After growing up drinking water from community water filtration stations in Pakistan, Mustafa Naseem discovered in his research just how often the water from these sources can be compromised. Each year, around 41,000 children in Pakistan die from diarrhea caused by contaminated water supplies. Now, as Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) Expert in Residence at CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, Naseem has set his sights on changing that.
In September, Naseem and a team from the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore, Pakistan, were jointly awarded $374,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) to design a low-cost, modular water quality testing and metering system to be installed and tested at 20 Punjab filtration plants over a three-year period.
“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to contribute to a water-related issue in Pakistan,” said Naseem. “Many people there have limited access to clean drinking water. It’s an issue close to my heart.”
The project, which also provides support for a graduate student to oversee implementation, was selected from more than 200 eligible applications submitted to the Pakistan-United States Science & Technology Cooperation program in 2017. Under the program, which was established in 2005, the governments of Pakistan and the United States cooperate in science, technology, engineering and education for mutual benefit. The program is implemented by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. and the HEC in Pakistan.
To improve water quality monitoring, Naseem’s team will design a low-cost, automated, modular water testing unit equipped with sensors that monitor free-chlorine, turbidity, Ph and total dissolved solids. The system will be connected to the Internet via cellular data networks, allowing results to be uploaded regularly to the municipal water authority’s servers, where automated alerts can warn technicians when levels exceed parameters.
Naseem, who investigated water technologies in Lahore over a three-year period, says improvements in the frequency and method of water quality testing can have a big impact on public health. They are also necessary to meet guidelines established by the World Health Organization.
Presently, water monitoring is performed just once a month, and errors can occur during sampling and testing. In addition, systems rely on filters that should be changed at intervals based on how much water has passed through the filter; however, there’s often no mechanism for measuring water volume.
“Between the monthly tests, no one knows the quality of the water,” he said. “Even if samples are collected and stored properly, the laboratory performs well and the plant workers act on laboratory recommendations, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
In addition to tackling water safety, their project aims to solve another major challenge: distributing water more equitably. Naseem explains that water dispensing stations in Lahore and other cities have limited supplies and sometimes run dry. However, no limits are placed on how much each family can take. As a result, wealthier households that fetch large amounts of water by truck place a greater burden on the system than poorer households that collect their water by hand.
The team at ITU, led by Tauseef Tauqeer, head of the Electrical Engineering Department and an associate professor, will focus on this problem by continuing work on an automated dispensing unit originally developed by students in a design lab that Naseem mentored in 2014. Named the Water ATM, the system would use government-issued RFID cards to identify users and limit how much water is dispensed based on household size.
During the third year, the team will look towards commercialization so that a local industry partner can scale-up the technology they’ve developed.
A fringe benefit of this technology is that it could enable water dispensing stations to remain open 24-hours a day, cutting down on the long lines that currently form during daylight hours.
Naseem explains that the work of creating remote water sensing units is complex, but it’s not their biggest challenge. Success depends on designing a system that communities want to embrace, he says. “Sensitivity to social and cultural concerns is critical,” says Naseem. “And giving the community a voice is also key.” If the rationing system upsets enough powerful people accustomed to unlimited water supplies, they could have the whole program shut down. Similarly, if the technology is going to be adopted, it must be reliable and easy to use.
Another concern is what to do when water supplies exceed safety parameters. It’s not a straightforward matter, explains Naseem. While the water company will have the ability to shut down plants from afar, that would create another set of problems: “Even if the water is not at the required safety levels, it may be the only source of drinking water for a community,” says Naseem. “It’s a community-run filtration plant, and the residents need to have some amount of say as to what happens.”
One option is to install digital signs that display the current safety level of water coming out of the faucet. When it’s unsafe, residents could continue to draw water, but the signs would let them know they need to boil or further treat it before drinking.
“Information and Communication Technology for Development is not just about technology; it’s about these ethical considerations. You have to make difficult decisions,” says Naseem. “When I enter these communities, there’s so much desperation and there’s so much love. We are sending students to vulnerable places, and there is a danger of their having a savior complex. I want to make sure students realize that there is beauty and knowledge we can rely on in these communities.”
If successful, the team could have an immediate impact on the region. Their key partner, the government-run Punjab Saaf Pani Company, plans to install 1,500 water filtration plants across Punjab in the next five years. If their plans to subsequently commercialize the technology are successful, their reach could be much greater—an inexpensive, early-warning water safety system could improve the public health of countless communities around the world.