June 2, 2016 |

Friday Think: ATMs dispense clean water in Nairobi’s slums

The plan is to introduce more machines into more areas for people who need access to safer water for drinking and hygiene.
Hand cart with water containers on it.
A cart transports plastic containers oftentimes filled with water from unknown sources. Photo: PATH/Jesse Schubert.

Last summer, in the heat and heart of Nairobi’s largest slum—surrounded by corrugated metal roofs and drainage canals flooded with raw sewage—men, women, and children lined up to get their first taste of clean water. Earlier in the year, a series of water-dispensing machines were installed through a partnership between the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and a privately held company.

The municipal water system barely reaches informal settlements, forcing slum residents to innovate and improvise. Many people rely on water cartels for their daily supplies. Not only is this water prohibitively expensive for the average resident, who earns just US$1 per day, but the cartels provide little transparency about the source and may supply contaminated water, or water stolen from illegally broken pipes.

“Access to clean safe water is vital for good health,” says Dr. Jennifer Foster, portfolio lead for Water, Air, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) at PATH. “However the urban poor have to pay disproportionately high rates for water that may or may not be safe to drink or use. Addressing this challenge by using ATMs to dispense clean water could provide an opportunity for residents of informal settlements to be able to access a reliable supply of safe water to support their families’ health.”

Clean water is especially important when you take into account the alternative. Since July of 2015, a cholera outbreak has hospitalized more than 2,566 patients and left 39 dead. Dried-up water sources and a shortage of sanitation facilities leaves the possibility of future epidemics.

Local food vendor Mercy Muiruri describes the introduction of this new source for safer, more affordable water in the Guardian story by Daniel Wesangula, “The ATMs Bringing Cheap, Safe Water to Nairobi’s Slums”:

“Life has become much easier. I can budget and I am also saving on other costs because I spend less on charcoal or kerosene to boil my drinking water. It has already been treated.”

Nairobi’s water dispensing machines really do resemble ATMs. Customers can deposit funds via their mobile phone into smart cards, or they can load their card at a nearby kiosk. Early reports indicate both health benefits and cut costs as the dispensed water is one-tenth the price of the products cartels sell.

What’s more, the water vending machines are sustainable. To encourage the maintenance and upkeep of the machines, local residents—youth and women’s groups—are tasked with upkeep. For a portion of the ATM profits, they both keep the machines running and help prevent vandalizing. Says Mbaruku Vyakweli, the water company’s communications officer:

“Initially, our pipes were vandalised by these same cartels that sold water to residents at exorbitant prices. Now, all we need is a safe and secure area, agreed on by the residents, and we supply the water from our own dams and reservoirs. . . .Plus, the water ATMs are run and monitored by residents; they own them and therefore take better care of them.”

As the ATMs catch on, the plan is to introduce more machines into more areas for people who need access to safer water for drinking and hygiene.

To learn more about Kenya’s water ATMs, read the full article by Daniel Wesangula on the Guardian.

Friday Think is an ocassional feature on PATH blog.During the week we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our feature, Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.

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  • Celina Kareiva is a project coordinator on both the Menstrual Health and Applied Behavioral Communication work teams at PATH.