How Can SMS Texting Increase the Impact of Safe Drinking Water Programs?

Editors Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s technology, tools, and services, along with learning from successful pilot projects among Blue Planet Network’s global WASH members. It was authored by Silke Knebel, development director of Blue Planet Network

One of Blue Planet Network’s founding members, Project Well, is an organization that brings safe drinking water to rural communities in an arsenic-affected district of West Bengal, India. Credit: Rudi Dundas

One of Blue Planet Network’s founding members, Project Well, is an organization that brings safe drinking water to rural communities in an arsenic-affected district of West Bengal, India. Credit: Rudi Dundas

SMS texting is today’s most widely used mobile data service, especially in some of the most rural and marginalized communities around the world. SMS traffic reached 7.8 trillion messages in 2011 globally. As text messaging has grown ubiquitous, so too has its potential as a simple, inexpensive way for NGOs to reach rural communities and address the global water crisis.

Professionals in the WASH sector understand that there are more mobile phones in the global South than toilets. The need for utilizing mobile technologies in designing sustainable water and sanitation systems is clear.

Blue Planet Network created its SMS-based reporting tool to scale the global efforts of its members. Operating across 27 countries, we connect NGOs, funders, academics, and community members to plan, implement, monitor, and collaborate on safe drinking water projects. We do this through our online technology platform, SMS reporting services, and peer review process. Our technology solutions empower NGOs to increase the impact, efficiency, and sustainability of their water projects.

Project Well utilizes Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting tool to provide status reports on water projects that use modern bore-dug wells. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Project Well utilizes Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting tool to provide status reports on water projects that use modern bore-dug wells. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Earlier this year, Blue Planet Network began a pilot of its simple SMS-based monitoring system in India. India’s population of 1.2 billion is made up of 929 million mobile phone users — a colossal 77% of the population. Blue Planet Network’s service enables communities, and our NGO member organizations equipped with cell phones, to monitor and report on safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, our network members can provide immediate assistance in the form of expert advice to remedy a challenge. Since deployment, 5 of our members: Ekoventure, Gram Vikas, Palmyra, Project Well and Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) have utilized the tool to increase the impact and sustainability of more than 13 water and sanitation projects across India.

Blue Planet Network CEO Lisa Nash explains that, “The challenge in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is that a great deal of attention is paid to project implementation — the new ecosan toilet, the new hand-washing station, or the new arsenic-free well. But unfortunately up to half of these projects can fail within the first five years — not because of poor implementation, but because there wasn’t enough thought about sustainability at the outset.”

Villagers in Endiyur, from the Marakkanam Block of Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu, India, are assessing the durability of toilets during a Palmyra working group training on sanitation and hygiene. Credit: Palmyra

Villagers in Endiyur, from the Marakkanam Block of Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu, India, are assessing the durability of toilets during a Palmyra working group training on sanitation and hygiene. Credit: Palmyra

Palmyra, a WASH implementer in the Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu, India, has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2010 and uses our platform and SMS mobile texting services to improve their water program monitoring and analysis. Palmyra’s program managers send in weekly field status project reports via SMS texting. These messages are captured and uploaded onto our platform for peers, funders, and WASH implementers to view and monitor project effectiveness and impact.

Blue Planet Network has dedicated a staff person to work with each SMS pilot participant. We have learned that reinforcing communication has to be ongoing or it’s easy to see a decline in participation. We also had to ensure that our service could be viewed in English (so the entire network could learn) and in the local language (so that field staff and community members can add value and input).

“The power of SMS is the power to let anyone participate,” says Lisa. “We’ve already seen text messaging in fundraising, but now we’re seeing how it is enabling communities to take charge of the sustainability of projects and increase transparency across the sector. And this can happen anywhere in the world. Simplicity is power.”

Our SMS-based reporting tool will soon be deployed in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, where arsenic and pesticide-laden drinking water threatens the health of migrant workers.

A woman in San Joaquin Valley, California who is exposed to nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. Credit: Erin Lubin

A woman in San Joaquin Valley, California who is exposed to nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. Credit: Erin Lubin

One million people in California lack reliable access to clean water; and 1 out of every 10 people living in California’s agricultural areas is at risk of exposure to harmful levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according to a report released in March 2012 by the University of California, Davis.

In partnership with our member, Community Water Center, we seek to create a community-driven water solution to mitigate the threat of high levels of nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. The program will provide alternative water filtration solutions, sustainable support, and financing for low-income communities in San Joaquin Valley.

The San Joaquin communities receiving access to clean water through this program will utilize our SMS-based mobile texting service to ensure that their clean water system is delivered and used accurately, and is sustainable and economic to operate. When this program is implemented, over a thousand low-income San Joaquin families will be able to send in text messages about the status of their safe drinking water, a service never before provided in the region. We are thrilled to provide a simple, yet powerful service that could drastically change how communities engage in their water solution.

Blue Planet Network’s SMS-based texting service empowers communities to take charge of their water systems and allows entire organizations to learn and share efficiently. SMS reporting is scaling our efforts to impact greater numbers of communities with measurable need. We have much to learn to make this service even more valuable. In the next few years, we hope to launch our SMS texting service in all 27 countries so that all of our members can increase the long-term impact of their water programs.