Imagine living with your family in close quarters. There’s a pit latrine for a toilet, and you can't always afford to have it emptied. You worry constantly about the overflow — that one day your child will eat food that is contaminated, and get cholera....
Eunice Namirembe, project manager for the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), described this scenario when pitching a new idea for how to improve sanitation in the Ugandan city's densely populated areas, where regular waste removal is expensive, and only 40 percent of household toilets and latrines are covered.
Providing safe sanitation for the billions of people who lack it is one of the top priorities under the global agenda for sustainable development. When sanitation is poor, it puts everyone's health at risk — endangering children most of all.
More than 700 young kids die every day from preventable diseases caused by unsafe water or inadequate sanitation and hygiene. Cholera, a highly contagious waterborne illness that can be fatal when left untreated, kills 2,400 people every year in Uganda, and cholera outbreaks in Kampala are common.
KCCA's answer: a digital system that offers incentives to waste entrepreneurs to deliver services to urban areas in need. The platform, currently in development, links service providers with multiple customers at a fixed price. "We want to kick cholera out of Kampala," Namirembe says.
We want to kick cholera out of Kampala.
Just as essential for the survival and development of children: access to safe drinking water. And yet an estimated 2.2 billion people in the world live without sufficient access.
To accelerate efforts to close gaps in water and sanitation services, UNICEF's Office of Innovation has teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Arm, The African Academy of Sciences and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and others to identify innovative solutions and support their further development over the coming year. KCCA's is one of 15 projects chosen from over 500 proposals received during a recent Global Grand Challenge Exploration focused on improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in urban settings.
With funding from Gates and techical support and mentorship from Arm and UNICEF, the 15 teams will be testing their ideas in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and elsewhere. At the end of the year, a select few will receive additional support to take their ideas to the next level.
"One of our top priorities at UNICEF Innovation is to identify different ways we can leverage cutting-edge technologies to address problems children and communities face — and then help make those ideas a reality," says Blair Palmer, UNICEF’s project manager. "Through this collaboration with Gates, and together with Arm, a longtime UNICEF Innovation partner, we will be able to connect the most successful teams with additional partners and investors and industry collaborators to help scale their projects, and, ultimately, reach more children and families in need."
Adds Kate Kallot, Arm’s AI Ecosystems Director: “Through this challenge, we can really drive forward a new level of connectivity for these underserved populations. Our experts are excited to share hands-on advice with the teams about how to leverage smartphones, Internet-enabled devices and artificial intelligence — all technologies that Arm specializes in."
In addition to the KCCA project, there's a team working in Côte d'Ivoire to develop an electronic community sanitation support system that can connect individual households and secure funding for waste collection services. In Kigali, Rwanda, the startup Pit Vidura introduced a pit latrine emptying service that uses pump lines that extend more than 200 yards to reach homes separated by alleyways too narrow for a regular-sized truck to pass through.
Part of the Pit Vidura team's mission is to launch a digital platform that will cluster households by geographical area and use SMS messaging to stimulate demand for its direct pit-to-road pumping services. “As cities continue to expand around the world, everyone needs to know how to build, manage and maintain a sanitation service for an entire city without sewers,” says Rachel Sklar, Pit Vidura's founder and CEO. "We want to revolutionize urban sanitation for the world.”
We want to revolutionize urban sanitation for the world.
On the safe water front, there's a team rolling out a new mobile app called H2Go, to facilitate orders for safe water delivered by truck — often the only option for residents in urban areas that lack piped infrastructure. The H2Go app will allow users to compare water delivery services from different providers before placing an order, introducing efficiency, accountability and transparency to the market while also, hopefully, lowering prices. The app will launch first in Mexico City and Bangalore, India.
"With this app, we hope to ensure that families and communities in need are served in an equitable way; that they are paying a fair price for their water, can access it when they need it, and can trust that it is safe,” says H2Go project leader Alec Bernstein.
Another team, collaborators from the Safe Water and AIDS Project (SWAP) and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has invented a compact solar-powered system that allows families to disinfect their water at home using ozone (an alternative to chlorine). The H2O3 set-up, project leaders say, is intended to free family members — typically women and girls — from having to travel long distances in search of a safe water source.
The ten families in western Kenya who were H2O3's pilot testers all loved their ozonation systems. "It worked almost too well," project director Sam Dorevitch jokes, "because word got out, and then neighbors and friends were coming by every day, asking, 'Can you treat my water too?' We can't wait to get this technology into the hands of more families in need, and with UNICEF's help, we will."
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Top photo: Informal settlements like this one in Kampala City, Uganda, lack proper infrastructure and so residents must resort to using communal latrines. Innovators are testing ways to address this issue and other sanitation challenges with UNICEF's help. © UNICEF