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Water as currency? Why Nairobi introduced H2O ATMs

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Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

(Read caption) Kenyan women carry water from a communal pump.

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The Kenyan government has installed communal water dispensers to get clean and affordable water to people in poor areas of Nairobi city.

These water vending machines, known locally as water ATMs, allow people to fill containers with water for a subsidized price, paid for with pre-paid smart cards. With a simple swipe, you can fetch water for as little as half a Kenyan shilling (half a US cent) per 5 gallons of water.

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"We have come up with this technology to enable the slum dwellers access not only clean, but also affordable water," said Mbaruku Vyakweli, an official at the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, to a Kenyan Daily.

In collaboration with Danish water engineering company Grundfos Lifelink, the Nairobi government has brought four water ATMs into Mathare, the Kenyan capital's second-largest poor neighborhood. They plan to expand the project to other slum areas in the city.

Nairobi slum dwellers have never had the luxury of simply turning on the tap for fresh water, and normally rely on water vendors, who inflate prices as high as 30 shillings per 5 gallons, or natural sources of unsafe drinking water.

The idea of dispensing water from automated machines is emerging as a solution to providing clean drinking water in poor areas around the world. Last year, a similar project was inaugurated in India, reports CNN.

India's water ATMs are changing social behaviors, reports the UN. Where water fetching and carrying duties have traditionally fallen to women and girls, the new technology is alluring to men, who see collecting water from the dispensers as a way to show their tech savvy and ability to earn.

Water shortage is a critical problem around the world. About 700 million people in 43 countries suffer from water scarcity, reports the UN, with sub-Saharan Africa having the largest number of water-stressed countries of any region.

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"This is the best project ever that has been started in Mathare,”  Mary Wangare told Business Daily Africa. "I am now able to access clean water at a low cost and without worrying about its safety," said Ms. Wangare, who lives in the slum