Solar-Powered ATMs Bring Clean Water to India's Slums

An Indian-American entrepreneur expands his water ATMs from India's rural villages to the urban slums

2 min read
Solar-Powered ATMs Bring Clean Water to India's Slums

Smart solar-powered "water ATMs" have become a growing source of clean water for rural villagers in India. Now the ATM franchise aims to extend services into India's urban slums where women and girls typically spend hours waiting for tanker trucks to deliver fresh water.

The Sarvajal organization has built a franchised network of its "water ATMs" serving 110,000 rural customers in India—targeting regions where nobody else wants to get into the business of delivering water the "last mile" to reach villages that don't have the luxury of simply turning on the tap for fresh water. Customers simply swipe a prepaid smart card at the ATM to collect their water, according to Yale Environment 360.

But the ATMs do more than just dispense water. They leverage the prepaid model of cellphones on the business side and use mobile technology to enable real-time monitoring with the ATMs' sensors. That allows Sarvajal to track water quality, see what times people draw upon their water supply, and quickly fix any problems that come up.

That all adds up to valuable "big water data" and "business intelligence," said Anand Shah, an Indian-American entrepreneur and CEO of Sarvajal. Shah spoke with Yale Environment 360 spoke at length about his latest plans to expand the water ATMs to India's urban slums. That move presented a huge challenge in terms of dealing with competitors and trying to convince the local government that Sarvajal did not threaten its authority in distributing water.

Sarvajal is still losing money in its efforts, but Shah figured the organization needs about 800 franchisees to break even. The organization has already seen steady growth from serving 60,000 people in 2011 to reaching 110,000 people in 2013—all for the price of less than $3 per month per family.

The water ATMs have already changed social behaviors in the villages. Whereas women and girls used to take on the water-carrying duties, men have increasingly proved eager to collect water from the ATMs to show their earning power. And everyone is proud of holding a smart card.

Photo: Sarvajal

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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