Hidden Crisis: unravelling current failures for future success in rural groundwater supply


Millions of pounds of investment by water users, charities and tax-payers are wasted each year by water points failing soon after construction. Getting a more complete understanding of how to keep water flowing from boreholes will reduce waste and improve water services for Africa’s poorest communities.


The underlying causes of rapid failure of approximately a third of African rural groundwater sources are complex and multi-faceted, but with interdisciplinary approaches can be understood, diagnosed and ultimately anticipated and mitigated.


Water point failure is a long standing problem – around 30-40% of water points, are estimated to be out of action at any one time and this failure rate has remained stubbornly high for decades. An UPGro catalyst study showed that there are many inter-related causes of failure, which depend on context. It is not a simple problem, so simple solutions, such as a new type of pump or more capacity development will not work on their own.

The study has five main objectives:

  1. To provide a nuanced definition of functionality of water points and water user groups which accounts for seasonality, quality and expectations, and is fit for purpose for tracking future progress towards new Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. To apply this new definition to 3 countries, Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi, carry out field surveys for a statistically significant sample of water points, and relate results to larger ongoing studies of functionality to help update WASH coverage figures.
  3. To unravel the multifaceted factors governing source failure and success through detailed novel interdisciplinary science exploring the inter-relations between water point governance arrangements, engineering choice/performance, demographic, and groundwater conditions within a broader institutional and hydrogeological framework.
  4. To examine and forecast future rural water supply coverage by modelling the impact on water points of different future pathways, including groundwater recharge scenarios, different development approaches, and future rural water demand scenarios.
  5. To develop a dynamic approach for building resilience into future rural water supply programmes, through detailed interdisciplinary analysis of the datasets developed in 1 – 3, publish in a manual, and develop several pathways for uptake within the WASH community.
hidden crisis
Some of the many primary, secondary and underlying reasons for water source failure.




Working in:

  • Ethiopia
  • Malawi
  • Uganda

UPGro Hidden Crisis reports

Survey 1 Country Reports

  • Kebede, S.; MacDonald, A.M.; Bonsor, H.C; Dessie, N.; Yehualaeshet, T.; Wolde, G.; Wilson, P.; Whaley, L.; Lark, R.M.. 2017.  UPGro Hidden Crisis Research Consortium : unravelling past failures for future success in Rural Water Supply. Survey 1 Results, Country Report Ethiopia. Nottingham, UK, British Geological Survey, 17pp. (OR/17/024).  http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/516998/
  • Owor, M.; MacDonald, A.M.; Bonsor, H.C.; Okullo, J.; Katusiime, F.; Alupo, G.; Berochan, G.; Tumusiime, C.; Lapworth, D.; Whaley, L.; Lark, R.M.. 2017. UPGro Hidden Crisis Research Consortium. Survey 1 Country Report, Uganda. British Geological Survey, 18pp. (OR/17/029). http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/518403/
  • Mwathunga, E.; MacDonald, A.M.; Bonsor, H.C.; Chavula, G.; Banda, S.; Mleta, P.; Jumbo, S.; Gwengweya, G.; Ward, J.; Lapworth, D.; Whaley, L.; Lark, R.M.. 2017. UPGro Hidden Crisis Research Consortium. Survey 1 Country Report, Malawi. British Geological Survey, 19pp. (OR/17/046). http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/518402/

Political Economy Analysis Reports

District Sustainability Assessments

Technical Briefs

Survey 2 Forensic Water Point Country Reports


  1. This is a very interesting project and I am keen to follow the progress of your work. I am working in South Africa and we are faced with similar challenges in rural water supply, which is also heavily dependent on groundwater in some parts. We also have some other issues in addition to the ones indicated on the diagram so I am keen to see what this project comes up with and how it would apply this side

    1. We would be really interested to potentially work with you to share our knowledge from the field in Malawi or potentially look at planning an event together in the future reflecting on these issues. The project is certainly very valuable and we look forward to seeing the results.

      1. Joanna
        I am have to hear that you your project is also working in Malawi. I am a PhD student at Mzuzu University working on similar area on governance and functionality challenges for rural water supply in Nkhata Bay District with Dr. Rochelle Holm and Dr. Mavuto Tembo. I don’t know which districts in Malawi are working? I believe your results will be very important to my study as well. Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  2. The diagram is good but omits important underlying conditions:
    1) Corruption. Political donations from large corporations delivers policy that lets gas & coal companies to drain aquifers and pollute surface water.
    2) Decision-making power is removed from local socio-ecological system and removed to financial capitals where this money and influence is concentrated

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