Key recommendations

Government: National and Local

  • Actively engage with the AMCOW Pan-African Groundwater Program
  • Accept that handpump services will breakdown and design robust systems that reduce the number of breakdowns per year and minimise the time it takes to repair a pump (downtime).
  • Set realistic targets for handpump functionality using metrics that provide information on long-term sustainability of the facility, rather than simple functionality, and collect data accordingly.
  • Require all agencies providing drinking water through handpumps to use standard definitions and methods to measure functionality. This will enable national measurement of progress towards the SDG goal of ensuring that everyone has access to drinking water by 2030.
  • Analyse handpump functionality data to determine whether irreversible breakdown and abandonment is occurring early in handpump lifecycles, as this indicates problems in site selection, installation, and commissioning. These problems can be rectified through better planning, improved contracting, and building of capacity of well-drillers.
  • To ensure sustainability of boreholes fitted with handpumps national government should increase attention and funding for ongoing maintenance and monitoring.
  • Give greater recognition and support to District Councils and District Water Development Offices, as their role is crucial to delivering sustainable water services. Provide technical training for Water Point Committees and Area Mechanics to improve technical skills and knowledge.
  • Avoid ideological approaches to decentralised service delivery, and focus instead on context-specific solutions, including support to successful innovations, and provide spaces to critique dominant approaches to service delivery, as part of an adaptive learning process.
  • Policy focusing on extending water supply coverage, at the expense of sustainable service provision, must be revisited.
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities for the management and delivery of water supplies need to be clarified.
  • Decentralised delivery of water supply services must be matched with adequate fiscal decentralisation to ensure that districts have the financial resources needed to perform their role.
  • Districts need structured capacity support to enable them to adequately support communities in managing and maintaining their water supply.
  • Efforts to calculate the full costs of reaching and sustaining universal water supply access (using various service options) in the district must be undertaken and integrated into district plans. These must be complemented by efforts to identify and leverage additional funding sources to implement costed plans.

Civil Society and NGOs

  • Support effective and consistent collaboration and communication between national and district institutions, researchers and policy makers. This will enable access for policy makers to reliable data and information to inform policy changes. Participatory governance approaches, such as Transition Management, have multiple benefits for management of WASH services in Sub-Saharan Africa. Successful engagement relies on critical assessment of structural and cultural inequalities and combining them with trust- and capacity-building based on local needs and priorities.

International Development Cooperation and Aid agencies (iNGOs, UN organisations)

  • Investment must be made in long-term monitoring of groundwater and the decentralised collection of quantitative livelihoods data (disaggregated to allow gender and other social categories to be identified).
  • A disaggregated livelihoods impact metric should be included among other metrics used to identify winners and losers in evaluating the robustness of any theory of change. This would provide a crucial link between water security and issues driving conflict, migration, access to education and health services.
  • It is essential to widen access to the latest data and local knowledge, while providing training in the skills required to interpret that data and knowledge, to support informed debate and build a consensus for timely actions based on this evidence. Equally, if decision making is to be effectively devolved,  rural people may need training in the skills necessary to interpret and apply this information.
  • To widen access, capacity must be built in local institutions and partner universities in data collection (groundwater and livelihoods) and analysis, adopting a ‘Training of Trainers’ approach. This will accelerate, grow and sustain uptake and monitoring activities and ensure local institutions can continue to deliver both groundwater and livelihoods training as ‘trainer of trainers’). This will provide a sustainable, ongoing basis for climate resilience research.

Context: highlights from the Africa Groundwater Atlas

Visit the Malawi country page

Aquifer overview of Malawi (Africa Groundwater Atlas)

Groundwater quantity

  • There is a lack of information about the quantitative status of groundwater across Malawi, because there is relatively little groundwater level monitoring.
  • There is little information or knowledge about environmental water flows or how groundwater supports environmental flows, or any guidelines for estimating them.
  • Potential interactions between river flows and groundwater are only investigated occasionally on a case by case basis, if there are known problems. 

Groundwater quality

  • The natural quality of groundwater across much Malawi is thought to be generally suitable for drinking. However, groundwater chemistry is highly dependent on rock type and mineralogy, and so it is highly variable across the country.
  • Groundwater in alluvial aquifers is generally more mineralised than that in basement aquifers, and a number of boreholes in alluvial aquifers have been abandoned due to high salinity.
  • Chemical parameters that are elevated in different areas include fluoride, sulphate, iron, chloride and nitrate. Fluoride concentrations of more than 1.5 mg/l are common in groundwater in alluvial aquifers in the Salima/Nkhotakota and Karonga lakeshore areas. 
  • Generally, groundwater from boreholes is of better microbiological quality than groundwater from dug wells, which tend to be more vulnerable to contamination

Groundwater use

  • Groundwater is widely used across Malawi for both domestic and agricultural purposes. There were about 30,000 water boreholes and 8,000 protected hand dug wells in 2012.
  • Drought and poor water quality have meant more people are turning from hand dug wells to drilled boreholes. 
  • Estimates show that 65% of the population depends on groundwater for domestic supply: in rural areas, this rises to 82%, while in urban areas is it closer to 20%, although a number of towns or districts within towns get most of their water supply from groundwater.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture explicitly recommended expanding groundwater use for irrigation in 1999 and again in 2013, leading to an expansion in treadle pumps and boreholes.
  • Boreholes fitted with hand pumps are standard for rural groundwater supplies. The use of motorised pumps is widespread, particularly by farmers; and treadle pumps are becoming more widely used. 

Key activities and findings from UPGro research in Malawi

General UPGro findings with relevance to Malawi

Climate Resilience & Groundwater ResourcesClimate change may enhance groundwater recharge in arid and semi-arid areas, presenting opportunities for long-term management as part of national climate adaptation strategies.

Local hydrogeological understanding is required to define the sustainable yield of water points, particularly in weathered basement aquifers.

Numerical groundwater models can be used to assess the sustainability of different groundwater scenarios to inform groundwater management and planning.

Bacteriological contamination of groundwater is likely to be a significant barrier to achieving safely managed water services under SDG6, but this can be tackled by improved construction practices.
Groundwater and PovertyCommunities are routinely under high water stress due to social pressures (e.g. funerals, cultural events) and environmental pressures (e.g. dry periods). These pressures cascade with routine sharing of water points.

Women are more at risk of water scarcity due to gender roles and gender task allocation.  
Sustainable Rural Water ServicesNew methods for defining and measuring water point functionality are required to adequately monitor progress towards SDG6 for safely managed water services.

Affordable maintenance and repair are one of the main predictors of borehole functionality. This highlights the need for effective management models to address poor functionality.
Urban Water SecurityIn urban areas experiencing rapid population growth, increased demand for water is likely to have a much more significant impact on groundwater than climate change.

Groundwater can only gain a role as a strategic urban resource where an integrated approach to urban water management and governance acknowledges the importance of all available resources.

Conjunctive use, managed aquifer recharge, and suitable treatment measures are vital to make groundwater a strategic resource on the urban agenda.

Participatory, community-led approaches, such as Transition Management, can provide new and collaborative ways of using and managing urban groundwater.  
Agriculture and livelihoodsAccess to groundwater is associated with improved agricultural production, reduced agricultural risk, and improved livelihoods.

Knowledge sharing approaches, such as Rainwatch and Farmer Radio, can be used to increase resilience by communicating farming practices that align with sustainable intensification, climate and groundwater forecasts with farmers.

Malawi-specific activities and findings

Climate Resilience & Groundwater Resources Groundwater is generally available through the dry season. Access to functional water services is the key constraint to water availability for communities.

Factors affecting resource availability include water quality, water committee (finances & training), size of village, and proximity to other sources.
Sustainable Rural Water Services Communities are routinely under high water stress with diaries showing both regular pressures from funerals, cultural events and dry periods.

Pressures on water points often cascade with routine sharing of water points with neighbouring communities due to poor functionality.

A 2016 survey of boreholes with handpumps across 5 districts of Malawi showed that 74% were working on the day of the survey. Only 41% of handpumps surveyed passed the design yield, reliability and water quality criteria.

The main physical factor affecting handpump performance in Malawi is poor condition of handpump components. However, functionality is considerably higher than in the other study countries, Ethiopia and Uganda, and the resource potential, depth to groundwater and recharge are generally favourabl

Reducing the number of handpump breakdowns and minimising the time it takes to repair them are vital to improve access to water services.

Data collection and analysis on handpump functionality is essential for rapid repair. Metrics should focus on long-term sustainability of the facility, rather than simple functionality at the time of measurement.

Handpump functionality datasets should include information on water point age, frequency of breakdown, and length of downtimes, as well as differentiating 1) water yield and quality limitations, including seasonality constraints 2) limitations in well siting, design, and installation, and 3) limitations of handpump maintenance and financing arrangements.

At the District level, a Water Supply Sustainability analysis for Malawi identified the main threats to functionality of rural groundwater supply as lack of investment for ongoing operation and maintenance, poor supply chain for spare parts and lack of skills and knowledge for maintenance, and lack of community ownership. National level support is needed to support districts and communities to maintain functional water services.

Actors on the frontline of service delivery have considerable responsibility for ensuring the sustainability of water services, but little influence on decisions made ‘at the top’ and very few resources ‘to get the job done’. The water sector in Malawi suffers from a shortage of human and financial capacity in comparison to other sectors.

Case Studies

Measuring progress on water point functionality requires standards definitions and assessments

Currently, there is no universally adopted definition of water point functionality, or what constitutes a functioning water point. Assessing progress towards the SDGs requires agreed definitions and standard assessment approaches.
The Hidden Crisis project developed a set of common definitions and methods for assessing water point functionality and performance. A tiered approach to defining and measuring functionality was found to be useful to examine functionality for different scales and purposes. This approach has been applied in functionality surveys across Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi, as part of Hidden Crisis research.
The guidelines for assessing water point functionality are summarised as:

  1. Functionality should be measured against explicitly stated standards of the performance of the water point, so that functionality data from different regions and surveys can be compared.
  2. It should be measured separately from the users’ experience of the service provided.
  3. Functionality assessments should be tiered, to ensure a minimum top-tier assessment can be completed by all surveys, but allowing for further, more detailed, tiers of assessments to be conducted at local levels.
  4. A distinction should be made between surveying functionality as a snapshot (e.g. for national metrics) and surveying individual water point performance (where a temporal aspect of the water point performance is included in a rapid assessment).
    The tiered approach to defining water point functionality involves 4 levels:
  5. Binary Functionality – is the water point working and delivering some water (yes/no)
  6. Functionality: yield snapshot – does the water point work and provide sufficient yield (10 L/min) on the day of the survey
  7. Functionality: reliable yield – does the water point provide sufficient yield (10 L/min) on the day of survey, is it reliable (<30 days downtime in last year) or abandoned (not worked in past year)?
  8. Reliable yield and water quality – as 3 above, and also passes WHO guidelines for water quality.
    Application of these definitions of functionality in the field have shown that the measure of reliable yield gives much more useful information about the service level of the water point than a binary assessment, and generally reduces functionality rates by 50%.
    For full details of the definitions and methods developed, please see the technical briefing which has been published here:

UPGro published work relating to Malawi

  • 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).
  • Mwathunga, E.; Fallas, H.C.; MacAllister, D.J.; Mkandawire, T.; Makuluni, P.; Shaba, C.; Jumbo, S.; Moses, D.; Whaley, L.; Banks, E.; Casey, V.; MacDonald, A.M.. 2019 Physical factors contributing to rural water supply functionality performance in Malawi. Nottingham, UK, British Geological Survey, 24pp. (OR/19/057).
  • Naomi Oates and Evance Mwathunga (2018). A political economy analysis of Malawi’s rural water supply sector. Overseas Development Institute 2018, pp35.
  • Bawi Consultants (2018). District Water Supply Sustainability Assessment, Final Country Report Malawi. UPGro Hidden Crisis.
  • Richard C. Carter & Ian Ross (2016). Beyond ‘functionality’ of handpump-supplied rural water services in developing countries. Waterlines, 35(1), DOI: 10.3362/1756-3488.2016.008
  • UNC Water Institute WaSH Policy Research Digest Issue #3, March 2016. Detailed Review of a Recent Publication: Getting handpump functionality monitoring right can help ensure rural water supply sustainability.
  • Bonsor, H., MacDonald, AM., Casey, V., Carter, R., Wilson, P. 2018. The need for a standard approach to assessing the functionality of rural community water supplies. Hydrogeology Journal, 26; 2, 367-370.
  • Whaley, L., Cleaver., F. 2017. Can ‘functionality’ save the community management model of rural water supply? Water Resources and rural development; 9: 56-66.
  • Liddle, ES., Fenner, R. 2017. Water point failure in sub-Saharan Africa: the value of a systems thinking approach Waterlines; 36: 2: 27pp.
  • Howard, G., Calow, R., MacDonald, A., Bartram, J. 2016. Climate change and water and sanitation: likely impacts and emerging trends for action, Annual Review of Environmental Resources, 41: 253-276.
  • , F, Whaley, L. 2018. Understanding process, power, and meaning in adaptive governance: a critical institutional reading. Ecology and Society; 23 (2): 49.
  • Whaley, L. 2018. The Critical Institutional Analysis and Development (CIAD) Framework. International Journal of the Commons; 12 (2): 137-161.
  • Whaley, L., MacAllister, D.J., Bonsor, H.C., Mwathunga, E., Banda, S., Katusiime, F., Tadesse, Y., Cleaver, F., MacDonald, A.M. 2019. Evidence, ideology and the policy of community management in Africa. Environmental Research Letters.
  • Fallas, H. C., MacDonald, A.M., Casey, V., Kebede, S.,Owor, M., Mwathunga, E., Calow, R., Cleaver, F., Cook, P., Fenner, R.A., Dessie, N., Yehualaeshet, T., Wolde, G., Okullo, J., Katusiime, F., Alupo, G., Berochan, G., Chavula, G., Banda, S., Mleta, P., Jumbo, S., Gwengweya, G., Okot, P., Abraham, T., Kefale, Z., Ward, J., Lapworth, D., Wilson, P., Whaley, L. Ludi, E. 2018. UPGRO Hidden Crisis Research consortium: Project approach for defining and assessing rural water supply functionality and levels of performance. British Geological Survey (BGS) Open Report, OR/18/060, pp 25.
  • D.J. MacAllister, D. Nedaw, S. Kebede, T. Mkandawire, P. Makuluni, C. Shaba, J. Okullo, M. Owor, R. Carter, J. Chilton, V. Casey, H. Fallas, A.M. MacDonald, “Contribution of physical factors to handpump borehole functionality in Africa, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 851, Part 2, 2022, 158343, ISSN 0048-9697,

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More information

Similar research programmes in Malawi


Further research recommendations

For sustainable rural water services, further research into the political economy of water service provision in Malawi should include analysis of the role of Area Mechanics, their interaction with communities and government or NGO staff, as well as procurement and construction processes in Malawi’s drilling sector. Further research is also needed into the district and sub-district politics and governance of water policy and the high-level politics and decision-making of national budgets and plans.


This Country Profile was prepared by Heather Plumpton (Walker Institute) and Sean Furey (Skat Foundation)

UPGro researchers in Malawi who have led this work

  • Dr Geoffrey Chavula, University of Malawi
  • Dr Theresa Mkandawire, University of Malawi
  • Dr Evance Mwathunga, University of Malawi
  • Kondwani Farai Chikadza, University of Malawi
  • Gloria Gwengweya, University of Malawi
  • Patrick Makuluni, University of Malawi
  • Prince Mleta, University of Malawi
  • Dyson Moses, University of Malawi
  • Chikondi Shaba, University of Malawi
  • Sella Jumbo, WaterAid Malawi
  • Lawrence Kamzati, WaterAid Malawi


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