Digitising water quality testing and monitoring in Mali with SOMAGEP
Universal access to clean water and sanitation services improves public health, enhances social and economic development, and reduces poverty. Closely controlling water quality during production and distribution is crucial for safeguarding public health. As stated by the World Health Organisation, digitising water quality testing and monitoring is a key step in achieving safely managed drinking water. In Mali, SOMAGEP (SOciété MAlienne de GEstion de l’Eau Potable), World Waternet and Akvo teamed up to digitise water quality testing and improve the management of drinking water distribution systems.
SOMAGEP is responsible for checking and safeguarding water quality in Bamako, Kati and a number of other urban areas in Mali. SOMAGEP tests water quality at the intake source (raw water) to determine suitable water treatment methods for the treatment plant, as well as at the outlet of the treatment plant (treated water) and at the final consumer (distributed water) to ensure that water quality did not deteriorate during distribution. Conventional water quality monitoring is often time-consuming and error-prone due to the cumbersome processes involved in sample transport and paper-based data collection. This meant that, up until now, water quality results were only available after a relatively long period of time, and they weren’t available locally. SOMAGEP needed a way to capture reliable data from remote locations so that they could improve water quality in a timely and sustainable way.
Funded by VIA Water, a cooperation between SOMAGEP, World Waternet and Akvo was established to introduce smartphone-based water quality testing in Mali. The aim of the partnership was threefold: to reduce the time it takes to go from water sample collection to water quality data; to reduce logistical and laboratory costs; and to improve the accessibility, management and sharing of data. In addition, an important objective of the pilot was to capture geolocation sampling points to make it easier for departments to carry out interventions. Ultimately, this approach streamlines data use from beginning to end using the Data Journey methodology, bringing water quality testing to a new digital level.
Both surface water and groundwater are used for drinking water production, and different sources require different treatments. The rivers in Mali are an important source of drinking water, from the Niger to the Senegal, the Bakoye (and its tributary Baoulé), the Bani and the Sankarani. Each of these rivers have highly fluctuating flows between the dry and wet seasons.
As part of the pilot project, we decided to test most of the water sources for multiple physico-chemical parameters that are important for safe drinking water - pH, temperature, turbidity, electrical conductivity, free & total chlorine, iron, nitrate and nitrite. The pilot project focused on treatment sites in 15 cities in Mali. Besides water quality data, the team decided to add contextual data to the surveys, such as geolocation, photo, free text, options, numbers and/or video. This data provides deeper and richer insights during the understand phase of the data journey.
The water quality monitoring was carried out using Akvo’s smartphone-based water quality testing kit. The kit consists of third-party water quality testing hardware connected to Akvo’s data platform and is used to assess whether drinking water contains elevated levels of toxic substances.
Compared to the data collection method previously used by SOMAGEP, roughly four hours were saved using smartphone-based testing. This method can potentially save up to one month, since laboratories send their results on a monthly basis. What’s more, we trained the leakage repair teams in water quality testing, which can save up to 48 hours since laboratory staff are not required to visit the leakage themselves. Now, the leakage repair team can directly test water quality after a repair or purging, which significantly reduces the non-conformity time. However, this only counts for physico-chemical analysis and not for bacteriological tests, since the latter require an incubation time.
The comparability of data also increases with this approach, since consistent methods are applied on-site. This means that the same testing method is used for all sites and procedures are aligned using manuals on a smartphone. In addition, no water sample transport is required for these on-site measurements. Transport of water samples from source to lab can cause changes in the concentration of different physico-chemical parameters and also microbial and enzymatic changes. For some parameters, it is important to control conditions such as temperature and pH (acidity or alkalinity). Measuring water quality on-site with a handheld photometer, sensor or other portable testing method means that the transportation step is eliminated, thereby increasing the reliability of the data.
Above: Testing water quality in Mali using Akvo Caddisfly.
After capturing the water quality results on-site with a smartphone, the data was available on Akvo's online workspace as soon as the smartphone was connected to the Internet. Laboratory staff could then immediately start validating, analysing and interpreting the collected data. The resulting insights were then translated into actions and policies. This speeds up the data process and improves consistency, resulting in increased reliability of the results. SOMAGEP is now capable of collecting on-site water quality data and directly submitting the results to a data platform for analysis and visualisation.
The visualisations on Akvo’s data platform show the results of the water quality tests and can be compared to national water quality standards or WHO water quality guidelines. The data could also be categorised based on the type of source and other types of contextual data, such as type of sampling point category (school, hospital or others) or mapping production and distribution points (see below). Subsequently, various visualisations such as bar charts, scatter plots, pivot tables and maps were used in a dashboard to create an overview of the results. All new submissions are automatically added to the same dataset and updated on the visualisation dashboard.
Above: Produced (red) vs distributed (blue) water in Bamako, Mali.
Above: Sensitive sampling points in Bamako
Above: Free Chlorine measurements in urban areas, Mali.
SOMAGEP is one of the first water suppliers in Africa to successfully test water quality using mobile devices. In this pilot project, the collection, analysis and visualisation of water quality data was improved using Akvo's data platform and data driven approach to safe water for all.
By using Akvo’s water quality solution in the field, SOMAGEP has easier access to water quality data, enabling better insight into the quality-processes of drinking water production. When water quality data is available faster, the response time to nonconformities (e.g. spills, contamination et cetera) can be reduced.
The results of this project are very promising. Scaling up mobile water quality monitoring to other centres spread over the ten administrative regions of Mali could significantly improve the delivery of safe drinking water. SOMAGEP has taken an important step in optimising the process of water quality monitoring and can be an example to other water suppliers in the region.
The challenges we encountered during this pilot provided us with key lessons and insights for future programmes.
Ensure data quality between testing methods
Although all included testing methods are widely used with proven hardware (i.e. the suppliers are experienced water quality sensors and photometer producers) the reliability of test results is still an important aspect to address. Therefore, the pilot project included a comparison between on-site water quality test results and the water quality test results of laboratories. A quality check has been carried out by comparing the results of over 500 samples for the routine parameters: pH, turbidity and free chlorine. The comparison study focused on standard laboratory methods versus the testing methods used on site.
During the first phase of the pilot project, there were notable differences between the results of the test strips and laboratory methods. These inconsistencies were resolved by using the more accurate colorimetric methods of Lovibond (MD610 Photometer). Test strips should only be used for screening, i.e. a first quick rough estimate to assess whether concentrations are low, medium or high.
Overall, the final results were very similar. A comparison between the results of on-site testing with water quality testing methods integrated into Akvo Caddisfly and testing as it was done before the pilot is shown in the figures below. For pH, conventional testing was already done on-site, so only the testing method was replaced in combination with smartphone-based testing (including instructions) which took over paper-based data collection.
Exploring the potential to upscale
Digital water quality monitoring with smartphones and on-site water quality testing has huge upscaling potential since the software and hardware combination enables large scale integrated water quality monitoring. Furthermore, the larger the scale, the more cost effective usage becomes. The potential of the region and other countries to have integrated data over a substantial area and consisting of various parameters and questions is significant. Besides water providers, other stakeholder groups can benefit from better access to water quality data, including authorities, households, non governmental organisations (NGOs), donors and other financiers. An important aspect of the project is information sharing between water utilities and other stakeholder groups as well as cross-country knowledge exchange.
Supported water quality parameters in our data platform (Akvo Caddisfly)
- Calcium hardness
- Electrical conductivity
- Suspende solids
- Total coliforms