“The borehole is not a madman” Community management of groundwater in rural Uganda

by Dr Luke Whaley, Professor Frances Cleaver and Felece Katusiime (UPGro Hidden Crisis)

In Uganda, waterpoint committees exist more in name than in reality. Many waterpoints have been ‘personalised’. That is to say, they are under the control of one or a small number of individuals. Moreover, where local management arrangements (of any sort) are effective they tend to rely heavily on the authority of the head of the village council, known as the LC1 Chairperson. Indeed, it is often the LC1 Chairperson and not a waterpoint committee who is instrumental in collecting funds, securing maintenance and resolving disputes. Where an apparently functioning committee is in place, this is usually the result of concerted efforts on the part of particular local NGOs, who cannot guarantee this level of commitment in the longer term.

At least, these are the impressions of Felece Katusiime, a social science field researcher working on the UPGro ‘Hidden Crisis’ project, concerned with the sustainability of rural groundwater supply in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi. They are field insights (preceding full data analysis) from someone who has spent many months in the field undertaking research in roughly 200 rural Ugandan villages. The discussion that follows is intended as a provocation and not a promulgation of project findings. We are interested in the extent to which the points made here accord or contrast with the experiences of you, the readers, and we welcome dialogue on these matters.

So, why might it be that in Uganda waterpoint committees,as envisaged on paper, seldom exist as such on the ground?

After all, for decades now there has been a strong international and national policy drive toward decentralisation and community based management (CBM), typically operationalised through village-level waterpoint committees. Whilst there are many possible answers to this question, here we focus on observations made by Felece during recent discussions in Kampala. We make three points.

Firstly, it is necessary to move beyond thinking about water as somehow separate from the reality of village life more generally. There are existing social relations, power dynamics, and sources of authority that come to bear on the form and function of a waterpoint committee. In the case of Uganda, these sources of power and authority are commonly the LC1 Chairperson, religious leaders and groups, and other respected village elders and individuals. Where a water management arrangement is in place, it is likely that one or more of these actors are involved, either carrying out management functions or lending authority to those who do. In the case of the latter, those carrying out these functions may often be relatives or have close ties with the authority figures in question.

Secondly, for many rural villagers in Uganda, kept busy by the demands of day-to-day life, the requirement to form a seven-person strong committee to manage a single waterpoint seems excessive. As one villager responded when asked why her community does not have a functioning committee: “the borehole is not a madman”. The implication here is that, unlike a ‘madman’, the waterpoint is not unpredictable and uncontrollable in a way that needs the concerted and ongoing efforts of a whole group of people. Instead, mixed arrangements of local leaders, elites, or pre-existing networks take on the responsibility and may vary over the course of the year in response to the seasonal challenges that the user community face. The danger here is that, by drawing on existing arrangements, water management may reproduce or entrench existing unequal power relations.

This leads to the third and final point concerned with why someone would choose to volunteer as the member of a waterpoint committee in the first place. According to Felece, a common motive is the expectation that doing so may lead on to something else. This chimes with existing research into local level institutions in Uganda. From this perspective, a person may be inclined to join a waterpoint committee not primarily because of a concern with water management but with increasing their wealth and status. In keeping with the previous point, membership on a committee may serve as a way of attaining or entrenching a position of influence in the village. Where an individual’s wealth and status is furthered through a position on the committee, these people are likely to remain a member. Where it is not, it is likely that they will become disillusioned with the onerous responsibility of managing the waterpoint and drop out. What remains is an ad hoc arrangement that likely reflects existing social dynamics in the village.

In the last decade, there has been increasing attention afforded to ‘working with the grain’ and with embracing local hybrid forms of management as ‘arrangements that work’. However, for development efforts that favour standardised approaches and prescriptions such as CBM, these sorts of insights are challenging. Without an understanding of the logic and social dynamics that produce hybrid forms of waterpoint management, progress toward sustainable water supplies is unlikely to be achieved.

For reflections on understanding borehole functionality from a social science perspective see: Whaley, L. and Cleaver, F. (2017) Can Functionality Save the Community Management Model of Rural Water supply? Water Resources and Rural Development 9(1): 56-66, available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212608216300274

Photo: L. Whaley, 2017


  1. I completely agree with the authors’ emphasis on breaking the siloed approach to water point management, and contextualizing what the standard approach asks of communities. For example, the CBM approach asks households to save for future repairs to a hypothetical breakdown, when many of these households don’t have a safe, reliable way to save for their own personal risks.

    In western Uganda where The Water Trust operates, we have come to similar conclusions:

    1) Water, sanitation, and hygiene represents a narrow subset of the challenges and concerns confronting households. The narrow mandate of the WSC institution limits its perceived importance and community interest.

    2) The informal WSC structure and financial management practices fail to engender adequate trust in community members to collect, save and spend fees.

    3) Fee collection creates a significant burden for volunteer WSC members, who have to regularly travel to 30 to 50 households in a large area to attempt to collect fees.

    4) The WSC institution is inherently weak due to its lack of a material incentive to meet and fulfill its obligations, and its small member size (typically 4-6).

    After piloting several different approaches, we have found to be most successful taking a hybrid approach that focuses on establishing a durable, community-based institution that can reduce the burden of fee collection and increase trust. Importantly, the groups are durable because they provide a material incentive for their continued operations.

    Specifically, village savings and loan groups have a long history in Western Uganda and in much of the world. While there are a number of formal training methodologies, the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) approach developed by CARE more than 25 years ago has a long history of creating durable, trustworthy village-level cooperatives that provide access to savings and credit to populations with low literacy and numeracy. From the perspective of the WASH sector, the groups have several compelling attributes: (1) there is generally high community demand, (2) members trust the groups with their money, (3) meeting attendance is high; (4) groups provide access to capital for sanitation upgrades, (5) 89% of VSLA groups survive more than five years.

    In our initial pilot we found that adapting this methodology to include the management of a water point maintenance fund significantly increased willingness to pay. Notably, average annual water point contributions (spent or available for repairs) increased on average from $2 to $164 in savings group communities. What’s more the groups have provided a much more efficient platform for hygiene and sanitation promotion, as they have regular weekly meetings with a significant percentage of the catchment area attending.

    While every context requires a nuanced analysis and program design process, we think this model provides a sound example of how a hybrid approach that starts with community priorities can achieve stronger results.

  2. I also agree with the observation that functionality of the Community Water Management committee most often revolves around the local leaders. Many WMCs in Malawi for example are not active because they have several issues with the village chief. For example, the money that is collected for the operation and maintenance of boreholes is often misused as it ends to be in the hands of the village leaders or the relatives. This forces the other users to abandon the boreholes once they are broken. This has led to high rate of non-functionarity of many water points. Traditionally, it is unacceptable to confront the chief whenever he is making mistakes since he has the powers to chase you out of his village, hence people just leave the water points unattended to.

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