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Text Messaging for Safe Water
David Zaks, 27 Oct 06
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Cell phone ring tones are now music to the ears of the 35 million Bangladeshis at risk for numerous cancers and debilitating impairments from groundwater tainted with arsenic. Since the 1970's, wells for drinking water have been used to avoid pathogen contaminated surface water, but in the mid-90's many of the wells were found to have toxic levels of naturally occurring arsenic. "Tube wells" are currently the best method to deliver cheap and pathogen-free water in rural Bangladesh, but most wells are installed without prior knowledge about the arsenic concentrations in the area. This haphazard practice is about to change.

Lex van Geen and his colleagues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University are working to reduce the exposure to arsenic through their development of an SMS - accessible database to best inform communities of how deep to drill their wells to avoid arsenic. A pilot project incorporated data from 300,000 wells into the Welltracker database, which reports for each village the number of wells tested, the proportion of unsafe wells and, when available, the start depth together with an estimate of the probability that the estimate is correct.

To access the database, a user sends a series of short messages to pinpoint their location based on either village name or geographic coordinates. Using data from previously drilled wells in the vicinity, the database calculates the safe start depth for the well at which arsenic concentrations are not likely to be toxic. The database also reports the probability of finding arsenic-free water at a certain depth. Dr. van Geen and colleagues are considering a money-back guarantee scheme that would use the probability estimates to set an insurance premium that a household could buy to eliminate the financial impact of failure after drilling a new well.

Trained users, like NGO workers, can upload information on newly drilled wells to the database via cell phone. New wells are tested with a field-kit to determine the arsenic concentration of the water, and the database is updated immediately, increasing the accuracy of the appropriate well depth for other users.

Pinpointing the safest depth to drill the well also saves money. As wells costs about $3 a meter to drill, excessively deep wells can put an undue financial burden on the user. If the well is too shallow, there is a greater chance that it will have unsafe concentrations of arsenic and will be of limited usefulness. In a country where most of the population earns under $1 a day, drilling a shallow yet safe well is of the utmost importance.

With 100-150 wells installed by trained NGO staff in Araihazar, the Welltracker database is now ready to be opened up for use across the country. An additional 5 million of the 8.6 million wells in the country are to be incorporated into the database from the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation and Water Supply Program, a program sponsored by UNICEF and the World Bank.

Bangladesh once had one of the lowest distributions of telephone access in the world. That was before Grameen Phone, part of the micro-finance juggernaut, Grameen Bank. The Village Phone program provides microloans, mostly to women, who are given handsets, and aims to connect 30,000 villages in rural Bangladesh. With almost 10 million other phone customers, the infrastructure has been laid out to help locate safe water throughout the country.

As cell phone ubiquity increases, it is only natural that they are leveraged for humanitarian and development purposes. While the Bangladeshi water footprint is small, Welltracker seems to be the shoe that fits to ensure a clean water supply.

A short video describing the drilling technique and the Welltracker database is available here.

(Thanks, Andrew!)

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It was really an amazing idea. I firmly believe that it would at least help Bangladeshi villagers to have arsenic free water. Keep it up.

Posted by: Mustak Hossain on 27 Oct 06

As one might hope that this kind of project is happening out in the world it is so reassuring to see it actually in operation. Blessings to the people that have moved this forward!!! There must be many places on this earth where this similar project would be imperative for the survival of the people now and in the future in not only third but second and first world nations. Is there more to come?

Posted by: claudia green on 29 Oct 06

1.I really am skeptical on how higher concn of As is kept out of water when you dig deeper, unless compartmentation prevents the high level water to contaminate the low concn As.
2.In our expoerience, the urbanisation process greatly affects the bacteriological quality of water; over 40% borewells were found to be contaminated with coliforms.
3. ASny project for monitoring the toxic concn of As as well as economics is rewarding to the community.

Posted by: Prof. K. Nireshwalia on 31 Oct 06

It sounds very good. But the question lies with the majority of the population, who are illiterate. I'm not quite sure how far these illiterate people will be enthusistic and able to use the new technology. Besides, the project again pushing people to use ground water instead of surface water. I feel this is not a sustainable solution as the ground water level is already in a bad shape for excessive extraction. Last but not the least,the installation of tubewells at the deep acquifers will be an expensive alternative for the poor people in Bangladesh.So there are every possibility of the project to be failed when the question of affordibility comes in. Can you please apply the same mobile phone technology to encourage people to harvest rainwater?

Md. Saiful Islam
Journalist, BSS

Posted by: Saiful Islam on 1 Nov 06

I totally agree with Mr. Saiful's comment in this regard. You have criticisms about the deep tubewell technology considering the poor per capita income of the country, on the other hand you are suggesting to use mobile technology for mobilisation? I think this kinda stuff are good to hear, but not much effective. Still, these can be utilized by the people who have access!

Shamim, James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.

Posted by: Shamim Ahmed on 1 Nov 06

The issue of illiteracy and access to cellphone technology is certainly important, and one that the creators of this project have considered carefully. It may be surprising that cell phone use is growing rapidly in an area with as much poverty as Bangladesh. The cost of getting cell phone access to rural areas is much lower than getting landline access. That is why cell phone use is also growing rapidly Africa.

While it may seem beyond reach for someone who is earning 1$ a day to buy a cell phone, it can actually be a business opportunity. One person can buy a cell phone with a loan and then use it as an income generatory by making a phone stand in a rural location. This kind of business is supporting many families throughout Africa.

Similarly, use of this cell phone messaging technology to access a database and model of Arsenic levels is a business opportunity for enterprising Bengalis. I believe the plan is to move from having NGOs using the service to having locally-run water testing and installing consultancies.

Most wells can be dug cheaply, and if the testing and database shows that a deeper and more expensive well is needed in a particular location, then an NGO or governmental office could step in to help with the cost of digging a shared well for a whole village.

As for the environmental impact, this program is designed for creating wells for direct human consumption, not for farming use, so the water table impact is much smaller and more sustainable.

Henry Kaufman
Cambridge, MA

Posted by: Henry Kaufman on 7 Nov 06



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