‘Smart meters’ for rural water supply in sub-Saharan Africa
Date: 23 August 2021
University of Exeter
PhD in Engineering
Novel technologies can help make progress towards the goal of universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. Rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from very low levels of water supply and drastic unsustainability of existing systems. The reasons for this include complex interactions between many ...
Novel technologies can help make progress towards the goal of universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. Rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from very low levels of water supply and drastic unsustainability of existing systems. The reasons for this include complex interactions between many factors; it is a ‘wicked problem’. In recent years, a range of ICT and Internet-of-Things (IoT) innovations have been developed to address limitations to rural water supply. Specifically, pre-payment ‘smart meter’ innovations for communal water points allow for improved revenue collection, real-time monitoring, and improved access. This technology is in the early phases of deployment across sub-Saharan Africa. Current evaluations, particularly in grey literature, have had limited: focus on technical aspects, independent academic rigour, or systems thinking. Significantly, data collected from smart meters has not been used for longer-term insights into rural water supply. The aim of this research is to investigate how ‘smart meters’ can improve rural water supply service in sub-Saharan Africa. An evaluation of a selected smart meter model was carried out on technical robustness, specifically accuracy of flow measurement and flow rate reduction from debris, and on effectiveness in the socio-economic context in rural Tanzania. This revealed good technical and socio-economic performance. Next, smart meter data from Tanzania and The Gambia was combined with collected survey and interview data to reveal new insights into water collection patterns from rural water points. Then, smart meter data was combined with rainfall data, and the influence of rainy seasons and days of rainfall are quantified. Based on this, ‘weather dependent pricing’ (WDP) has been developed as a novel pricing mechanism based on smart meter pre-payment and remote management, with the objective to incentivise users to maintain using clean groundwater. Potential costs per disability adjusted life year (DALY) averted, economic cost-benefit, sensitivity, and uncertainty of the pricing mechanism have been quantified, and an associated decision support tool has been developed. WDP has the potential to be an ‘off the shelf’ intervention with good value for money that can strengthen rural water supply systems and contribute towards climate change resilience. Key findings from this PhD research include: showing flow measurement is accurate, and flow rate reduction from debris build up can provide a basis for predictive maintenance; empirically showing how smart meters can improve service levels in rural communities; that smart meter data can provide new insights into time and location of water collection, and seasonality; and that weather dependent pricing could significantly and cheaply improve community health. The research has strong impact potential for current and future smart meter development and deployment (an area growing in relevance), and starts to fill four important research gaps. Suitable settings, broader considerations, policy implications, and potential barriers for smart meters in rural sub-Saharan Africa are expounded, along with how smart meters can strengthen rural water supply systems.
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