by Takudzwa Noel Mushamba, WASH & Infrastructure Coordinator at Danish Refugee Council / Dansk Flygtningehjælp
Failure of technological innovation in the water and sanitation sector.
Across the globe there is growing momentum to address emerging and traditional threats to the water and sanitation sector through innovative technology. As a result, without thinking twice governments and practitioners have jumped on to the technology bandwagon. In the last decade there have been massive investments in technological innovation in the sector in developing countries. Furthermore, there are numerous articles that narrate how technology can help advance the water and sanitation sector in the developing world. There is no doubt there are some benefits emanating from the use of technology be it ICT or new technology introduced to operate and or manage water and sanitation systems. Regardless, the question is to what extent is the technology in question effective and is it introduced at right time?
Technology is a term used widely nowadays it ranges from the use of mobile and related Apps in non-traditional forms to the installation and use of advanced/improved systems in water supply and sanitation. Technology or should I say more advanced technology is often lauded for its potential to address both recurrent and new challenges in the water and sanitation sector in the developing world. What boggles the mind is misplaced priorities with regards to technology. Up to now there are very few studies on the impact of the various technology in the sector, this includes positive and negative impacts. Another glaring omission is the absence of investigation regarding processes, preconditions, timing and appropriateness of these technologies.
In most cases technology is adopted or rather copied without a detailed analysis of its appropriateness impact and cost effectiveness. There are a few examples that come to mind in Zimbabwe. These include;
Backwash water reclaiming systems such as the Oddis Plant installed at Morton Jaffray Water Works, the biggest water treatment plant in Zimbabwe. This system was never used despite costing tens of millions. According to anecdotal reports it was “copied” from Israel.
An advanced waste water treatment system installed by the Japanese in Chitungwiza failed dismally because the whole system got clogged by sand (Common dish washing agent in Zimbabwe). Read more about the sand problemhere.
When I did an assessment of over 40 water treatment plants in Zimbabwe in 2011 over 70% percent of dosing systems where either dysfunctional or could not be used because of various factors. Operators had resorted back to traditional bucket chemical mixing techniques the full report can be found here.
A briefing note found on this link by Water Aid discusses failed Solar powered water supply systems in Ethiopia and goes on to document previous practices and compiles lessons that are useful for future implementation.
As you have seen from the examples above rural water and sanitation projects are not spared either. Technology has become a buzzword institutional donors often demand innovation in projects and people tend to embrace the technology side of innovation. This again is done often without proper analysis of the long term impact of these new technologies and factors that determine their success and or failure. In some cases, technology that does not address actual challenges has been introduced. This includes the famous mapping exercises and introduction of mapping apps and software which have been popular in the rural wash sector in the last three years. Does it really help to have a database of boreholes only to find all of them are not functional on the ground, priority is the key issue?
Despite these failures there has been limited effort invested to understand factors which led to failure and how these could be addressed in future. There have been challenges to implementation caused by lack of knowledge of both implementing agencies and users; there have also been organizational challenges. Any change in implementation particularly that which involves new technology and/or uptake of any related ideas requires management of that change. Other factors such as HR and cost implications of implementation have to be taken into consideration. We have seen costs in long term sustained training, up-scaling, support and maintenance that were not expected or planned for in implementing some of these technologies.
I strongly support the use of appropriate technology, on condition there is a clear prioritization criterion, a properly structured implementation and follow up plan, informed by a robust feasibility study. The question remains in the context of developing countries what defines sustainable technological innovation?