Using Mobile Technology to Deliver Water and Protect Staff: Lessons from Dadaab, Kenya


The following text is an excerpt from a 2013 paper written by CARE Canada’s Jessie Thomson and Brooke Gibbons for the Canadian Humanitarian Conference in October 2013 about efforts to better use new technology in a humanitarian response. 

In response to the 2011 crisis in the Horn of Africa, the drought and the mass movement of Somali refugees, CARE launched an emergency response operation in both North-East Kenya and Dadaab Refugee Camps. 

The response focussed on meeting the large-scale humanitarian needs, building on existing programming and presence in the area. When the program was launched, the security situation remained stable and CARE staff was able to move throughout North-East Kenya and in and around Dadaab Refugee Camps without difficulty, with the exception of some security constraints along the Kenya-Somalia border. 

Following a significant deterioration of the general security situation, including incidents involving armed opposition both in Nairobi and North East Kenya and abductions of national and international humanitarians, a rapid but thorough operational review was undertaken which pointed at the need for CARE to significantly reduce its overall staff composition, movements and exposure to risk in this context. 

Using Global Information System (GIS) mapping and mobile phone updates, CARE developed an interactive map, which enabled CARE staff to reduce their movements while still providing emergency life-saving services to residents in Dadaab. 

In Dadaab refugee camps, CARE is responsible for providing essential services, including water for some 470,000 refugees.* Managing the water in Dadaab requires constant monitoring and maintenance to ensure that refugees have access to a minimum of 20 liters of water per day.

Due to the heightened security situation, visiting water points on a daily basis to ensure proper performance posed a significant security risk for staff, with kidnapping and road side bombings on the rise. At the same time, ceasing to monitor and maintain this essential service was not an option, as water is fundamental to the day-to-day survival of refugees living in the camps.

Nicholas Koech, an innovative member of CARE Kenya’s WASH team, created a remote management system relying on creative tools to ensure the continued provision of water, while also limiting the movement of staff to the field and the unnecessary exposure to risk, where possible. Koech created an open-source mapping application using GIS technology to support CARE’s refugee programming. 

The application was developed to share spatial and non-spatial information on the Dadaab refugee camps, allowing staff members to have a visual mapping of the situation on the ground. Currently the users can visualize and print detail information of tap stands, boreholes, elevated steel tanks, pipe networks and latrines in Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera refugee camps. 

This tool enabled CARE to reduce exposure of its staff to risk faced when monitoring water provision. Instead of having to visit each water point daily, community leaders living in Dadaab were provided with low cost cell phones and were asked to report to the WASH manager to confirm that the water point in their section was functioning correctly. 

The community leaders were trained by CARE Kenya staff in GPS data collection and are required to fill out questionnaires when visiting the water points in order to gain all the relevant information. Cameras are also used to report information to the field offices. Refugee leaders texted information to CARE, which was then displayed on an interactive map of the water points in the camp, flashing either in green, (functioning properly) or red (needing attention) to signify functional and not functional water points. The information was then verified at the field offices.

This GIS mapping project has enabled CARE to focus its movements on water points which were not operating effectively, rather than having to transit the entire camp, which significantly reduced staff members risk exposure, while also ensuring the uninterrupted delivery of essential life-saving humanitarian assistance to those in need. 

Though this project has been successful, the increased use of technology will never replace the value and importance of face to face contact between CARE staff and beneficiaries. While technology has enabled humanitarian actors to adapt approaches in response to security threats, a decrease in the physical presence of staff at the field level can affect our overall accountability to beneficiaries and reduces the feedback that we receive through more traditional patters. 

At the same time, such tools require staff with difference capacities and skills in order to ensure that the information gathered is accurate and inputted correctly. Technology can bring added value to any project, but it also requires an investment. 

Overall, mobile technology has become an innovative and effective tool. 

Widely available technologies supported by mobile and smart phones have allowed humanitarian organizations like WFP and World Vision to create modern assessment tools and increased the ability to gather beneficiary feedback and augment humanitarian accountability. CARE and the IFRC have empowered beneficiaries to be a part of the process by using mobile technology to encourage affected communities to be active in service provision or to provide feedback. 

Mobile technology is increasingly being used in humanitarian operations in order to enhance efficiency, empower communities and address remote management challenges. 

Read the full paper from the Humanitarian Coalition website: Information and Communication Technology and the Humanitarian Field

*Statistic from 2013 article


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