Innovative and community-based sustainable water management

The Global Programme Water (GPW) of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and its partners strives to meet the global challenges associated with the management of water resources through its many projects and activities. At the beginning of the 21st century, these efforts aim to improve global water security within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In particular, they support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal on Water (SDG 6) and its related targets as well as the SDGs that are linked to water such as climate change, health, hunger, energy and others .

Demand for fresh water is growing as is the local, national and cross-border competition for this limited resource, leading to rising water stress around the world. The water crisis raises serious concerns. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Reports have repeatedly placed water at the top of its list of global risks in terms of its threat to the well-being and safety of society. Extensive knowledge of water resources and the availability of data on water quantity and quality is crucial for hydrological services and evidence-based policy and decision-making. Better data, information and knowledge can greatly improve environmental protection. They are also key for developing the necessary legal frameworks for international water cooperation and hydro-diplomacy as well as the needed financial frameworks.

“Globally, a data, information and computer technology revolution is underway. The water sector has to become even more active and creative in developing innovative approaches, so that no one is left behind and the best use possible is made of the emerging technologies during this revolution. This will be needed to underpin the achievements of Sustainable Development Goal 6. We all know that it should be driven and guided by the demand of users.” 

-- Pio Wennubst, Vice-Director, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, at the AquaHacking 2016 Conference in Montreal

Recent innovation and technological change offer opportunities for improving the planning and design of sustainable and effective water-monitoring projects. Over the past few decades, innovation has become one of the main drivers of societal change as a broad range of non-expert citizens have adopted new technologies and integrated them into their daily lives. Today’s smartphones have more computing power than the first super-computers, modern cars are full of sensors and mobile Internet is available practically everywhere people live. It is part of GPW’s strategy to leverage the pervasiveness of such technologies to serve the greater cause of water resource management. 

Smartphones, for example, have revolutionized the way water data can be gathered and the role citizens can play in contributing to water monitoring at the local level. A simple click on a smartphone app allows users to measure water levels and discharge in small to medium-sized rivers and share the data with the world. These smartphone apps make it possible to gather a potentially huge volume of additional fit-for-purpose data. These data can provide added value if existing mechanisms for water data collection, storage and access are further developed to provide for a better integration of all these non-traditional, innovative data sources.

This article describes some of the international work that GPW has undertaken in order to promote innovation and water data. It also explains how this has led GPW to actively back the newly established WMO Global Hydrometry Support Facility (HydroHub).


The iMoMo project

Recent improvements in innovative technologies – from low-cost sensors and communication technology to hardware and software integration – are bringing a whole new set of opportunities to the hydrological monitoring space. They have made it possible to engage new actors in water monitoring, with a shift from a reliance on technical experts to the inclusion of non-experts, including local communities.

The feedback received from local communities helps instrument manufacturers to develop technologies in a way that takes site- and culture-specific circumstances into consideration, making their maintenance easier. Combined with traditional approaches to water monitoring, as currently applied by national hydrometeorological services, such innovative approaches have the potential to unlock solutions for some of the challenges encountered in current monitoring networks.

Taking advantage of the momentum around innovation, starting in 2012 the GPW, together with a consortium of Swiss and international partners, embarked on an “Innovation Journey.” It aimed to incubate innovative Monitoring and Modelling (iMoMo) approaches that promote the development of new sources of data. These new sources complement currently used observing networks operated by national hydrometeorological services and thereby fill longstanding gaps with innovative solutions. Where feasible, these new sources should be co-designed by data and instrument experts working together with end-user communities in various sectors. The following examples of two iMoMo pilots illustrate how this can work. 


The Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan pilot

The Chu, a river in northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan, suffers from both water pollution and water shortages. The management of water resources in Central Asia profits from a heavily structured and highly sophisticated top-down approach inherited from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). However, since the dissolution of the USSR, much of the infrastructure has not been modernized. This hinders the effective flow and exchange of digital information between various stakeholders at the local, national and regional levels.

Building on existing procedures and protocols for data exchange, jointly with stakeholders from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the project team deployed iMoMo technologies with the goal of increasing the coverage, management and exchange of digital data. This includes data from non-traditional sensing, such as crowd-sourced or citizen science data, with the goal of making water monitoring and management more efficient and sustainable while still satisfying requirements for compliance with international standards and national regulations.

The key achievements of the pilot project:

  • Data monitoring and exchange: Water accounting by Water Users’ Associations and in Water Districts has been improved at the local level. This has been achieved through both portable and low-cost automatic sensors, all linked via the mobile phone network to a web-based database system.
  • Development of procedures: Regular data exchanges have been enabled between stakeholders in the Chu River Basin, both at national and transboundary levels. Partners voluntarily share hydrological data of current observations as well as historical statistical data, which are the basis for water-management, forecasting and climate-information services.
  • Reinforced hydrological data management and modelling capacities: Hydrometeorological services have been reinforced by management systems that fully digitalize the exchange of operational hydrological data, the automatic generation of hydrological bulletins and the forecasting of river flows at different lead times.


The Tanzania pilot

The Themi river catchment is a sub-catchment of the Pangani, a river of north-eastern Tanzania. Population growth in the region has increased demand for drinking water, irrigation and livestock watering. The resulting water shortages are seriously affecting downstream ecosystems, hydropower generation and human well-being in local communities.

In partnership with a broad range of local stakeholders, the iMoMo initiative has focused on helping communities and water user associations in different parts of the catchment as well as the local river basin organizationto enable them to make better decisions regarding their water usage by improving the transparency of water allocation and water availability. Through its various actions, such as the integration of software and hardware components, and improvements to the analytical decision-support software, the project has benefited local communities and governmental stakeholders alike.

The main outcomes of this project are:

  • The iMoMo Service Centre: The establishment of the Centre within the Pangani Basin Water Office has supported institution-building, institution-strengthening, project advocacy and outreach.
  • Site instrumentation: The formerly ungauged Themi catchment is now equipped with a growing number of official river gauges. Local communities are delivering daily measurements from off-farm irrigation canals and ditches using the smartphone application.
  • Tailored information: Subscribed end-users are receiving information such as weather forecasts and up-to-date market prices for agricultural goods from key markets via SMS.
  • Data administration for water management and planning: Collected data is stored in a modern, safe and secure way in order to inform management and planning as well as for reporting and data-exchange purposes.
  • Outscaling: The approach has been successfully outscaled to the Rufiji Basin in Tanzania. The basin organization uses the iMoMo technology for compliance monitoring of irrigation-water abstractions by large farms.


Lessons learned

The success of community-based approaches to data collection often depends on 1) the motivation of and buy-in by communities from the very beginning, and 2) expert technical guidance. Here are a few lessons learned from both the Tanzania and Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan pilots:

  • The importance of the technology’s usability: the successful uptake of the technology depends on local needs and local context. Requirements for the local context need to be defined and incorporated into the design of the technologies.
  • Community involvement: it is important to involve communities from the beginning and to communicate the potential benefits of more precise and timely information about water availability and use. This helps to create a sense of ownership and responsibility over time and will help to improve the sustainable use of water resources.
  • Valorization of efforts: to ensure sustained monitoring by community members, provide acknowledgement and financial incentives.
  • Water metering and/or pricing: in some cases, the lack of incentive or the desire to avoid increased prices for water can lead to untruthful reporting and vandalism. The use of a digital data acquisition technology can to a certain extent address these issues when measurements are automatically geo-located and time-stamped, making manipulation harder.
  • Weakly structured vs strongly structured hydrometeorological monitoring cultures: A cultural context with little tradition of hydrometeorological monitoring and well-established workflows can benefit more from innovation based on the deployment of non-traditional observation technologies. In cultures where a strong hydrometeorological culture exists, innovation should focus instead on the modernization – that is, digitization – of existing workflows rather than on the introduction of non-traditional monitoring.

The WMO HydroHub

Based on the experience, achievements and lessons learned from the iMoMo projects in Tanzania and Central Asia, the GPW explored various options for hosting the iMoMo Innovation Initiative and ensuring its financial sustainability. Several organizations have supported the idea of developing iMoMo into a Global Innovation Hub and expressed their interest for stewardship. In 2014, the WMO proposed establishing the Global Innovation Hub as a way of strengthening its hydrometry mandate. A year later, the World Meteorological Congress (Cg-17) endorsed the establishment of the Global Innovation Hub to promote the large-scale uptake of innovation technologies.

In parallel, a full review of the WMO World Hydrological Cycle Observing System (WHYCOS) recommended that a WHYCOS office be set up to support the management and sustainability of the WHYCOS programme. Congress also endorsed this recommendation. WHYCOS is dedicated to improving basic observation activities, strengthening international cooperation and promoting the global exchange of free and open data in the field of hydrology.

Discussions on the side-lines of Congress explored bringing the Global Innovation Hub and the recommended WHYCOS office under a single operational support structure. This would make it possible to consolidate and upscale iMoMo at the global level. One year later, and in response to this idea, a proposal for a Global Hydrometry Support Facility, the WMO HydroHub, was endorsed by the WMO Executive Council (EC-68). The SDC committed to supporting the WMO HydroHub from its inception, in 2017, until 2020.

WMO HydroHub has been specifically designed to build operational systems and capacity in hydrometry and water monitoring, expand both the base and the exchange of hydrological data, and facilitate free and open exchange of observation data and information in support of informed policy and decision-making. HydroHub also assists developing countries to strengthen their monitoring networks and responsible institutions.

Thus WMO HydroHub contributes to strengthening national monitoring capabilities. It assists national institutions to integrate their data with that of others at the regional and global levels and to embark on a transformation journey where innovation is at the core. WMO Hydrohub will embrace non-traditional monitoring as a complementary way of acquiring data for better, more effective and more sustainable water-resources management.


Institutionalizing innovation

As it moves forward, WMO HydroHub – through its Global Innovation Hub – will drive innovation in hydrometry. To this end, a number of concrete approaches will shape the Global Innovation Hub’s work on institutionalizing innovation more widely.

As a first step, a new framework for the WHYCOS programme is being developed. It will pursue greater sustainability by better integrating projects into national and regional development plans and by demonstrating and measuring their added value during the implementation phase. The new framework will thus shift the WHYCOS programme towards a new generation of HYCOS projects with modern monitoring focusing on the establishment of end-to-end systems covering the whole value chain from the collection of observations to end-user services. Experiences gained from two pilot projects – namely the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) HYCOS[1] and Senegal HYCOS[2] in east and west Africa, respectively – will help to shape the new WHYCOS framework by implementing sustainability measures and innovation.

In parallel to this, the Global Innovation Hub is establishing a funding mechanism for innovation projects. The fund will make it possible to support the development of tailored solutions for needs identified by the HydroHub and the WMO community to create actual operational services that support the daily work of national hydrological services in capacity development projects and other contexts. Added value for users is the goal of measures that aim at increased sustainability, improved cost-effectiveness and the exploitation of synergies through partnerships across sectors.

At the dawn of these exciting developments, the SDC is delighted to support the WMO HydroHub and believes that it will contribute to fact-based policy and decision-making toward achieving the SDG 6 objectives on water.  


[1] IGAD countries are Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda

[2] Senegal river countries are Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal

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