November 2022

9 Tech Innovations to Watch in Rural Water Supply

Rural areas pose unique challenges for water supply, as homes may be too few or too dispersed to justify the cost of installing underground pipes. As of 2020, most people lacking even basic water services lived in rural areas.

Here are nine innovations that could help enhance safe rural water supply in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. For innovations to be successful, they must be technically feasible, affordable, and well-matched to the local operators’ geographical setting and capacity.

Solar power installations in the Kabira Community in Jinja, Uganda.  Credit: Water Mission
 

1. SOLAR PUMPS

Rural communities in low-resource settings may not be connected to an electrical grid; however, most of these locations receive abundant solar irradiation. Solar-powered water supply solutions offer vast (and underappreciated) potential for replacing grid electricity or diesel generators. Advantages include energy independence, sufficient water quantity, fewer queues, and automated operation. Adequate technical capacity to operate and maintain these systems is critical. Financing upfront, maintenance, and eventual replacement costs can be justified by long-term cost-effectiveness relative to alternatives. Solar pumps are commercially available and used for rural water supply applications on several continents.

2. COMMUNITY-SCALE DISINFECTION

Water disinfection represents a low-cost, effective means of inactivating disease-causing microorganisms, with substantial public health returns. Centralizing water disinfection at the community scale reduces the labor burden on individual consumers. Dosing, acceptability, and recontamination challenges might be best addressed through automated technologies. Onsite production of disinfectants such as sodium hypochlorite and ozone has undergone extensive technological development over the past decade, enhancing performance and convenience. Solar energy can power these approaches, along with UV light disinfection systems that leave no chemical residues. Newer disinfection technologies perform well in ideal settings, but they remain under testing to properly address challenges posed by real-world rural, low-income contexts.

3. MEMBRANE FILTRATION

Physically separating impurities from water via membrane filtration is among the most active areas of water treatment research and development. Membranes have pore diameters optimized to consistently capture different contaminant sizes across several orders of magnitude, ranging from large, visible suspended particles to tiny salts, metal ions, and viruses.Depending on initial water quality, water may require pretreatment to prevent fouling (from microorganisms) and scaling (from hard water deposits) of the costly membranes. Widely employed in high-income contexts for some time, membrane filtration is finding new commercial applications in low- and middle-income contexts, whether in single-step or multi-stage decentralized community water treatment systems.

4. REVERSE OSMOSIS

The type of membrane filtration capable of separating the smallest contaminant sizes is termed “reverse osmosis,” wherein water is pressure-forced through a membrane with very small pores. This achieves near-complete removal of all categories of contaminants, but it normally requires some pretreatment steps and incurs higher energy costs. Reverse osmosis represents one of the most effective forms of water treatment for difficult applications such as purifying seawater and recycled wastewater. In areas where salinity or dissolved metals pose the dominant water quality challenge, reverse osmosis is becoming an increasingly efficient treatment solution as technological advances and greater market penetration bring down costs.

Smart meter examples highlight stepwise advances in technology. Credit: Vanessa Guenther

5. SMART METERS

Information and communication technology advances have enabled widespread upgrading of electronic devices in recent decades, including community- and household-level water meters. “Smart” meters (with automated self-monitoring and remote communication) offer a wide range of potential benefits to both water suppliers and consumers, aiding water conservation, service delivery, and cost recovery through improved billing and payment (which may help to recoup the upfront technology investment). Meters increase accountability by efficiently tracking and transmitting water usage data throughout service areas although telecommunication networks, energy supplies, and equipment must be maintained. Device availability is expanding, and replacing or retrofitting meters has become more affordable. The transition to smart meters has occurred primarily in wealthier countries, with fewer entry points into rural areas of low-to-middle income countries.

6. DIGITAL PAYMENTS

Traditional cash payments for water are cumbersome to convey and susceptible to poor accountability. Digital payments represent a rapidly evolving innovation with implications for both the financial and operational sustainability of water service providers. Digital payments reduce operational costs associated with deploying or stationing employees at the point of sale. They facilitate reductions in burdensome queueing and create more flexible work opportunities. Technologies may be set up for prepayment or post-payment, and can occur via existing mobile money (electronic wallet), digital banking transactions, or self-service payment kiosks. While the technology is readily available and growing quickly in urban settings, digital payment for water use in rural areas remains less widespread.

7. DECENTRALIZED WATER QUALITY TESTING

Measuring microbiological parameters generally requires laboratory equipment for incubation or DNA amplification, although several field kits for indicator bacteria (a proxy for pathogen presence) have been developed and tested for drinking water monitoring. If remote and field-based monitoring approaches with low costs and high replicability could be disseminated more consistently to rural, low-resource areas, managers would be alerted in a timelier manner to contamination issues that pose health risks to consumers. Widespread operational uptake, including communication and response plans for water quality results, may require shifts in public accountability, technological and managerial design, incentivization, and local capacity building.

A water quality test conducted in Asutifi North District, Ghana (Source: Aquaya)

8. SENSORS

Water supply infrastructure (e.g., water treatment and distribution systems) in low-resource settings has historically been plagued by a lack of ongoing oversight and maintenance. Sensors for monitoring water system performance (e.g., functionality, flow rate, basic water quality) are widely deployed by urban utilities in high-income countries, many of which remotely transmit data to a central management dashboard.Candidate automated monitoring devices and dashboard systems designed or customized for rural water settings would benefit from larger-scale markets to continue reducing costs and refining stability and reliability. Piloting is underway in several countries to enable iterative technology development.

9. DIGITAL MANAGEMENT APPLICATIONS

Compared to urban water utilities, rural water supplies often lack sufficient personnel, monitoring schemes, and record-keeping systems. This leads to challenges addressing routine issues, allocating resources for system management, understanding spatial and temporal resolution of data.

Three technologies have potential to ease data collection, monitoring, and management activities. First, cloud-based “supervisory control and data acquisition” software systems allow two-way remote water supply system monitoring and management. Second, “Internet of Things” systems consist of physical objects (e.g., sensors) that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over communications networks. Third, “digital twins” offer virtual replicas of the physical water supply system with real-time updates. These automated tools reduce labor and time collecting and processing data, even facilitating machine learning and prediction. Still, they come with many common drawbacks of non-human intelligence: upfront investment, increased energy use, possible data loss or malfunction, staff training needs, and potential ethics concerns. Digital management applications are steeply on the rise among high-income, urban water suppliers, with fewer specialized products under development for remote, rural, and low-resource settings.


All innovation categories described have the potential to advance rural water supply efforts in low-resource settings. For more insight, examples, and specific recommendations, read the full report.

By the REAL Water team (Vanessa Guenther, Karen Setty, Jeff Albert, and Ranjiv Khush of Aquaya with inputs from Dan Smith and Ryan Mahoney of USAID)

DISCLAIMER: This content is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of The Aquaya Institute and REAL-Water consortium members and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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