Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Leveraging Satellites and the Internet of Things, SweetSense Facilitates Water Service Access in Kenya and Water Resource Management in California

This post was written by Kiersten Johnson and Kevin Mulligan, US Agency for International Development, Bureau for Food Security

Water is essential for life, human dignity, and the health of people and planet. Globally, governments have prioritized ensuring access to safe water services, with access to piped water in or near peoples’ homes increasing in the developing world from 36 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2006. However, although access to piped water services has increased, there is often a gap between the water services promised by utilities and the water services that people receive.

SweetSense is a social enterprise that identified opportunity in that gap. In many developing countries, the gap exists because there are typically not requirements to monitor performance of water assets after they are installed, leading to high rates of failure. SweetSense recognized that peoples’ ability to access water services in the face of climate change is dependent upon credible and continuous information about access reliability. With few companies offering an efficient, effective approach to monitoring the function of water infrastructure in the developing world, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas, SweetSense determined that they would integrate and leverage cutting-edge technologies to improve the quality and value of water services in these places.

A successful example of the approach is illustrated by SweetSense’s partnership with USAID in support of the Kenya Resilience Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development (RAPID) activity, which is aligned with the Government of Kenya’s Ending Drought Emergencies Common Program Framework. SweetSense put water usage sensors on motorized borehole wells and began transmitting data back via SWARM satellites to mWater (cloud-based computing and PAAS). The sensor monitors the run-time and power used by the pumps, measures that serve as proxies for water utilization and mechanical efficiency. These data are then made openly available from a central dashboard where water service providers can monitor functionality and water volume -- and county-level governance actors can monitor service provider performance. The result of this data-driven process is that people have improved access to essential water services, and there is increased accountability for service provision.

Screenshot from the Kenya RAPID dashboard, showing the operating status of borehole wells across the country

These data also empower local service providers to implement preventive maintenance for the borehole wells to ensure there is water available during drought. The data are linked into the Famine Early Warning System Net (FEWSNet), which is where Earth observations data are leveraged: analysis of the relationship between remotely-sensed precipitation and monitored groundwater pumping activity provides an early warning signal for potential drought-related shocks, enabling better planning for water shortage and more resilient recovery.

The economic impact should not be overlooked, with private sector service providers representing newly created employment opportunities; contributing to the sustainable economic growth potential for the local community. In addition, the open-source data and dashboard enhance the public trust and accountability in the use of funds.

This approach delivered, via low-cost satellite network functionality, a blockchain-enabled water service platform linking water service, payments, and governance -- a bundled solution that was in demand not only in Kenya but also in California: SweetSense and IBM are now partnering with The Freshwater Trust to pilot the same approach for one of the largest and most at risk aquifers in North America, California’s Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta.

California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta -- IBM RESEARCH

“Based on a research project in Kenya with USAID, the Millennium Water Alliance and other partners, we are now applying our expertise in building decision support systems for water management for surface and groundwater data aggregation, workflow optimization and analytics to address similar challenges in California. With the addition of the blockchain, we can bridge critical trust and transparency gaps making it possible to build a robust, scalable and cost-efficient platform for managing precious groundwater supplies anywhere in the world.”

-- Dr. Solomon Assefa, Vice President, Emerging Market Solutions and Director for IBM Research, Africa.

The public health and economic benefits of sustainable, universal access to water and sanitation are globally recognized. To realize the goal of universal access, particularly in the developing world, significant investment in water point operation, maintenance, and repairs is critical, and the use of local and remote instrumentation, like that of SweetSense, is a key enabling technology. These same approaches can be used globally to fairly manage one of our most precious -- and rapidly dwindling -- natural resources: fresh water.

This figure shows where the research in today's post contributes to the Feed the Future Results Framework