| Colin McClelland |
LUANDA, Angola (WP-BLOOM) – Every morning and evening, street vendor Ana Paulino balances plastic cans of water four times as heavy as a bowling ball on top of her head for quarter-mile trips to the nearest well.
That’s a burden shared by many women here in the Angolan capital, sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing city.
Angola is the continent’s second-biggest oil producer, yet household running water remains only a dream for most.
Now, modern phone technology is helping ease the water collection chores in the US$122 billion economy, part of advancements making inroads from Angola to Tanzania and India that enable people like Paulino to find the nearest working community taps where the public can buy water at less than a tenth the price of what suppliers with trucks charge.
Mobile Enabled Community Services, an industry body supporting almost 800 Groupe Speciale Mobile Association operators worldwide, and aid agency Development Workshop are rolling out a programme this year to locate the closest working taps, report breakdowns and pay for water at a fraction of the usual price.
That’s good news for Paulino, 40, a mother of seven who spends 70 to 90 kwanzas (70 to 90 US cents) for a container of water from private sellers because there isn’t a community tap.
“It’s tiresome and disappointing to have to carry cans of water on my head every day in the 21st century,” she said.
Each 25-litre container weighs about 28 kilogrammes for Paulino’s eight daily journeys, an ordeal she shares with many in slums such as Sambizanga that contain two-thirds of Luanda’s residents.
With running water elusive and shortages common in the southwest African nation of 24 million, authorities estimate the country’s informal water trade at $250 million a year.
Now rusty pipes that often break after neglect during decades of war that ended in 2002 may become relics of the past. State-run Jornal de Angola reported in August that the government plans to spend $139 million to upgrade water distribution centres and build new reservoirs in the capital. Helping will be the $324,000-mobile project.
It has been funded by Britain with aims of winning matching funds from Angola to expand the programme after a pilot effort in Huambo, Angola’s second-biggest city, Development Workshop director Allan Cain said in an interview.
Each tap has a manager with a mobile phone to collect five kwanzas per water can and report issues using a series of codes to a central database that plots operations in green or red dots on a map of the city.
Smartphones with the capability are common even in slums, or musseques, he said.
“If you’re living in a high-density musseque, you can find where the water’s running today because if you have to walk a couple of hundred meters with a bucket on your head, you want the closest one,” Cain said.
Angola, second to Nigeria in African crude oil production with estimated output of 1.87 million barrels a day last month, has probably spent as much as $2 billion on its Water for All programme since it began in 2007, according to Cain. The goal is to serve 80 per cent of the urban population with a tap within 100 meters and all rural dwellers, he said.
The New York-based non-profit mWater similarly develops open-source software to improve water, sanitation and health in six sub-Saharan African countries, India and Bangladesh.
It has a $100,000 programme funded by the US Agency for International Development in Mwanza, Tanzania’s second-largest city, to map and monitor water sources for contamination, mWater Chief Executive Officer Annie Feighery said in an interview.
“It’s a turnkey app that’s as easy to use as Google docs and it’s free,” said Feighery, who’s looking for partners to bring the service to Angola. “We’re trying to help aid agencies and governments that wouldn’t be able to pay for high-quality software.”
Health workers use a mobile phone to photograph water samples left overnight in petri dishes, she said. Software detects colonies of coliform and E coli bacteria that can tint the water.
Online monitoring of water quality and wastewater is of growing interest everywhere, Blue Tech Research says. Since the 1980s and ‘90s, online monitoring instrumentation has evolved from portable versions of existing laboratory equipment to innovative, stand-alone, remotely controlled instruments.
Yet lack of maintenance has hobbled the Water for All programme goal to reach two-thirds of the population, while allowing an informal water trade to balloon, Cain said.