Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Power of FLOW

Water For People made international headlines last month when we launched our Droid application to monitor the long-term sustainability of water and sanitation facilities ( ; )-cutely named FLOW-field level operations watch. It’s a topic close to my heart and how I cut my teeth in the water and sanitation sector, when years ago, one of the first things I was tasked with doing was setting up the first sustainability monitoring exercise.

We’ve come a long way in those five years, refining the process along the way to one that takes advantage of the newest technology, allowing us to collect data on cell phones, transmit to a publically-viewed website, and integrates the GPS, camera, and data collection tools into one little cell phone. A far cry from the days of lugging around Trimbles, cameras, copious paper copies of surveys, and my personal favorite, body incubation of water quality samples-good times!

But what is neater than the technological advancements is what the technology has allowed us to do. The ‘check-up’ of water and sanitation systems is not an evaluation-I can’t tell you how women’s lives have been impacted or how many less cases of diarrhea there now are. But we can, with hard data, 1) speak to the sustainability of investments over time and 2) modify our programs that aren’t providing long lasting solutions; and 3) conduct more in-depth evaluations that are informed from the data collected with FLOW.

Sustainability is quite possibly the most overused and under-demonstrated word in the development sector. FLOW puts Water For People’s money where its mouth is and allows us to quantitatively document the sustainability of its efforts for years to come. For toilets, sustainability to us basically means that toilets are being used and hygienically maintained. The data from the most recent India monitoring showed that 91% of the toilets were being used and hygienically maintained. These toilets were all purchased by households with micro-loans from local institutions, and more research is currently underway on the effectiveness of the loan mechanism, but a 90% success rate is something that should be celebrated in a sector where failures are often unknown because of lack of sustainability monitoring or kept in the closet for fear of failure.

Modified Programs : Take the case of sanitation in Malawi; a few years ago, the monitoring team visited a total of 482 toilets-(now there is a new way to spend your vacation!-if interested, check out -Water For People’s volunteer arm that assists with FLOW monitoring) . Two categories: sanitation use (measured by evidence of use confirmed with observation, and questioning users on which family members use the unit) and sanitation hygiene (measured by the presence or absence of urine and feces in the toilet, and the presence or absence of flies) served to measure the use and maintenance of toilets post-intervention. The data from Malawi showed that nearly all of the units were still being used, but among non-users, the largest category was children. This piece of knowledge allowed Water For People to modify its programming, which now includes a simple child-sized and child-friendly slab that creates a barrier to keep the kids’ poop from the kids’ environment, yet is not dark, scary, or otherwise
inappropriate for a kid to use.

A child in Malawi demonstrates his new child-friendly loo.

Informing Evaluations: Back in my neck of the woods, the initial data collected from a Bolivia monitoring trip a few years ago triggered an interest in conducting a much more in-depth evaluation of a large ecological sanitation program in eastern Bolivia, another one of the roles of the simple monitoring conducted with FLOW. It allows us to identify issues that might need further exploration through an evaluation, or local successes that should be celebrated.

Graphic displaying breakdown of status of ecological toilets in San Pedro, Bolivia

The majority of the bathrooms in the red category were not using dry material (or not enough) and thus prone to odors and presence of flies. Variation within specific communities ranged from between zero units in the red category to over forty percent in the community of San Pedro, where the bathrooms are only two years old.

Most people were not aware of 1) the potential uses of the composted feces and urine; 2) where to go for assistance when their units were full. The majority of people interviewed are not using either product and several have emptied the vaults after only 4-6 months, when it is highly doubtful that the compost has been converted into a safe, manageable substance.

Those interviewed expressed positive feelings around having improved their sanitation facilities from an unimproved, flood-prone pit latrine to a more secure ecological toilet. It should not be discounted that over 50% of the units were in the green category, meaning that approximately 1000 people are hygienically using in a sustained manner their sanitation facilities.

FLOW is a tool, and the power of most tools, no matter what their purpose, is not the tool itself, but what it allows one to do. For more information on the data, visit I just got emailed the raw data from the exercise going on RIGHT now in Bolivia-a huge change from the months it used to take to get data back-so I’m off to poke my nose, virtually, in 222 people’s toilets, thanks to FLOW!

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