Water wells and cell phones in rural Mali: the hidden nexus

Pedro Martinez-Santos | 19 February 2018

In less than two decades, wireless technologies have spread to regions where access to safe drinking water has been lacking since time immemorial. Recent research shows that increasing access to cell-phones is improving water access in rural Mali. This could help mitigate tensions over water resources in the face of drought, war and climate change.

Wireless telecommunications is perhaps the most important technological development of our time. In less than two decades, wireless access has changed the way human beings relate to each other, particularly in industrial societies. In the process, connectivity has become indispensable for ensuring a range of human rights, promoting freedom of expression and opinion, and accelerating economic development and human progress.

Cell phones have become Africa’s personal computers. In 1999, only 10% of the African population had access to cell phones and connectivity was almost exclusively restricted to the Mediterranean and South Africa. By 2008, approximately 60% of the population could get a signal and the area under coverage had grown to over 11 million square kilometers. Currently, two-thirds of the African population (over 1.1 billion people) have access to a cell phone, with wireless coverage exceeding 90%, and it is projected that about 80% will have access to a phone within five years.

Cell-phone access is particularly widespread in urban areas, although rural areas are catching up. Safety, entertainment and information are frequently quoted as determinants for the adoption of wireless technologies. There are, however, other reasons. For instance, mobile telecommunications have proven extremely valuable in enhancing everyday commercial transactions in a market where extensive travel was previously needed for sellers to meet buyers. Furthermore, emigration has been found to fuel telecommunication use, as having relatives abroad has become a powerful reason for many Africans to purchase a cell phone. These factors all go along with a determined push at the national policy level to spread wireless technology, including the privatization of the telecommunications sector in several African countries.

Wireless access versus water access

Mali is one of the world’s greatest achievers in terms of cell phone use. Cell phones were practically non-existent in the country until about 2005, but their presence in the streets has rocketed since. Mali currently boasts 150 cell phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants (that is, one and one-half subscriptions per person), a figure that continues to grow and shows no sign of slowing down.

Wireless access, thus, seems to be unstoppable. In contrast, progress in access to water and sanitation remains sluggish, particularly in rural areas and in those regions ravaged by armed conflict. On paper, access to water in Mali has been growing steadily over the last three decades. About two-thirds of the population have access to improved water sources, up from just one-third in the early 1990s. This is no doubt a consequence of national and international investments carried out in the context of the Millennium Development Goals. However, indicators can be misleading. As per the definition of the Millennium Development Goals, water access has almost invariably been measured as “the proportion of the population with access to an improved water source”. This ignores crucial issues such as water quality or the level of service. Sadly, multiple studies show that improved sources do not necessarily ensure that the water is safe to drink, and that informal sanitation frequently lowers the quality of drinking water supplies. Moreover, inadequate operation and maintenance strategies have resulted in thousands of non-functional water schemes across the continent, resulting in overestimation of the number of people who actually have reliable access to safe water.

The wireless/water nexus

All of this highlights an interesting paradox: Safe water is needed for many daily tasks and is essential to survival; however, accessibility is poor when measured beyond headline indicators. On the other hand, wireless access is already better than water access in many developing regions –including a large chunk of rural Mali – despite the fact that telecommunication is a relatively new development and not indispensable for human life.

Obviously, water and telecommunications are very different resources, with dissimilar historical evolutions, provision models, and cost structures. However, the increasing reliance of water-related decisions on telecommunications is gradually uncovering a hidden nexus across Africa. For instance, cell phones and android applications underpin peri-urban water supplies in Malawi, while cell phones have triggered important enhancements in community-based water management in countries like Namibia and Mali. The connection may become even more explicit in the near future. Indeed, certain authors suggest that hand pumps for water extraction may be used to charge cell phone batteries, thus raising funds to prevent water infrastructure from falling into disrepair.

Will wireless access become universal before water access? An affirmative answer is not out of the question. Telecommunications are certainly making progress faster than the water sector, but any gains in wireless access will be welcomed by those who still lack access to safe water supplies.

This opinion is based on a report which can be found here:

Full reference: Martínez-Santos et al. (2017). Water versus wireless coverage in rural Mali: links and paradoxes. Water 2017, 9(6), 375; doi:10.3390/w9060375

Photo: "The Village Pump" Ryan Vroegindewey, July 2014 via Flickr