I remember life before clean water.
I was six years old and living with my grandparents in Ganqikazhen, a remote town in Inner Mongolia, China. My family’s apartment had running water, but many people relied on contaminated household wells.
In school, collecting and purifying water was as essential to our daily classroom routine as our academic studies. I can still remember the smell of the stone slab latrines, which were full of spider webs and dirty from lack of running water. In the summer, students didn’t mind escaping outdoors to get water from the well in the schoolyard. In the winter, we dreaded being outside in the freezing cold. Families took turns donating coal each week to heat the stove. Throughout the day, we would boil the water to eliminate some of the bacteria. By the time students used it, it was always cold.
The following year, my family moved to Beijing, China—the capital and a megacity. At my new school, I only had to step out into the hallway to access hot and cold water. No more trekking through the freezing snow. No more donating coals. No more doing all of that work for ice cold water. I felt so privileged and lucky.
Almost twenty years after leaving Ganqikazhen, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Operations Management at the Indiana University Bloomington, Kelley School of Business. I’ve promised to make the world a better place through my studies, a commitment that developed alongside the academic opportunities of Beijing. I am interning at charity: water—an organization I’ve admired for years. I am fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Every child deserves that opportunity, but they don’t always get it.
My childhood memories are still a daily reality for 698 million kids worldwide. They study in schools without basic access to water or sanitation. They know the daily walk for water, either in the blistering heat or the bone-chilling cold. They know the days of class missed because of waterborne diseases.
But for too many, the story ends there. Communities hope and pray for clean water to come to their area, bringing education, opportunity, and health along with it. If clean water does arrive, residents hope and pray again—this time, for their new water point not to break.
In Africa alone, an estimated 175,000 water points are currently non-functional—that’s 25%. When water is brought to remote locations, the harsh environment and lack of technology leads many to assume breakage is inevitable. Every broken water project represents the broken hopes of a community. We knew we had to do better.
Enter: Google’s 2015 Global Impact Award.
What are sensors?
In 2015, charity: water received Google’s Global Impact Award. We started developing remote sensor technology that could provide all of the monitoring necessary to keep clean water flowing for years to come. In collaboration with a small group of US and international engineering firms—and after months of trial and error—we were able to design sensors capable of capturing reliable, real-time data. Suddenly, we had instant access to pump performance, water flow history, repair and maintenance records, and other critical information. Stored safely in the cloud, this data is accessible 24/7.
[Interested in the evolution of our sensor technology? Read more here.]
Sensors have taught us that if the tools we need don’t exist yet, it’s time to invent them. They’ve shown us the unlimited potential of technology and set a new standard for innovation in ending the water crisis. Sensors have taught us to never settle for the status quo.
And that’s just the beginning.
1. Sensors improve efficiency
In the past, the only way for governments or NGOs to monitor rural water systems was to visit them in-person. These trips cost time, resources, and money, meaning water systems would often remain broken for months between annual visits. This forced communities to go back to drinking dirty water. Our sensors’ data can inform us of a breakdown immediately, allowing our local partners to identify the problem, find a solution, and restore clean water to a community quickly and efficiently.
Here’s an example:
In early September 2021, one of our newest algorithms identified three broken pumps in Malawi. Our local partner immediately dispatched a team of mechanics to complete repairs. Within 24 hours of each breakdown, pumps were fixed and clean water was flowing again for 750 people.
2. Sensors build knowledge
Sensors don’t only tell our local partners which water projects have become non-functional. They also predict which locations may need additional maintenance soon. Through the integration of extensive data studies and the expertise of our local partners, we’ve developed algorithms which identify projects that are broken, projects that may break in the near future, and projects that are thriving. This information is stored in an online dashboard for our partners. With this data, our partners are able to better manage their inventory of replacement parts, schedule routine maintenance visits, and alert the local community of an expected breakdown in advance.
3. Sensors empower accountability
Data from every sensor is available online at any time to anyone who needs it. Sensors support our commitment to transparency, helping us clearly report our progress in bringing clean water to every person on the planet. This level of constant access to real-time monitoring also allows us to follow up and support local efforts to restore water access.
4. Sensors bring hope
Sensors don’t only sustain water projects. They sustain hope. They enable our local partners and the communities they serve to look to the future with confidence. They empower thousands of people to trust that if—and when—repairs are needed, they will occur safely and quickly.
Every community deserves long-term access to clean water.
Just like in your home or with your car, maintenance issues are inevitable. Pipes leak, pumps age with use, and bolts rust. This is our reality as we work to eradicate the water crisis. No matter the challenge, the dreams of 771 million people are worth stewarding with excellence. Sensors help make that possible.
Story by Chengcheng Zhai and Mercy Weaver
Photos by Jeremy Snell, Cubby Graham, Tyler Riewer