THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH

Accounting for the Costs of Non-Traditional Data Collection

Low-cost, high-tech monitoring campaigns for the collection of non-traditional data through local involvement are costly too. True, initial investment costs are low when compared to traditional measurement equipment costs such as automatic and autonomous monitoring stations. However, operational costs still accrue, and these are often non-negligible as we shall discuss here. The easiest way to do this is by example for which we take ball-park numbers from Kyrgyzstan to make the point. The Table below shows more information. Very importantly, it should be noted that the argument remains the same for official off-farm by governmental agencies and unofficial on-farm monitoring by e.g. irrigation communities.

Let us assume that an irrigation community wants to invest in scheme canal water monitoring at 10 locations inside their water user association. Let us further assume that they contemplate the deployment of fixed location traditional sensing devices that monitor dis-charge autonomously at the respective gauging sites at high frequency (i.e. hourly). With an average price tag of USD 500.- per site for these devices and per site construction costs and calibration costs of USD 2’000.- (including hardware for the protection of vandalism), the total bill for installation and acquisition costs would amount to USD 25’000.- in total. For operational costs, including the transfer of data to a database, one can assume roughly USD 150.- per year under standard conditions, including amortization of the sensor equipment. Table 1 shows an overview of the sample costs. Also, they consider buying one propeller (USD 1’000.- for the standard equipment) for the proper calibration of the individual measurement sites.

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As an alternative, the community contemplates contracting three gauge readers living close by under the assumption that they can collect data at the 10 points at the required frequency by travel-ling between them for taking the measurements. Different measurement options are evaluated, including the construction of weirs (USD 200.- per site, under the assumption of a lined canal already being in place) or the installation of staff gauges (USD 50.- per lined site) for the measurement of the gauging sites. In both cases, they would need to additionally buy a propeller for calibration.

Finally, they also look into using the iMoMo discharge.ch application with which they can measure water depth and bulk velocity at the same time and thus, apart from the acquisition of smartphones (~USD 170.- per piece), have no further need to buy a propeller. For the annual subscription fee to discharge.ch, they would have to pay USD 80.-. The community agrees to pay the gauge readers USD 3.- per day for their services. Additional operational costs are assumed to be USD 200.- per gauge reader and year, approximately.

The Table shows the resulting comparison of costs when acquisition and installation costs and operational costs are taken into account. The comparison shows that initial acquisition costs are a multiple of any of the other methods that rely on non-traditional monitoring of data through local involvement where, on the other hand, operational costs that include salaries of the gauge readers are significantly higher as compared to the autonomous monitoring case. 

Cost Comparison Table

There is no free lunch in either cases. For traditional monitoring, high initial investment costs need to be paid upfront whereas on the other hand, for the non-traditional monitoring cases, significant operational incur over time that need to be budgeted for annually and that an any institution has to be able to pay over the short-term and over the long-run. In other words, also with non-traditional data collection through local involvement there is a limit to how much scalability can be achieved. If a gauge reader can read multiple gauges due to their geographic proximity, the scalability is there. In large irrigation perimeters or at basin scale with very distant and dispersed monitoring sites, this scalability cannot be achieved, and it will never pay to monitor and gauge every single water abstraction in the domain under consideration.