from a free source such as a well or urban standpipe, it still has to be carried and treated.  Women are seldom paid to do this but their time is not free. We can calculate the cost of their time using an economic parameter: the shadow-priced value of time.[2]  This roughly corresponds to 2/3 of the basic female earning rate in the particular region.  Water is heavy: a woman can carry a maximum of 15 to 20 liters (4 – 5 gallons) and a family with an elderly dependent, 4-5 children, a servant and an animal will need 80 – 120 liters (20 – 30 gallons) every day for drinking, food preparation and ablutions.  The standard allowance in UN refugee camps is 10 liters per person per day (about 3 gallons).

When you run the value of time calculations for a typical urban fringe situation in South Asia, the cost of the water works out at USD 30 – 50 per ton, more than 10 times the cost of the tap water that you may be drinking.  Refer to:

If, instead, you were to buy water in 20 liter plastic bottles, the cost today works out at USD 100 to 150/ton including delivery.  This water is more reliable and convenient.  The price is set by market competition: one would not expect it to be any less.

These costs are much higher than the costs reported in the open literature such as recent UN reports on water affordability.[3]  This is because the UN reports do not allow for the value of time involved in obtaining water from different sources.

It is worth comparing these costs with some other alternatives.

Many have advocated “point-of-use” treatment: since it seems impossible to improve the public water supply service, people should instead be able to treat the water to drinking water standard at the place where it is used.  The standard way to do this until recently has been to boil and filter the water.

Recently several companies including Unilever have started marketing filters in South Asia, intended for domestic use, and guaranteed to provide safe drinking water.  The claimed cost including the “Pureit” filter unit is substantially less than bottled water, 0.5 cents per liter, or about USD 5 per ton.  This is based on the maximum volume of water that can be treated by a replaceable filter cartridge. However, when other costs are added, including the unit itself (approximately USD 100) and value of time for maintenance, the water cost is USD 7 – 10 per ton.  Based on my personal experience with these products, they are fiddly to use and don’t work well to provide water quickly for washing or cleaning.  Great care is needed to avoid contamination when changing the cartridge and cleaning the unit. These products have not yet been successful in the South Asian market and it can be hard to find replacement filters leaving the buyer with an expensive and useless purchase. Rapid model changes leave the user with a unit which is incompatible with new model cartridges.

In Pakistan, Gen. Musharraf’s military government constructed a large network of public drinking water supply stations with self-contained purification plants located across major cities and towns.  However, the stations only work when the intermittent electric power and intermittent water supply coincide and users encounter long queues.  The water has to be carried to the point of consumption, undermining the economic value of providing free water.  When one calculates the value of time involved, the cost is much the same as any other free water source.[4]

In South Asia, there are water delivery services to make up for deficiencies in the public water supply, both government and private.  However, in order to obtain water when it is needed, consumers have to line up in queues early in the morning and be prepared to pay significant bribes to secure delivery on the same day.  Once again, significant time is involved as well as up-front cash payments.

I-DROP, a new enterprise, has invented water treatment machines for installation in shops in South Africa to dispense guaranteed safe drinking water.  Currently the cost is 1 South African Rand per liter, about USD 70 per ton.  The user has to carry the water from the shop to where it is needed: one would therefore expect the cost to be less than bottled water delivered to the premises.

Market economics tells us that, in a fully-informed market, the price of obtaining water from different sources will be approximately the same, taking into account direct and indirect costs.  The poor drink whichever water they can find, and carry the cost of the resulting sickness as an economic penalty resulting from reduced working capacity.  Bottled water delivery services would not be able to compete at a price of USD 100 per ton if other sources of supply were significantly cheaper, including all the indirect costs.

Naturally, real markets are never-fully informed, but there is sufficient information across most of South Asia for most people to make informed choices on water.

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What are the health and economic consequences?

Until recently, reports on the health consequences of drinking water contamination focused mainly on preventable diseases and deaths due to diarrhea and infections by water-borne cysts, bacteria and viruses.  In recent years, the focus has been enlarged with the realization that widespread stunting in children is associated with fecal contamination of drinking water and the child’s environment.  Stunting refers to damage in the small intestine associated with chronic or repeated diarrhea infections that permanently reduces the child’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.  Studies have associated childhood stunting with malnutrition even when enough food is available, poor school performance, poverty, and higher risks for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke later in life.

For an introduction to the stunting issue, refer to:

Nearly 50% of children under three years old in South Asia and many other regions are affected – estimates range from 150 to 300 million infants: a huge limitation on developing economies reinforcing poverty.

While initial interventions focused on nutrition, recent work recognizes the crucial first step: safe drinking water.  Without safe water, mothers only reluctantly adopt basic hygiene interventions such as hand washing.  Given the labor required to obtain water for their families, mothers are reluctant to use it except when absolutely necessary.

Here is a selection of recent reports providing extensive details.

  • Aguayo, V. M., & Menon, P. (2016). Stop stunting: improving child feeding, women’s nutrition and household sanitation in South Asia. Maternal & child nutrition, 12(S1), 3-11.
  • Bain, R., Cronk, R., Wright, J., Yang, H., Slaymaker, T., & Bartram, J. (2014). Fecal contamination of drinking-water in low-and middle-income countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Med, 11(5), e1001644.
  • Crane, R. J., Jones, K. D. J., & Berkley, J. A. (2014). Environmental Enteric Dysfunction – an Overview. Paper presented at the CMAM Forum.
  • Cumming, O., & Cairncross, S. (2016). Can water, sanitation and hygiene help eliminate stunting? Current evidence and policy implications. Maternal & child nutrition, 12(S1), 91-105.
  • George, C. M., Oldja, L., Biswas, S., Perin, J., Lee, G. O., Kosek, M., . . . Parvin, T. (2015). Geophagy is associated with environmental enteropathy and stunting in children in rural Bangladesh. The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene, 92(6), 1117-1124.
  • George, C. M., Oldja, L., Biswas, S., Perin, J., Sack, R. B., Ahmed, S., . . . Azmi, I. J. (2016). Unsafe Child Feces Disposal is Associated with Environmental Enteropathy and Impaired Growth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 176, 43-49.
  • Griffiths, J. K. (2014). Water, Sanitation, and the Prevention of Stunting: An Holistic View of Why Food Isn’t Enough. Paper presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2014.
  • Humphrey, J. H. (2009). Child undernutrition, tropical enteropathy, toilets, and handwashing. The Lancet, 374(9694), 1032-1035.
  • Lassi, Z. S., Zahid, G., Das, J. K., & Bhutta, Z. A. (2013). Systematic Review of Complementary Feeding Strategies amongst Children Less than Two Years of Age. Accessed September 24, 2016.
  • Mbuya, M. N., & Humphrey, J. H. (2015). Preventing environmental enteric dysfunction through improved water, sanitation and hygiene: an opportunity for stunting reduction in developing countries. Maternal & child nutrition.
  • McKay, S., Gaudier, E., Campbell, D. I., Prentice, A. M., & Albers, R. (2010). Environmental enteropathy: new targets for nutritional interventions. International health, 2(3), 172-180.
  • Ngure, F. M., Reid, B. M., Humphrey, J. H., Mbuya, M. N., Pelto, G., & Stoltzfus, R. J. (2014). Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), environmental enteropathy, nutrition, and early child development: making the links. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1308(1), 118-128.

Most of these recent reports argue the necessity of starting interventions with provision of safe drinking water: it is difficult to envisage any success without starting with that.  However more is needed to completely address stunting, including effective sanitation and public education programs.  Ellery (2015) has prepared a summary of some of the necessary interventions and policy measures:

The economic consequences of stunting and malnutrition are extremely large though difficult to estimate.  A large population of people with permanent physical and intellectual impairment imposes a huge economic burden for decades.  The affected people have limited earning capacity and will almost certainly require more medical care, and are less able to care for others:

  • Alderman, H., Hoddinott, J., & Kinsey, B. (2006). Long term consequences of early childhood malnutrition. Oxford economic papers, 58(3), 450-474.
  • Dewey, K. G., & Begum, K. (2011). Long‐term consequences of stunting in early life. Maternal & child nutrition, 7(s3), 5-18.
  • Norgan, N. (2000). Long-term physiological and economic consequences of growth retardation in children and adolescents. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 59(02), 245-256.

Investing in stunting reduction has been shown to provide benefit/cost ratios of between 4 and 48 with a median of 18 for Bangladesh:

  • Hoddinott, J., Alderman, H., Behrman, J. R., Haddad, L., & Horton, S. (2013). The economic rationale for investing in stunting reduction. Maternal & child nutrition, 9(S2), 69-82.

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How do we know that people are willing to pay for piped water?

Numerous research studies have demonstrated willingness to pay for piped water services, not only in developed countries but also in low and middle income countries.  These research studies have been based on community surveys investigating, for example, peoples’ awareness of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and their attitudes to different kinds of water services.

The Bangladesh study by a World Bank team found, for example, that demand for the convenience of a piped water supply was stronger than the desire for arsenic-free water.  A vision for water security in Bangladesh based on tube well water supplies in villages has proved to be a disaster because of naturally occurring arsenic in the ground water aquifer below most of Bangladesh’s highly populated areas.

Selected references include the following:

  • Ahmad, J., Goldar, B. N., Misra, S., & Jakariya, M. (2003). Willingness to Pay for Aresnic-Free, Safe Drinking Water in Bangladesh. Retrieved from http://www.ircwash.org/sites/default/files/Ahmad-2003-Fighting.pdf
  • Casey, J. F., Kahn, J. R., & Rivas, A. (2006). Willingness to pay for improved water service in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. Ecological Economics, 58, 365-372. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.07.016
  • North, J. H., & Griffin, C. C. (1993). Water source as a housing characteristic: Hedonic property valuation and willingness to pay for water. Water Resources Research, 29(7), 1923-1929.
  • Pattanayak, S. K., Van den Berg, C., Yang, J.-C., & Van Houtven, G. (2006). The use of willingness to pay experiments: estimating demand for piped water connections in Sri Lanka. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper(3818).
  • Polyzou, E., Jones, N., Evangelinos, K., & Halvadakis, C. (2011). Willingness to pay for drinking water quality improvement and the influence of social capital. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 40(1), 74-80.
  • Raje, D. V., Dhobe, P., & Deshpande, A. (2002). Consumer’s willingness to pay more for municipal supplied water: a case study. Ecological Economics, 42(3), 391-400.
  • Singh, B., Ramasubban, R., Bhatia, R., Briscoe, J., Griffin, C. C., & Kim, C. (1993). Rural water supply in Kerala, India: How to emerge from a low‐level equilibrium trap. Water Resources Research, 29(7), 1931-1942.
  • Vásquez, W. F., Mozumder, P., Hernández-Arce, J., & Berrens, R. P. (2009). Willingness to pay for safe drinking water: Evidence from Parral, Mexico. Journal of Environmental Management, 90(11), 3391-3400.
  • Whittington, D., Lauria, D. T., & Mu, X. (1991). A study of water vending and willingness to pay for water in Onitsha, Nigeria. World development, 19(2), 179-198.

While it has been well-established that people are willing to pay for a safe and reliable piped water service, what has been missing until now is the practical means to achieve that.  Efforts to find solutions have occupied many in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, and recent discussions continue to focus on additional government investment and efforts to urge people to pay for water and sanitation.  Yet these measures have failed consistently in all low to medium income countries.  See, for example, a report on recent discussions in Kampala.

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How did we do the research for this project?

James Trevelyan, chief investigator, writes:

With family members in Pakistan, I have spent 6-8 weeks living in Pakistan every year since about 1992.

My research originated with the observation of the high costs of accessing water in urban-fringe settlements close to Islamabad.  Many of the settlements were served by water supply pipes but, either the water never came, or when it did it was considered unsafe to drink. My family ran a small NGO installing water pumps to provide safe drinking water from underground aquifers (HARC, Hameed & Ali Research Centre).  The pumps were installed in schools so as to provide universal drinking water access for everyone in the respective communities.

Around 2002, I was in a village to investigate where we would install a water pump so that local people could access water without walking 2-3 km to a nearby river.  A family insisted I visit them for tea and they proudly showed me their own $1500 hand pump and 100 feet deep well.  I wondered how and why this poor family paid so much.  I soon came to appreciate the value of time and how hard it is to carry water uphill in buckets.  The village was connected to the nearby Islamabad water supply system, but no water came out of the pipe that was safe to drink.  Nevertheless, just beside the village there was a recently constructed set of towers serving 3 national cell phone networks.  I started to wonder why cell phones could be so successful and widely used by rich and poor while water supplies were obviously failing everyone.

Initially it was hard to understand why large water supply utilities were so obviously failing at the same time as large cell phone utilities were succeeding: an apparent paradox.  In the years leading up to this, I had a frustrating experience employing South Asian engineers in Pakistan.  They seemed unable to deliver the results I could take for granted in Australia, something that I associated with an apparent lack of practical skills.  At first I had thought that there was some resentment associated with working for someone whose ancestors had colonized the subcontinent.  However I soon realized that almost every other engineering enterprise was encountering similar problems.

I started a research project in an attempt to understand the reasons for the performance differences between South Asian and Australian engineers.  During the course of this research, I interviewed many engineers involved in public water supply utilities in Australia, India and Pakistan.  I also continued my involvement with our family NGO providing water pumps for urban fringe communities near Islamabad.  These activities gave me insights into the real day today issues in obtaining water in South Asia.

After years of research, I managed to understand this paradox in terms of the difficulties encountered by South Asian engineers in obtaining sufficient collaboration between the diverse actors involved in any engineering enterprise.  Some of these difficulties are associated with the vast social and cultural gaps, compounded by language differences, between engineers and clients or investors on the one hand and between engineers and artisans on the other.

Selected references include:

My first response was to publish the results of the research in the form of a book to help young engineers acquire effective technical collaboration skills:

  • Trevelyan, J. P. (2014). The Making of an Expert Engineer. London: CRC Press/Balkema – Taylor & Francis.

However, it will take 2 or 3 generations for the knowledge from this research to influence engineering education and workplace learning.  In the meantime, I started to appreciate a series of factors that make cell phones successful in all developing countries.  I also realized that it might be possible to replicate these factors in a water utility by integrating information technology with conventional water distribution components.

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Why do conventional piped water utilities fail?

James Trevelyan and his students interviewed many engineers working for public water supply utilities in India, Pakistan and Australia.  They found that they are almost always hard-working and dedicated their lives to serving their communities.  While there was some evidence of corruption, it was not a sufficient explanation for the relatively low service quality provided by South Asian water supply utilities.  Instead there were many other explanations.

Even though water delivered to the pipe network may comply with drinking water standards, it is not possible to maintain the safety of drinking water through to the consumer’s cup or glass.  For most of the time, the pressure inside the water pipes is close to or below atmospheric pressure, enabling contaminated groundwater to seep into the pipes through leaking joints.  Water pipes tend to be laid adjacent to or inside sewerage channels, increasing the likelihood of fecal contamination from water ingress.  Buried pipes will be subjected to external water pressure exceeding atmospheric pressure.

Political actors at government or community level can exert strong influences on water supplies.[5] Influence by powerful actors has been one of the main reasons advanced for water supply failures, however research demonstrates further issues deeply entrenched in the habitual practices of water supply engineers.

For example, many of the leaking joints originated with crude attempts by water engineers to exert pressure on recalcitrant consumers to make them pay their bills on time.  Engineers will first disconnect their water and, if that doesn’t work, disconnect or block the sewerage pipe.  When the pipes are eventually reconnected, there is a significant chance of leaky joints being left behind.[6]

Frustrated consumers connect pumps to suck out as much water as they can after the “on time” every other day or so.  In doing so, the water pipe pressure drops below atmospheric pressure.  Not only does contaminated water seep in through leaking joints, but air is also sucked into the pipe.  When the water pressure resumes, the air is compressed.  When one of these air pockets reaches a water meter, the air suddenly rushes through enabling a following slug of water to hit the mechanism at high speed resulting in damage to the meter.

Because of the relatively low water pressure, most consumers have to run the water into a storage tank below ground level.  Even if the tank is properly constructed initially, after some time all kinds of contaminants will enter the tank: bird droppings, animal droppings, dead insects, even dead animals can be found in water storage tanks.  A household will then have an electric pump to lift the water from the below ground tank to a rooftop tank where contaminated water is regularly heated by sunlight every day.  Biological contamination, once in the system, is almost impossible to remove.  Therefore, it is impossible for the water supply utility to guarantee the safety of the water delivered to household taps (faucets).  If anything, one can guarantee that the water will be unsafe to drink.

With the pressure inside the pipe below atmospheric pressure, contaminated water from consumers’ storage tanks can be sucked back into the main pipe, enabling contamination to spread throughout the whole water supply system.

Consumers experience the results of these failures and respond with a marked reluctance to pay their bills, evading payment by bribing water meter readers, and bribing water supply technicians to bypass their meters or even to install undocumented private connections to the main water supply pipes.  Politicians interviewed for this research expressed deep frustration with engineers who, they say, are provided with huge amounts of money without producing the forecast benefits.  Difficulties in collaboration in engineering enterprises are not taken into account when forecasting expenses for both capital works and maintenance.  The amounts allocated are almost always insufficient to achieve the expected results so the service quality declines, increasing the level of frustration all round.

Individual water supply engineers are acutely aware of all these problems and willingly described them to us.  However, they are caught between powerful local social actors demanding favors for their families and friends, ordinary people who call them on their cell phones day and night, and powerful politicians responsible for allocating finance and human resources.

Other engineers not associated with water supply utilities are also aware of the difficulties and privately assume a degree of ownership of the problem without being able to do anything about it.  It can be a sensitive subject to raise in conversations.

That explains, partly, why optimistic rather than realistic statistics appear in national reports to government and the United Nations.  There is a reluctance to acknowledge the true extent of the failure in water utilities because of a sense of shared responsibility for the problems.  As I have shown in my research, there is no need to assume individual responsibility.  However the perceived personal share of responsibility is very real and significantly influences attitudes among engineers, even those who have little or nothing to do with water supply.

For further reading on this research:

  • Trevelyan, J. P. (2014). The Making of an Expert Engineer. London: CRC Press/Balkema – Taylor & Francis.

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Why can’t governments solve this problem?

Collaboration difficulties and trust deficits are evident in major engineering enterprises across the developing world, making it extremely difficult for governments to solve this and many other problems.  Engineers have great difficulties delivering predicted results.  They are unable to predict the real cost and, as a result, are unable to deliver results even if they start with a budget which is 100% of the estimated cost.  It is essential to understand that this is not because the engineers are less educated than their counterparts in industrialized countries.

In essence, engineering is seen by engineers as describing only the purely technical aspect of their jobs.  Most of what they do is seen as non-technical and hence “not real engineering”.  Research has identified this aspect of their work as technical collaboration which is as critical in achieving results as the technical part of engineering.  However, because engineers do not see this as “real engineering” it is neither taught nor understood in engineering schools and seen by engineers is something that they have to do though they would prefer to be doing something else.  Engineers do not willingly enroll in courses to improve their collaboration skills because they do not see it as being central to their occupation.  This issue affects engineers everywhere but there are additional issues that emerged from research in India and Pakistan that seem to apply in other developing societies as well.

Briefly, engineering can only succeed with a high degree of trust between the diverse social actors involved.  Investors have to trust that engineers’ predictions are developed conscientiously and are reasonably accurate without knowing anything much about engineering themselves.  At the same time, engineers have to trust that artisans can deliver skilled on-the-job performances though the engineers themselves are unable to perform these tasks with any degree of skill.  Engineers have to trust that work will be conscientiously performed even though they cannot be physically present to watch it being done.  The reality is that in developing societies, it is much harder to develop the degree of trust required and also to obtain sufficient alignment of intentions and performances.  Language has a significant role here.  As we have discovered recently, it is extremely difficult to translate between English and South Asian languages, even for professional experts.  Engineers think and discuss intentions in a mixture of English, their national language (Hindi or Urdu) and their mother tongue, typically Punjabi.  Artisans, on the other hand, speak a localized dialect of their mother tongue so engineers can only communicate with artisans through intermediaries such as supervisors who are only partly literate in the respective languages themselves.  Much is lost in translation.

Several other critical factors make it so much harder for intelligent and articulate engineers to secure the necessary degree of collaboration and alignment between intentions and actions.

These factors make it much more expensive to achieve a given result in a developing country society than the same results would require in an industrialized society, undermining attempts by government agencies to address water supply problems.  Governments have little trust or confidence in the ability of their engineers to deliver on their promises.

The Punjab Government, possibly the best organized provincial government in Pakistan, has initiated its “Saaf Pani” project to bring piped water to numerous rural communities. This is an ambitious and laudable program yet does not attempt to deal with existing piped water supplies which carry contamination, nor address overall financial sustainability.  In another effort, USAID has committed USD 36 million for a water supply upgrade in Jacobabad, Sindh as part of a USD 120 million assistance package on water supplies, providing further evidence that existing water utilities fail without substantial subsidies, often from external agencies.

With few exceptions, all the difficulties described here also apply to electricity utilities.

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Why can’t the World Bank solve this problem?

The World Bank and other multilateral lending institutions, aid donors as well, are all just as dependent on the ability of local engineers to deliver results as national and regional governments.  External agencies will typically bring in international engineering firms to supervise major infrastructure projects but it is not financially feasible to use these international firms to operate and maintain entire utility systems such as water supply and electricity supply networks.  They run into the same problem as governments, reflecting the much greater difficulties for engineers to secure collaboration and alignment between intention and action in developing societies.

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Why do cell phone enterprises succeed when other engineering enterprises fail?

Research identified several factors that explain why cell phone enterprises have flourished in low and middle income societies while other engineering enterprises have struggled.

1. Time savings provide value for users;

2. Incremental supply capacity investments match demand growth;

3. Information technology is integrated into the system, and

a) ensures that service is only provided with sufficient credit from pre-paid cards or credit card post-payment fostering trust in the system by investors;

b) enables efficient and secure collection of small payments, raising financial efficiency and fostering user confidence;

c) raises cost of fraudulent intervention to divert resources, fostering trust of users;

d) traces attempts to use social power to pervert the system, fostering trust of users;

e) enables efficient and centralized tax revenue collection; and

4. Reduced socio-cultural barriers and elaborate organizational systems inherited from multi-national technology supply companies enable more effective technical collaboration between investors, engineers and technical labor.

Factor 4 could be partly accidental: cell phone enterprises have bypassed most of the technical collaboration difficulties experienced by engineers and other engineering enterprises.

A very large number of South Asians (and others) were highly motivated to pursue any kind of information technology qualifications during the dot-com boom leading up to the millennium, and the level of interest has been sustained since.  Most of the motivation arose from potential migration opportunities to wealthy countries in order to increase financial security for their families left behind.  In reality, most privately run “computer science” schools, colleges and universities offered little more than introductory courses on using computers and common software packages.

The result was a large domestic pool of English speaking people with understanding and abilities to use commercial software packages.

These people provided the technical workforce that has enabled the cell phone revolution in developing societies.

Apart from the construction of cell phone towers, most of the cell phone work force operate computer systems to operate the network and perform maintenance tasks.

Unlike artisans in other engineering enterprises who get their hands dirty and are therefore drawn from relatively uneducated social classes, these people are much closer socially to the engineers and therefore they collaborate much more effectively with each other.[7]

Other aspects of cell phone technology perform the essential task of mediating trust between investors, engineers, artisans and consumers.  The information technology helps to ensure that investors receive payment before consumers use the service and also to ensure that consumers receive services that they have paid for in advance.  The cost of perverting the system is relatively higher because very high level software skills are essential and cell phone networks are constantly evolving and improving their information security.  Security improvements diffuse from the western world to the developing world almost instantly since the networks closely collaborate with the major cell phone technical suppliers in industrialized countries.

The beneficial factors intrinsic to cell phone technologies were not designed with the idea of overcoming collaboration difficulties inherent in developing societies.  They were part of the original system designs and the fact that they worked so well in developing societies was a fortunate accident.

If you need further evidence that the opportunity to build on cell phone systems could revolutionize the developing world, take a look at Lumos in Africa.

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How did the idea for this project originate?

James Trevelyan writes:

Around the year 2001, I was helping my Pakistan family install water pumps in schools on the then urban fringe of Islamabad.  While there were water pipes leading to the villages around the schools, the water was not fit for drinking and often did not come for weeks at a time.  The villagers had to carry water from nearby springs and polluted water courses before we provided a pump and a well for them.  The pumps were installed in the school grounds.  By doing this, and it was a long negotiation with the education department to get permission, all the villagers would be able to come to the school security guard (chawkiddar) to fill containers with clean groundwater whenever they needed it.  Villagers would not demean themselves by asking a landowner to use water from a pump on private land.

I could not help noticing the rapid proliferation of cell phone towers, some right next to the schools where we were installing water pumps.  How, I asked myself, could phone companies succeed where water utilities were failing?  Fifteen years later, phone companies are still profitable enterprises, though the market has saturated and competition is much tougher than it was in 2001.  Nearly every adult in Pakistan carries a mobile phone, yet few people have access to safe drinking water through pipes.

Later I noticed that cell phone technology has succeeded in developing societies around the world, not just in South Asia, and the key factors leading to this success have been listed above.

I began to realize how these factors could also be built into a water utility or electricity utility with appropriate information technology.

Of course, distributing information through a digital phone system is different from distributing a physical commodity such as water.  Water supply necessitates at least three additional success factors.

  1. Water is a social necessity so a minimal “social” supply must be guaranteed in absence of sufficient credit. This factor has defeated earlier attempts to solve this problem with pre-paid meters.[1]
  2. Being critical for survival, community regulation of water supply and pricing is a political necessity.
  3. Sufficient supply of potable water to distribute.

Gradually, I developed a technical solution embodying all these success factors, combining cell phone technologies with simple, well-tested water purification and distribution technologies.  Several students worked on different aspects from time to time.  One of many possible configurations of the system is described in the accompanying technical outline document:

Technical Solution Outline

It is not just research evidence that supports this idea.  The new company Lumos is taking solar energy into Africa using very similar ideas to what we have proposed here.

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Why has this solution not been proposed before?

There are two reasons.

First, the solution originated from research that has only recently been completed and published.

Second, until the MacArthur Foundation announced the 100 & Change competition, there was no readily apparent source of funding with the capacity to handle even the smallest water supply project.  Given the range of technical knowledge and experience required, the smallest team requires around 20 highly skilled people.  About half would be working on the technical solution and the other half on securing the necessary collaboration of government, target communities and regulatory agencies on the ground.  An additional contracting workforce would be required to manufacture and install prototype systems.  The minimum budget would be about USD 23 million over at least 4 years.

The determination of the foundation to do things differently and solve one major problem presented the first opportunity to develop a serious proposal to implement our solution.

Cited References

Human Development Report 2015.  New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2015.

USAID. “USAID Water Strategy 2013-2018.”

[1] World Health Organization, UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) 2014 Report: Investing in Water and Sanitation: Increasing Access, Reducing Inequalities. (New York: UN, 2014).

[2] IT Transport Ltd, “The Value of Time in Least Developed Countries: Final Report,” (2002).

[3] E.g. Henri Smets, “Access to Drinking Water at an Affordable Price in Developing Countries” (paper presented at the Technological perspectives for rational use of water resources in the Mediterranean region (Options Méditerranéennes: Série A. Séminaires Méditerranéens No 88), Bari, 2009).

[4] http://nation.com.pk/blogs/13-Jun-2015/provision-of-safe-drinking-water-a-new-challenge-for-pakistan (accessed September 25, 2016)

[5] Nikhil Anand, “Pressure: The Politechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai,” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011); Karen Coelho, “Of Engineers, Rationalities and Rule: An Ethnography of Neoliberal Reform in and Urban Water Utility in South India” (PhD, University of Arizona, 2004).

[6] Vinay Domal, “Comparing Engineering Practice in South Asia and Australia” (PhD thesis, The University of Western Australia, 2010).

[7]   Trevelyan, J. P. (2014). The Making of an Expert Engineer. London: CRC Press/Balkema - Taylor & Francis, Ch 13.

[8] Jay Bhagwan, personal communication, 2011

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