Why can people get access to mobile phones, and not safe water?

by | Oct 19, 2016 | Blogs

Vincent Casey, a Senior WASH Advisor at WaterAid, looks at how comparison of two completely different services can offer new angles and provide lessons for reaching everyone everywhere with safe water. Blog post originally written on 11 October 2016 and posted online on WaterAid’s website.

At a conference in London recently I once again heard a question I’ve been asked on countless occasions: ‘If people can get access to mobile phones why can’t they get access to safe water?’

A rural village in Zambia with a mobile base station in the background. Photo credit: © WaterAid/ Vincent Casey

According to this January 2016 Afrobarometer survey covering 35 African countries, 93% of respondents said there was a mobile phone service in their area and only 63% said there was piped water. This does not mean that all survey participants had mobile phone or water services, nor does it mean the survey results are representative of access in poorer African countries. The survey acknowledges that real access totals are likely to be far lower.

A report by Pew Global finds that mobile phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as in the USA. This is not the case in places like rural Zambia or Uganda, but a growing number of people in rural communities do have mobile phone access, and reception is improving dramatically. 3G high-speed mobile data services can be found in many remote places where the roads aren’t even tarmacked. Meanwhile, access to piped water is lagging behind, with the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) reporting that only 16% of people in Africa have access to household water connections. Piped water does not necessarily mean safe water; it can sometimes be more contaminated than water from hand pumps. And people don’t have to have access to piped water to have safe water, however piped water is certainly a means of getting safe water to people’s homes, if well managed.

So what could be behind the grave disparity in service access that keeps prompting the mobile phone/water question? Why aren’t increases in access to piped water keeping pace with a seemingly exponential increase in access to mobile?

The issue of public vs private sector service provision is sometimes offered as a reason. Mobile services are 100% delivered and managed by private companies, whereas rural water services are delivered and occasionally managed by a mixture of local governments, public or private utilities, private contractors, small-scale private operators, aid agencies, and service users. Is the success of mobile really down to it being 100% run by private companies? This would imply that countries like Zambia have a lucrative rural water market, which private piped water service providers could access with affordable tariffs and a full-cost recovery model. Is this the case? Are aid agencies stifling private sector investment in rural water markets by supporting provision of basic services? Are private sector players being deterred from investing in rural water services because the human right to water is mistakenly understood to mean people shouldn’t pay for water? Or are there more practical reasons why mobile service providers have been able to reach people where piped water supplies haven’t? It seems the latter is true.

Water is heavier than airtime…

I believe one key explanation for this situation is the fundamental physical difference between water and airtime. One cubic metre of water weighs one tonne; one cubic metre of electromagnetic radiation passing through the air as a mobile phone signal weighs nothing. Clearly it is more difficult to get something that weighs a tonne to people than it is to get them something that weighs nothing.

Unlike a mobile signal, which a transmitter can generate anywhere, water operators cannot simply produce water from scratch. Often water is not where people need it, so must be transported. Distribution requires pumps, energy, pipework, storage, treatment and leakage management. Rural households can be vast distances apart, requiring large quantities of energy and infrastructure. It has not been practical to connect all remote rural households into large piped networks even in regions considered to have good coverage, such as Western Europe. Connecting households in sparsely populated locations like Zambia’s Southern Province would be infinitely more challenging.

A base station tower (left) which can serve thousands of people within a 32km radius, and a water tower (right) which serves approximately 40 people in a small hotel. © WaterAid/ Vincent Casey

3G doesn’t need pipes

Anyone within a 32km radius of a mobile phone base station can access mobile services with nothing more than a handset. Base stations transmit and receive wireless signals and the towers interconnect by microwave links. High-quality microwave links are expensive, but cheaper than laying the thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cable that would otherwise be required for a national data network.

Mobile coverage can be managed centrally

Mobile service management and maintenance is highly centralised around base stations and national-level data exchanges. A highly centralised management and maintenance structure, coupled with a product that can be transmitted in all directions from a central point, enables mobile operators to reach people over wide areas and get their calls out nationally or globally within seconds. The physical necessities associated with providing water force providers to adopt a more decentralised method of service provision than that of mobile providers. This brings substantial human and financial capacity constraints, which take a heavy toll on service levels.

The service provider has full control over access to mobile

Mobile phone users don’t generally build their own handsets or set up their own mobile networks. Service control is in the hands of the mobile provider, who can be confident they will not lose their market share because people are drifting to their own makeshift mobile service options. Water users, however, have the option to dig their own wells or collect water from rivers and lakes. Where piped water supplies cost money, but water from hand pumps and wells is free, people generally opt for the latter, which makes revenue collection more difficult for piped scheme operators. There is nothing wrong with users developing their own safe water supply options; in fact, it should be encouraged as it can sometimes be a more realistic way of getting people a safe service.

A tap stand in rural Zambia. © WaterAid/ Vincent Casey

Asset management and greater potential for competition

When mobile operators started out, they all built their own base stations. Some had coverage in certain areas, others didn’t. Now they are increasingly pooling their assets by selling base stations to third party companies who take on their management. These companies rent space on the base stations to different networks, allowing them all to reach a wider area. This stimulates competition between providers, which drives down prices for users.

Attractive investment opportunities

Mobile markets are relatively new territory, providing exciting investment opportunities for fund managers. The mobile sector has attracted sufficient foreign capital to set up the infrastructure necessary to provide widespread coverage. Funds have been channelled through mobile companies themselves, reducing the potential for diversion. Rural water, however, is not a new business area, nor has it been an attractive investment opportunity.

But mobile providers face challenges too

That is not to say it is easy to get mobile network coverage to people. As demonstrated in this report by the International Finance Corporation, running a base station is not cheap – low rates of rural electrification and frequent power outages mean many towers must be run off-grid, using 24-hour diesel generators at high monetary and environmental cost. There are also significant maintenance costs, and evidence of losses from theft and vandalism to infrastructure. Poor roads bring high transportation costs, and many countries have uncertain policy and regulatory environments. Behind the dramatic headlines about high rates of mobile phone access in Africa, operators are grappling with significant logistical and market penetration challenges. Still, they are pressing ahead and making great gains.

Despite the differences between mobile and water supply services, the water sector – comprised of governments, donors, NGOs, private and public sector operators involved in the delivery of water supply – have a lot to learn from the way mobile operators provide services in Africa. There is huge attention to service management, service maintenance, service levels, asset management, and customer support.

Bad for business

No mobile operator would construct a base station and hand it over to a remote rural community to manage without a fairly sophisticated ongoing service support mechanism. No mobile operator would give customers handsets and ask them how much they would like to pay for calls. No mobile operator would run a continuously bad service with frequent periods of downtime – they would lose revenue very quickly. No mobile operator would continue implementing a repeatedly failing model of service provision without revising it. No mobile operator would disregard user feedback about how services could be improved unless it wanted to become irrelevant. These practices are all quite common in the rural water sector, and urgently need to become the focus for those involved in providing services, in addition to getting new access to unserved communities.

Potential models of success

There are some very promising models for provision of piped rural water with higher service levels. Private operators running piped services in rural areas struggle to access credit for major maintenance, financial management, procurement of high-quality parts and access to training. In Uganda, regional associations of operators, known as umbrellas, have helped to improve service levels. These associations assist with training, procurement of parts, loans, and financial management. They strengthen communication between Government, service providers and users to ensure ongoing service issues are resolved.

The umbrellas focus on rural growth centres (800–12,000 inhabitants) and small towns, but with more support they could downscale further. As contributions from members don’t cover full costs, this service must be subsidised in the same way it often is in developed countries. People need services now, and in places where there is a limited cash economy the prospect of 100% cost recovery currently seems like an abstract proposition. Subsidy to umbrella support associations does not preclude private operators from entering the rural water market – it actually creates an enabling environment for them to do so. WaterAid have established a similar model to these umbrella support associations in Timor Leste. Look out for more news from colleagues in Timor Leste shortly.

All rural water sector players should pay close attention to such models and push for higher service levels. Without attention to service management, service levels, asset management, and customer support, coupled with efforts to encourage self-supply where possible, water services will continue to lag behind mobile.