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Ahmed Simjee, Smarter Planet Leader, IBM South Africa

By Ahmed Simjee

When I was growing up in South Africa, my family was fortunate.  We had access to fresh drinking water. At first we lived on a small farm near Johannesburg, where we used a well. Later, when I moved closer to the city, I had good tap water. But many of my fellow South Africans weren’t so lucky, and, even today, many people in the rural areas and in informal settlements near the cities don’t have ready access to fresh drinking water. That’s why I’m extremely pleased to be spearheading an initiative in South Africa, WaterWatchers, which is aimed at using mobile phones and crowdsourcing to cut down on leaks and wasted water.

We’re launching our free WaterWatchers app today in Gauteng Province, home of Johannesburg and the capital city, Tshwane. With 12.3 million residents, the province represents 23% of South Africa’s population. We timed the launch to coincide with the United Nations’ World Water Day. If you’re in South Africa, please download the app.

We hope that once government leaders elsewhere in South Africa see WaterWatchers at work in Gauteng Province, they will adopt the service as well. South Africa is the only country in the world to include access to fresh water as a basic human right in its constitution, and the government has set a goal of extending that benefit to every citizen by 2020. Our WaterWatchers program will help South Africa achieve universal access to fresh water. Using SMS, the app enables citizens to quickly and conveniently report leaks and unauthorized use of water.

Communal tap in Johannesburg Credit: E. Muench

South Africa suffers from a critical water problem. It’s one of the driest places on earth, with average annual rainfall of just 45.7 cm, half the global number. South Africa ranks 148 out of 180 countries for water availability per capita, according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2012. At the same time, in South African municipalities, an average of 37% of the water pushed through public water systems is lost via leaks or pilferage. In Tshwane alone, these losses cost the municipality about $50 million a year. South Africa’s draft National Water Resource Strategy estimates that it will cost about $100 billion to upgrade and expand the country’s water infrastructure over the next decade. So any savings from reducing waste and pilferage can be reinvested in system upgrades.

WaterWatchers takes advantage of the rapid spread of mobile phones in South Africa, where just about every adult now owns a hand set. Using the application, people take photos and answer three simple questions about water problems they observe. Then they SMS the information to a central database. All of the messages are stored and analyzed to help municipal authorities spot problems, dispatch repair crews and set maintenance  priorities. Using analytics technologies, officials will be able to predict where and when problems are likely to occur and plan pro-active maintenance.

Citizens with Internet access can also tap into a WaterWatchers portal. There, they can learn about water conservation and view a leak hotspot map showing where problems exist in their municipal water systems.

IBM  began exploring the idea of using crowdsourcing to address water issues in San Jose, Calif., with its CreekWatch mobile app. The simple application enables people with Apple iPhones to take photos of reservoirs and creeks they pass to report water levels and potential pollution problems. CreekWatch is now being used in 25 countries. The WaterWatchers app, built by IBM business partner Element Blue LLC, has additional capabilities, including the ability to post photos on Twitter and social networking Web sites. It’s available for iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices.

Once municipalities get the benefits of WaterWatchers, I hope it will be an eye-opener to the potential for using other cutting-edge technologies to make cities work better–for everything from transportation and energy to healthcare and education. In fact, the crowdsourcing technology in WaterWatchers could be used to help address a wide range of problems, including traffic jams, crime and pollution.

It all starts with awareness of the possibilities. WaterWatch engages citizens and government leaders alike. Once people understand problems and feel empowered to address them, society can make progress. I look forward to the day when all of my fellow South Africans enjoy easy access to fresh water.

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