Technical brief now available – Project approach for defining and assessing rural water supply functionality and levels of performance

The Hidden Crisis project team have now published a Technical Brief on the methods developed and used by the project to assess rural water supply functionality and levels of performance – now available from here.

This technical brief is aimed at sharing the learning and approaches developed by the project to look at how the functionality and performance levels of boreholes equipped with handpumps (HPBs), can be assessed using a common set of definitions and methods. A tiered approach to defining and measuring functionality was found to be useful to examining functionality for different scales and purposes of monitoring. 

The report is aimed at national and regional actors involved in the provision and monitoring of rural water supply functionality.

The brief sets out the tiered functionality definitions, and accompanying survey methods, which were developed by the project and have been applied in functionality surveys across Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi .

Photos: BGS © UKRI. Survey 1 Field teams, Uganda and Malawi

The Politics of Water 3: Area Mechanics in Malawi

by Naomi Oates, re-posted from University of Sheffield

Competing narratives surround the role of ‘area mechanics’ in Malawi

In November 2017 I started my ‘politics of water’ blog as an outlet to share experiences and findings from my research in rural Malawi on water governance and service sustainability.

The first instalment describes my initial impressions of Balaka District while the second explores the relationship between extension workers and rural communities.

This might have left you wondering – what about everyone else?


Area Mechanics receive hands-on training in water point repairs (Author’s own)

Water services in Malawi are decentralised, at least in theory.  This means two things. Firstly, district councils, together with district water offices, are mandated to develop and monitor water infrastructure in rural areas.

Secondly, communities are expected to maintain and repair their water points with minimal external assistance. For more serious problems, local ‘area mechanics’ are their first port of call, followed by the district water office.

In reality, district water offices are severely under resourced, there are currently few area mechanics, and the effectiveness of community-based management varies considerably. However, where they are present, area mechanics are thought to play an important role in keeping water points functioning.

Area Mechanics: volunteers or entrepreneurs?

So what is an area mechanic? This sounds like a simple question, but the answers are complex and contradictory.

The area mechanics Thoko interviewed in Balaka for her MSc research tended to consider themselves, foremost, as volunteers working for the greater good of the community. After all, they were selected from the local community and have strong social ties with the people they serve. An area mechanic may be a relative, a neighbour or a fellow churchgoer, even the village headman himself. Trustworthiness was emphasised by communities as an important criteria.


This training manual describes area mechanics as ‘artisans in advanced hand pump repair operating on a payment basis’ (GoM 2015)

The depiction of area mechanics as volunteers has been echoed in my own conversations with extension staff and NGO workers, but in combination with another term – entrepreneur. According to national policy, area mechanics are meant to operate as independent businesspersons. They are given training and a few basic tools, after which they are expected to make a small profit to sustain their operations. They are also encouraged to sign written contracts with communities to clarify payment for services.

This model is clearly aimed at economic viability and is meant to incentivise area mechanics by providing them with an income. Arguably, the model has failed to gain traction locally because it ignores the social context in which area mechanics operate.

A third view is that area mechanics are integral to formal water governance arrangements – in other words part of, or plugging a gap in, the government’s extension system. This may not be stated explicitly, but is implicit in the use of government issued ID cards.

To give another example, area mechanics are sometimes (but not always) introduced to communities by a government representative in order to establish their legitimacy. Several of the area mechanics Thoko spoke to wanted their role to be formalised to enable them to negotiate fees with communities, or conversely in the hope of receiving material and financial support from government.

The ambiguity of water mechanics

Despite appearances, none of these narratives is mutually exclusive, and they may be employed at different times depending on the context. As one extension worker explained to me:

“Area mechanics are entrepreneurs by design and should make communities aware of that. They are supposed to have a signed agreement. The area mechanic needs to be paid, a little.”


Area mechanics often prefer working as a team – two heads being better than one! (Author’s own)

He then went on to clarify:

“It is not payment as such but a token of appreciation. It is up to them if they want to work for free. However they shouldn’t deny assistance to a Water Point Committee just because they don’t have money.”

The ambiguity surrounding area mechanics can be confusing and could be viewed as a failure of policy (or its implementation). But, in my view, that conclusion would be overly simplistic and misses the point.

The co-existence of these different narratives, or interpretations of policy, leaves room for negotiation and pragmatism. These are arguably important ingredients for success, especially when adapting policies to local realities. In short, the role of area mechanics in Malawi’s water governance system is not yet set in stone.

In addition to my PhD fieldwork this blog draws on previous work by the authors under the UPGro Hidden Crisis project. Check out our report on the political economy of rural water supplies in Malawi.

Can a rural handpump tell you it’s not well?

Heloise Greeff, Doctoral Researcher, Water Programme, Computational Health Informatics Lab and Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford

Predictive health monitoring is widely used in engineering applications to detect damage to infrastructure as early as possible. Forecasting failure rather than merely detecting failure once it occurs helps to reduce the downtime of systems. Ideally, predictive maintenance can be used to avoid downtime completely. With this approach already widely used in many fields from commercial and military jet engines to patient monitoring in health systems, it is now being extended to monitoring the condition of handpumps in rural villages.

Continue reading Can a rural handpump tell you it’s not well?

Stop the Rot – helps us stop the scandal of pump corrosion

This week RWSN/UPGro hosted a webinar on:

      • Overcoming the Rural Water Supply Scandal of Handpump Corrosion (RWSN) – Recording (English)
      • Dépasser le scandale de la corrosion des pompes manuelles dans l’approvisionnement rural en eau (RWSN) – Recording (French)

The key points are:

  • handpump corrosion has been known about for 30 years,
  • it is avoidable
  • yet every day, well-meaning organisations are funding or installing the wrong pumps, poor quality pumps or making false savings by not having independent drilling and installation supervision.
  • This can leave water users a usable without safe water within 6 months.

In this webinar, Bony Etti and Jacinta Nekesa from WaterAid Uganda describe their shocking findings from investigating boreholes and pumps (in partnership with  Mitzi Erin Brett, a MSc student from Mercer University and linked to the UPGro Hidden Crisis catalyst study) some of which have failed or become unusable within 6 months of being installed.

Jake Carpenter, a consultant and former Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda describes the history, theory and practice of corrosion issues and provides practical solutions for resolving the issue.

Our discussants, Dr Peter Harvey (UNICEF) and Jess MacArthur (iDE) add their comments on why this avoidable problem is still around and in a lively Q&A session, some positive ways forward are discussed.

Although the examples in the presentation are from Uganda, we know that this problem is happening in at least 25 countries in Africa and Asia and many more.

If you would like more information to help inform and influence either your own organisation or those that you know of that are still installing inappropriate materials, then please let us know.

Overcoming the Rural Water Supply Scandal of Handpump Corrosion

Handpump corrosion has been known about for over 30 years, the fact that it is a common problem in over 25 countries is a scandal and reflects badly on donors, implementers and governments.
In this webinar, Bony Etti and Jacinta Nekesa from WaterAid Uganda describe their shocking findings from investigating boreholes and pumps (as part of the UPGro Hidden Crisis study) some of which have failed or become unusable within 6 months of being installed. Jake Carpenter, a consultant and former Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda describes the history, theory and practice of corrosion issues and provides practical solutions for resolving the issue. Our discussants, Dr Peter Harvey (UNICEF) and Jess MacArthur (iDE) add their comments on why this avoidable problem is still around and in a lively Q&A session, some positive ways forward are discussed.

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Le secteur est au courant depuis plus de trente ans des problèmes de corrosion des pompes manuelles. Il est scandaleux que ce problème soit encore récurrent dans plus de 25 pays, et cela nuit à la réputation des financeurs, des chefs de projets et des gouvernements.
Dans ce wébinaire, Bony Etti et Jacinta Nekesa de WaterAid Ouganda présentent les résultats choquants de leur évaluation de forages et de pompes (dans le cadre de l’étude UPGro Hidden Crisis) dont certains sont tombées en panne ou ne sont plus utilisables 6 mois seulement après leur installation. Jake Carpenter, consultant et ancien bénévole des Peace Corps en Ouganda, reprend lui l’histoire, la théorie et les aspects techniques des problèmes de corrosion en général, et propose des solutions simples et pratiques pour les résoudre. Dans la session Questions/Réponses les participants discutent de ces alternatives à mettre en place pour améliorer la situation.
Dans la version anglaise du wébinaire deux intervenants, Dr Peter Harvey (UNICEF) et Jess MacArthur (iDE), apportent aussi des précisions sur les raisons pour lesquelles ce problème pourtant évitable continue d’exister.

New report: From Rights to Results in Rural Water Services – Evidence from Kyuso, Kenya

From the Catalyst Project team for Risks and Institutional Responses for Poverty Reduction in Rural Africa has come a new report:

From Rights to Results in Rural Water Services – Evidence from Kyuso, KenyaRights

“Institutional transformations are required if Africa is to deliver the universal Human Right to Water to 275 million rural people without improved water services. Improving the reliability of one million handpumps which should deliver drinking water to over 200 million rural Africans will be a major contribution to translating water rights into measureable results. This study tests a new maintenance service model over a one year period in rural Kenya using mobile-enabled data to improve operational and financial performance by reducing risks at scale.”

This and other publications from the project team can be found here