Passengers receive safe drinking water at a water ATM, or water vending machine, installed by WaterHealth at Pune Train Station in India. Photo by: WaterHealth India.

BARCELONA — Using an ATM is no longer a novelty to most people. The idea of inserting a bank card into a machine to withdraw cash has been around since 1967 and, according to the World Bank, today there are 42 ATMs per 100,000 people worldwide.

The idea that water rather than cash be dispensed is, however, a novelty. While it may sound strange, water ATMs, or automated water dispensing units, are increasingly popping up as a solution to a lack of clean water.

One in three people worldwide do not currently have access to clean drinking water and this can lead to diseases such as cholera, typhoid, trachoma, intestinal worms, and schistosomiasis, according to WHO.

India, Uganda, and Bangladesh are just a few of the countries where both private sector entities alongside NGOs are tackling this problem by rolling out water ATMs.

Designed to operate 24 hours a day, powered by solar energy, and able to collect rainwater and purify it via solar-powered osmosis or connect to the grid system, the machines are accessed via a water card sold by vendors and small shops. Once topped up with credit, the card can be inserted into the machine to obtain water — in Uganda, 500 shillings ($0.13) will get you a liter while in Bangladesh it’s 0.4 taka (less than half of a cent) for the same amount.

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According to Kimbugwe, who has strategically placed each ATM within the city’s slums, one ATM can supply 12,000 liters of water per day.

“Long-term, the sales of water through water ATMs will be commercially viable and sustainable, improving the livelihoods of many people because the selling prices are about 40% of the market price of bottled water,” said Kimbugwe. He said people cannot rely on the water supplied by the municipal corporation as it often has impurities. According to research, while most compounds found in Uganda’s tap water are within international water safety standards, there can be a slightly higher level of lead.

Subira Bjornsen, program support and learning adviser at WaterAid, works on the HSBC Water Programme, which supplies water ATMs in Bangladesh. In those machines, water is taken from a tubewell and undergoes a reverse osmosis process to remove high levels of salinity in the water, making it safe to drink. “The biggest solutions that WaterAid has been supporting are around filtration and treatment systems, including the reverse osmosis treatment plant, which is what the water ATMs are connected to.”

In Bangladesh, WaterAid supports approximately 16,000 people through two ATMs it established in 2015 in two sub-districts: Dacope and Paikgacha.

“One lesson we have learned is that these ATMs are a good thing for managing services in water scarce situations as well as in public places,” said Aftab Opel, head of programs at WaterAid Bangladesh. “In terms of creating accessibility and creating water at the right price, this is a very effective solution, but requires more investment.”

Despite reducing the time spent collecting water and being a more affordable alternative to accessing water for the users, the reserve osmosis systems that organizations need to purchase and install as part of a water ATM system, are an incredibly expensive way to treat water, Bjornsen said.

A WaterAid water ATM already costs around £1,000 ($1,230) to install without the cost of the reverse osmosis treatment plant it must connect to.

While cheaper and easier-to-manage solutions might be available, in some remote locations, such technology may be the only option, Bjornsen said.

Since 2012, WaterAid has been working with HSBC to provide communities in Bangladesh vulnerable to the impacts of climate with climate-resilient clean water sources that have a great impact on their livelihoods. Credit: WaterAid.

Upkeep essential

One of the biggest challenges to implementing such systems is the upkeep and maintenance, Bjornsen said. In order for these ATMs to remain a sustainable solution beyond initial implementation, communities have to have the capacity to operate them.

“Often we think not just about how much it’s going to cost to implement something, but how much will it cost to operate and maintain over a longer period of time, who is going to be able to do that, and is there a cost associated with their time spent on doing that?”

Vikas Shah, COO at WaterHealth International — an organization that provides access to safe, quality affordable drinking water to underserved communities — said the only reason such machines wouldn’t survive or sustain is because of limited or nonexistent operation maintenance.

“In the last 10 years, we have invested in this model so much so that regardless of where a plant is in our network — whether it’s India or Africa — if it’s completely broken down, it will stay broken down no more than four hours. That guarantee of performance comes only when you master the skill of operation maintenance, logistics, supply-chain etc,” Shah said.

In Bangladesh, WaterAid has tapped into local women’s groups to tackle the issue of operation maintenance. Seeking out established groups, particularly those involved in microfinance, WaterAid encouraged them to take over the management of reverse osmosis treatment plants, giving them a means of earning an income while providing for the community.

Not everyone supports the ATMs as an ideal solution. “It completely disconnects the consumer from the water ecosystem and this disconnection is very problematic,” said Himanshu Thakur, founder of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “Water is not only a commodity, it is very much part of the ecosystem.”

Thakur suggested working with communities to teach the skills needed to acquire their own water so it is even more affordable and accessible. “I would urge [development practitioners] to educate people on how to use rainfall and how to use ground water in a sustainable way. That is possibly the best way to go forward in achieving better access of water for the people,” he said.

Bjornsen defended the ATMs — saying while water as a commodity does require a level of thought around affordability, introducing pricing models or membership tariffs among communities can help. But she agreed that they were just one solution. She suggested rainwater harvesting, pond sand filters, and arsenic and iron removal plants be used alongside water ATMs.