Globally, about 2 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes. An estimated 315,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhea each year, often as a result of unsafe water. Childhood diarrhea is still the second-leading cause of childhood mortality.
The current approach to water has emphasized access to water, often by building large number of wells. However, we now know that access is not enough. Water may be relatively safe to drink at the well, but does not stay safe in transit or when it is stored in homes. Additionally, a focus on market solutions and pay-for-water schemes has not shown results for very poor communities.
Consequently, very rural and very poor communities are still underserved in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially.
Dispensers for Safe Water is a seemingly simple solution to the problem of unsafe water in rural and remote communities.
We place chlorine dispensers in the immediate vicinity of wells and other water sources.
Community members go to their water source to fetch water, place their bucket or jerrican under the dispenser, turn the valve to dispense a correctly measured amount of diluted chlorine, and then fill the bucket with water.
The chlorine disinfects the water as a community member is walking home, and by the time he or she arrives, much of the chlorine smell has dissipated and they are left with clean, safe water that stays safe for 2-3 days.
Dispensers are installed right next to the water source – they can’t be missed. The use of dispensers is also free. That is controversial in some circles that emphasize pay-for service water. However, we looked carefully at the evidence, and it shows that people are reluctant to pay for preventative healthcare products and services. This is especially true for the very poor. Additionally, in every community with a dispenser, there is an elected, local community promoter who is responsible for the dispenser and educates villages on how to use it.
Dispenser for Safe Water runs a very sophisticated maintenance and supply chain. In order to be most successful, chlorine dispensers require high rates of usage by people in a given village. We know, through our data collection, that there are a couple different components that contribute to higher usage rates:
Dispensers for Safe Water are, according to a 2007 academic study, more cost-effective than other solutions like solar disinfection, flocculation, and ceramic filters.
In fact, we’re now doing a very detailed cost analysis to more thoroughly understand how dispensers compare to other water products.
Not only that, but the cost per person for chlorine dispensers decreases as we continue to scale, and reach more people.
Safe water has become an equity issue. We’re reaching the people left behind by the current approaches to safe water: that cohort of people who are very rural and very poor in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We are ultimately targeting health impacts and are modeling the rates of averted diarrhea and averted DALYs with Dispensers for Safe Water.
DALY is an actuarial term that tries to calculate the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death — it’s used as a way to compare the overall health and life expectancy in different countries, especially developing countries versus more developed countries.
We know that chlorine kills bacteria, and we know from various evidence that bacteria reduction reduces diarrhea. In fact, water systems the world over routinely chlorinate water — the water you brush your teeth with is chlorinated. We can measure self-reported diarrhea, and while we cannot measure actual diarrhea reductions because that is very complex and costly, our detailed models suggest that we avert more than 830,000 cases of diarrhea per year and more than 22,000 DALY’s at a very low cost per person/per year.
Lastly but perhaps most importantly, Dispensers for Safe Water are a rigorously tested and proven solution. Our approach is based on a series of randomized controlled trials by Harvard and Berkeley researchers who tested chlorine dispensers in Kenya against a variety of other water treatment options. They found two things: 1) chlorine dispensers had a much higher usage rate than comparable treatments, and 2) use stayed high over time. We speak ore about the available evidence below.
Dispensers is a poster child for how Evidence Action works – we look for evidence of a solution that works, and then turn it into a scalable solution for millions of people.
Our adoption rate is an important measure of the use of dispensers. It is a percentage of randomly sampled households that tested positive for Total Chlorine Residual in their drinking water during an unannounced visit. 1.5% of all dispensers are evaluated every month. For the first three months of evaluation in a new region, 2% of all dispensers are monitored. A random selection of 8 households are interviewed at each dispenser by our Monitoring and Learning Team.
You can track adoption as a key performance indicators in this live dashboard for Dispensers for Safe Water.
The Monitoring, Learning and Information System (MLIS) team supports the Dispensers for Safe Water program in collecting data at all stages of program implementation: from identification of suitable water points, to dispenser installation, to monthly performance monitoring.
Performance monitoring of Dispensers for Safe Water is done on a monthly basis by MLIS data monitors across Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. Data is collected from a randomized sample of of all installed dispensers to ensure an 80 percent confidence interval and a 10 percent margin of error. The sampling is stratified by geography (program, country and field office). MLIS monitors interview eight households at every water point visited.
The MLIS monitors collect data electronically using smartphones with the Open Data Kit (ODK) software installed. The MLIS monitors do an initial spot check at the sampled water point to check that the chlorine dispenser is functional and contains chlorine. They then conduct household surveys to measure rates of chlorine adoption in the community. This is done using a chlorine testing kit which tests for the Total Chlorine Residual (TCR) in household water.
The MLIS data management team cleans any incoming data from the field and it is then passed onto the data analysis team. Every two months the analyzed data is shared with program teams. The results are broken down by field office, country program, and overall adoption results. Results are also shared with teams on the MLIS management information system, or progMIS, so that all staff have immediate access to the uploaded data.
You can read our discussion of the evidence supporting chlorine dispensers here, but in short:
There are shortcomings to the existing epidemiology literature. The reviews highlight the short duration of the studies that are available, and there is a need for more trials that are blinded or rely on objective measures of health outcomes instead of self-reported diarrhea.
While dispenser access is free to users, we do not rely solely on donations or grant funding to cover the costs of this rural water service.
We worked with carbon experts and are now certified to generate credits in all three countries where we operate. We then issue and sell carbon credits on the voluntary and compliance carbon markets. Our carbon issuance is audited by highly reputable carbon auditors.
We use the revenue earned from these carbon sales to reinvest in the program.
Across all three countries of operation, it costs an average of $165 per year to maintain a single dispenser per year. Each dispenser serves 167 people on average. What level of impact can you have today?