Cisco is proud to support Akvo, which uses open source data platforms to improve clean water, sanitation, and agriculture projects. We know data is critical for effective decision-making, collaboration, and accountability. Akvo’s data platforms help agencies and governments around the world improve their programs so they can achieve lasting impact.
This post comes from Ethel Méndez Castillo, Akvo’s Hub Manager for the Americas. She is also a Senior Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Specialist and supports Akvo partners in designing good quality MEL systems. She lives in Washington D.C.
We invite you to learn more about nonprofit global impact partners of Cisco and the Cisco Foundation.
During the last week of February, my colleagues Mert and Jigmy trained six staff members of Development Organisation of the Rural Poor (DORP) in Bangladesh. The three-day training session focused on Akvo’s water quality testing solution, our mobile-based technology that enables water quality testing in the field and creates a data ecosystem for quality data to be collected and used easily.
The training was held in Veduria Union, a rural municipality on the island of Bhola, just south of the Bangladeshi coast, towards the Bay of Bengal. DORP has worked there since 2016 as part of the Watershed program, a strategic partnership between the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IRC, Simavi, Wetlands International and my organization Akvo. The Watershed program is focused on strengthening the capacity of Civil Society Organizations to advocate and lobby in the interrelated fields of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) to ensure equity and social inclusion, as well as sustainable usage of water resources. As part of the program, we identified the need to improve information about WASH to update the Water Security Plan for the municipality and as a starting point to advocate for better management of water resources and WASH infrastructure. One essential element in improving the information base was generating data about water quality, a variable that has often been neglected.
DORP’s need to improve WASH information is far from isolated, particularly when it comes to water quality. By WHO estimates, around 2 billion people drink water that is faecally contaminated (Link to PDF). Estimates from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency indicate that “far more people die from unsafe water than from other natural disasters and conflict.”
Water quality testing has generally been troublesome. Water samples were traditionally shipped to laboratories and decision makers had to wait for results, incurring high costs and delaying timely response. Testing pathogenic parameters like E. Coli were difficult because samples needed to be kept at specific temperatures while in transit to a laboratory, an error-prone procedure. These practices are still the norm in many places around the world and, despite field test kits that make it easier to test on-site, results remain fragmented and are generally documented on paper, making it hard to aggregate and see patterns at scale or in time. The challenges are worse in low income contexts where scarcity of resources often means that no testing is performed at all.
Sustainable Development Goal number 6 recognizes the importance of water quality by including ‘safely managed drinking water services’ as one of the indicators under the call for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030. The goal is for drinking water to come from an improved water source that is located on premises, available when needed, and free from faecal and priority chemical contamination. This means that countries that have committed to the 2030 agenda are now thinking about how to improve water quality and also how to generate evidence about it in a lower-cost and more efficient way.
Akvo at work
Thanks to the support from the Cisco Foundation and other funders, Akvo has developed the water quality testing solution that my colleagues trained DORP staff to use in Bangladesh. Akvo’s low cost, open source, smartphone-based water quality testing system measures 31 water quality parameters combining four different technologies: colorimetry, sensors, microbiology, and test strips. Connected to third party hardware and Akvo’s online data platform, this system allows users to combine water quality data with GPS data, metadata and qualitative data. This means that they can easily interpret test results, create interactive maps, and generate insights for decision making at regional or national level. Testing can be scaled up affordably with data immediately accessible and shareable via an online dashboard.
Since its launch, Akvo’s water quality solution has been used by 76 organizations in 25 countries, capturing data that covers an estimated 3.8 million people. Our engagements range from working with non-governmental organizations like DORP to supporting government ministries in places like Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and the Solomon Islands.
At the time this blog is written we are in a scaling phase, aiming to support an additional 50 partners (governments and organizations) this year in adopting our water quality solution. The Cisco Foundation’s continued support is enabling us to maximize technology for greater scale and impact in the WASH sector.
Tilting the Scale
As of March 2020, households in Veduria Union have started receiving data about the fecal contamination and salinity in their household tube wells. They also know the quality of water in the ponds they use for agricultural and other domestic purposes, such as the ammonium content (indicator of contamination by fish feces) and nitrate levels (indicator of fertilizer used in the catchment). DORP is capturing water quality data to update the Municipality’s water security plan, which they will use to improve management of WASH services (i.e. hand pump maintenance) and water resource management (i.e. catchment protection and pond cleaning). This work will have a direct effect on the 31,000 people who live in Veduria Union. Mert and Jigmy trained six people but the effects of their work and that of our amazing software development team who created Akvo’s water quality solution are far-reaching.
Watch one of Akvo’s founders, Peter van der Linde, at the Cisco Live event:
 Ligtvoet, W. (2018). The geography of future water challenges. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.