Turning to Technology

September 17, 2013

Organization uses tablets to spread the word about safe drinking water

poonam sewak_safe water network
Poonam Sewak

Safe Water Network develops affordable safe drinking water solutions for rural communities in need. WQP Assistant Editor Williette Nyanue spoke to Poonam Sewak, development and partnerships manager for Safe Water Network, about the organization’s new tablet-based water and health education campaign.

Williette Nyanue: What inspired the tablet-based water and health education campaign?

Poonam Sewak: Safe Water Network operates more than 30 “iJal Stations” in Andhra and Uttar Pradesh [India] and provides access to drinking water that meets Indian and World Health Organization standards. We believed that once an iJal Station was set up, providing safe drinking water at affordable rates, there would be no dearth of demand. However, we found low demand due to lack of willingness to pay when free alternatives are easily available; lack of correlation between health challenges and water quality; and beliefs established through generations of use of current water sources.

Consumer awareness of water quality and associated health challenges therefore was critical. Innovative marketing is essential to engaging with rural consumers, as the task of convincing them to purchase safe drinking water is difficult due to lack of literacy and awareness of waterborne diseases. The conventional communication methods involved street plays and storytelling, which were largely people dependent and difficult to standardize and scale. We needed to establish a standard mode of communication that could be scaled without the loss of critical messages [that] would be credible too.

Extensive consumer interaction and research identified the Indian rural consumer as both aspirational and tech savvy. This insight led to the use of tablets as a tool to engage the key stakeholders. There is a series of tools to communicate effectively — use of electronic tablets for KOLs, audiovisuals and flipcharts in order to mobilize the rural community — plus a public demonstration of handheld electrolyzers to certify water quality, culminating in a “Water Health Report Card” for the village as well as individual households [that] brought their water to the public meeting for testing.

Nyanue: What are the water concerns in rural India?

Sewak: Some remote and smaller villages have challenges with access to drinking water. Many other rural habitations are affected by water quality challenges due to anthropogenic or geogenic contaminants. In addition to microbial contamination from livestock waste or lack of proper sanitation, there are dissolved contaminants in water like iron, arsenic, fluoride, high nitrate, etc. These lead to waterborne diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, vomiting, fluorosis, iron toxicity, arsenic toxicity, blue baby syndrome, etc.

Nyanue: How is tablet technology helping to improve access to clean water?

Sewak: Depending on the water quality challenge, standard spiels are created and preloaded on tablets to educate communities and key opinion leaders. Success of tablet messaging has helped create a standardized package that can be scaled uniformly across the geography. Tablets also fulfill the need of the rural communities to have technology at their fingertips, which increased involvement and induced quick grasp of the water-health relationship. This helped drive the desired consumer behavior change that induced enrollment (10% to 50%) at the end of the demonstrations.

Nyanue: Why is awareness about the benefits of safe drinking water so important?

Sewak: Creating access to safe water is not a technical problem alone. It requires human behavior change, building local capacity, logistics, funding, reliability of operation and, above all, willingness to pay to sustain the ongoing operations. Safe drinking water sends children back to school, empowers women, keeps away the crippling effects of skeletal fluorosis, improves community health and fosters economic development; hence, appropriate community awareness programs, along with door-to-door surveys, have been our core approaches to solving the drinking water quality problems in our project villages. It also leads to increased adoption and consumption at household level in the villages.

Nyanue: In what other ways is technology being utilized to spread awareness?

Sewak: We are using technology in the following spheres: tablets for messaging and behavior change; water quality testing for total dissolved solids and fluoride; reverse osmosis process for purification of fluoride-contaminated water; and use of RFID (radio frequency) cards preloaded with money for purchase of water and tracking consumer off take, giving lists of discontinued users to bring them back to using iJal.

Poonam Sewak is development and partnerships manager for Safe Water Network, New Delhi, India. Sewak can be reached at psewak@safewaternetwork.org. Williette Nyanue is assistant editor for Water Quality Products. Nyanue can be reached at wnyanue@sgcmail.com.

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