Groundwater provides a vital source of drinking water for rural communities in many parts of Africa, particularly in the dry season when there are few safe alternative sources.
This paper summarises results from a study (n = 428) assessing dry season water quality, both microbiological and inorganic chemistry, in handpump equipped boreholes (HPBs) across the Ethiopia Highlands (n = 142), Malawi (n = 162) and Uganda (n = 124) using a stratified, randomised sampling design.
This study seeks to examine general water quality by randomly sampling rural groundwater supplies across larger areas with different geology and climate.
The majority, 72%, of HPBs surveyed provide good quality dry season drinking water as defined by WHO drinking water quality criteria. Within this overall picture, the most notable constraints were from thermotolerant coliforms (TTCs), which exceeded the WHO drinking water guideline of zero colony forming units (cfu/100 ml) in 21% of sites (range 0–626 cfu/100 ml). TTC contamination was found to have a significant and positive correlation with annual average rainfall (ρ = 0.2, p = 0.00003).
Across all three countries, WHO health based chemical drinking water quality values were exceeded at 9% of sites and were found for manganese (4%), fluoride (2.6%) and nitrate (2.5%); arsenic concentrations were below the guideline value of 10 μg l−1 (range < 0.5–7 μg l−1).
The high percentage of Mn exceedances (14% ± 5.2% >400 μg l−1) found in drinking water sources in Uganda challenges the decision by WHO not to formalise a health-based guideline for Mn. While the overall level of microbiological contamination from HPBs is low, results from this study strongly suggest that at a national and regional level, microbiological contamination rather than chemical contamination will provide a greater barrier to achieving targets set for improved drinking water quality under the UN-SDG 6. Efforts should be made to ensure that boreholes are properly sited and constructed effectively to reduce pathogen contamination.
The African Water Association Congress 2020 witnessed an increasing focus on the important role groundwater plays in urban water supplies across Africa. It was my pleasure to facilitate two lively panel debates on what are important, but often overlooked, themes in the development of groundwater resources. The first panel considered professionalism in the drilling industry whilst the second discussed the increasing number of urban households commissioning their own boreholes.
The drilling industry includes a range of professions and roles ranging from the owner of a drilling company, through drilling operators to hydrogeologists and drilling supervisors. The skills and experience required can vary substantially, depending on the hydrogeology involved and the nature of the boreholes being drilled. What does not vary are the negative impacts poor drilling professionalism can have, on borehole functionality. This results in losses to those who commission boreholes and, potentially, adverse implications for groundwater quality. Across Africa there is also a shift in who is commissioning boreholes. What was once the preserve of governments, firms and donor bodies is now increasingly witnessing direct action by households themselves.
Although, there are examples of good practice across the African continent, panellists recognised that there is are problems with professionalism. This can be due to a lack of experience of the drillers and supervisors, as well pressures to reduce costs. All too often experience is gained only through what can be gleaned ‘on-the-job’ leading to skills-decay across the profession over time. The privatisation of the drilling industry has exacerbated the situation as there are few incentives to encourage investments in training, and limited places where training occurs. Where the ground is easy to penetrate and water is relatively shallow, manual drilling techniques can be used. This means that skills gap becomes more acute as competition by low-cost drillers erodes the potential value of investments in training and skills development.
Panellists argued that a professional drilling industry requires strong regulation by government. Drilling companies should be licensed and boreholes should be assessed for the quality of construction. Competition amongst drilling companies should be based on minimum standards and not reward cost-cutting and poor employment conditions. Government can also support the provision of training facilities.
In Uganda, experienced drillers now provide the benefit of their knowledge to a new generation of professionals, which builds on the legacy of past investments in training (e.g. http://www.rural-water-supply.net/en/resources/details/876). A wider challenge is raising awareness of the skills and expertise required to successfully access groundwater through boreholes amongst government officials and the wider public. This highlights the importance of a broader debate on the theme of groundwater and urban water supplies.
The critical role played by the wider public was also discussed by the second panel in the context of the remarkable rise in the proportion of urban households commissioning their own boreholes in many African countries. Although official figures are hard to find, both the panellists and the audience recognised this to be a rising trend across many cities in Africa. Rapid rates of urbanisation have left many with no access to public piped water supplies, or with only erratic and unpredictable supplies. In these circumstances, households source their own water supplies. For many households, groundwater forms an accessible, convenient and reliable source of water, even in countries where officially this is not permitted.
Panellists felt that the implications of this rising trend of urban self-supply are not yet clear. There are social and economic benefits for those who are able to access a reliable source of water, but with potential costs for those who are excluded. Debates on the potential costs of lost revenue to water utilities were inconclusive, as households often act because they are not being reliably supplied by a utility. Where there is a proliferation of borehole development then the potential impacts to the groundwater resource were acknowledged to be substantive. However, little is known of the quality of borehole construction or overall abstraction rates at present. Panellists indicated that anecdotal evidence points to a lack of awareness amongst urban populations of the importance of good groundwater management and highlighted that, when this is combined with poor professionalism in the drilling industry, there are risks for the resource. An emerging concern is the number of abandoned boreholes, which tend to be left unsealed, associated with urban self-supply and poor drilling professionalism.
The panel discussion served to highlight the importance of this crucial topic, but recognised that a lack of robust data limits the opportunities for informed debate. In the absence of data, panellists argued that the rise of off-grid access to groundwater imperilled the stewardship of the groundwater resource on which many cities now relied. Returning to the theme of the first panel, panellists stressed how education, communication and engagement with the wider public was as important for good groundwater stewardship as technical skills and strategies.
Our thanks to Skat Foundation, the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment, the Ugandan Drilling Contractors Association and UK Research and Innovation for supporting this session. We thank each of the participants: Callist Tindimugaya, Kerstin Danert, Michael Ale, Jenny Grönwall, Moshood Tijani; Chikondi Shaba and Moustapha Diene.
Adrian Healy researches urban water resilience in sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at Cardiff University in the UK. He can be contacted at Healya2@cardiff.ac.uk
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 .
The Hidden Crisis project team examined the political economy of rural water supply (RWS) in Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi during 2017 and 2018. These are based on literature and interviews with government staff and water sector stakeholders to unpick systemic obstacles to sustainable access to water.
The three reports summarising the key findings are now published – and available from here.
The findings provide an insight to some of the key structural factors which affect RWS performance (historical, institutional, actors) in the three countries – examining systematic factors, decision making logic and opportunities for reform.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
by Thokozani Mtewa, Evans Mwathunga, Wapumuluka, Mulwafu
“In the rural areas of Malawi, water is accessed mostly through boreholes. The borehole and hand pump functionality concept is currently getting a central place in development agenda for the provision of affordable and safe water supply under the Sustainable Development Goals.
A study on area mechanics and borehole functionality was conducted in Balaka district in Malawi in 2017. The study used qualitative research methods of data collection using
political economy analysis to understand the role of Area Mechanics (AMs), their relationships with water point committees and other stakeholders, their perceptions,
motivations and challenges. Questionnaires and an audio recorder were employed to
collect data from individual interviews and focus groups.
The study findings revealed that even though the system of AMs is well defined in
policy, in practice things are done differently. The AMs defined their jobs differently; from entrepreneurs (10%) to community volunteers (90%) and the sizes of catchment areas of AMs are mostly divided informally and unequally which affects service delivery.
The study also found AMs are motivated by both monetary and non-monetary benefits
from the communities under their jurisdictions.
Consequently, overall the level of incentives and disincentives seem to have affected
their maintenance service provision as well as their relationships with other water point
stakeholders. For proper functioning of an AM system as part of groundwater infrastructure, this paper therefore proposes the need to revise the policy and procedures in training, selection and allocation of AMs as well regular short term trainings to area mechanics at district level.”
by Prof T. Mkandawire, E. Mwathunga, A.M. MacDonald, H.C. Bonsor, S. Banda, P.,Mleta, S. Jumbo, J. Ward, D. Lapworth, L. Whaley, R.M. Lark
A survey on functionality of boreholes equipped with hand pumps was undertaken in five districts in Malawi in 2016. The survey aimed at developing a robust evidence base and understanding of the complex and multifaceted causes of high failure rates of groundwater supplies in Africa in the wake of climate change. This would guide sustainable future investments in water and sanitation projects.A stratified two-stage sampling strategy was adopted.
The results from the survey indicate that 74% of hand pump boreholes (HPBs) are functional at any one point; 66% of HPBs passed the design yield of 10 liters per minute; 55% passed the design yield and also experienced less than one month downtime within a year; and 43% of HPBs which passed the design yield and reliability, also passed the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards of water quality.
The survey also assessed the village level Water Management Arrangements at
each water point. Results indicate that the majority of the Water Management Arrangements (86%) are functional or highly functional.
The initial exploration of the data shows no simple relationship between the physical functionality and Water Management Arrangements.
UPGro has a strong presence at the event as part of the build-up to Africa Water Week next month, in Gabon:
Opening Keynote: Karen G. Villholth (GroFutures) and Jude Cobbing.
“Adapting to Climate Change in the SADC Region – A Focus on Groundwater.”
Presentation: Theresa Mkandawire (Hidden Crisis) presented “An analysis of hand pump boreholes functionality in Malawi.”
Keynote speaker: Alan McDonald. (Hidden Crisis/GroFutures) “Resilience of rural
groundwater supplies to climate change”
Presentation: Thokozani Mtewa,Evance Mwathunga and Wapulumuka Mulwafu.
(Hidden Crisis) “They gave us breakfast and a good meal’: Roles, perceptions and
motivations of water point area mechanics in the maintenance of borehole handpumps in Balaka district, Malawi.”
Keynote speaker: Dr Callist Tindimugaya “Groundwater and African National Development Strategies”
You can follow the conference on Twitter: #gwconference2018
photo : Prof Theresa Makandawire presenting UPGro Hidden Crisis work in Malawi (credit BGS via Twitter)
By Naomi Oates, Fiskani Kondowe, and Evance Mwathunga (UPGro Hidden Crisis)
‘This activity has been inspiring for us and we will work very hard to reach university and be able to carry out experiments using big machines which we have seen from your presentations’ – a learner at Pirimiti Secondary School, in Zomba district
In March 2018 a team of motivated scientists from ‘Malawi Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics’ (MAGSTEM) at Chancellor College, a scholar from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (University of Sheffield) facilitated by an UPGro researcher teamed up to reach out to disadvantaged schools in Zomba, Malawi. The talks were inspired by our realisation from UPGro research survey that learners in rural schools in Malawi, in spite of their curiosity to know what we were doing in our groundwater research, they lacked knowledge regarding environmental sustainability including water. The aim of the workshops, therefore, was to encourage students to care for their local environment and to inspire them to pursue careers in the sciences.
Photos 2 & 3: The water purification experiment
During the workshops students from Naisi and Pirimiti Secondary Schools brainstormed the threats to water resources in their area, highlighting deforestation, pollution and climate change as big challenges. Groups of girls and boys then tried a simple water purification experiment using a plastic bottle, cloth filter and (the magic ingredient) activated charcoal. They were excited to find that it really works! After a few minutes, clean water started to appear at the bottom of the bottle. Not only does the cloth filter out big particles but the charcoal acts as a coagulant for the smaller particles, making they stick together in lumps. This process is very similar to the methods used in real-life water treatment works – places that these students could work in future as water chemists or engineers.
The MAGSTEM volunteers concluded with an inspiring talk about career options and promised to return with more information. As a team, we were very impressed by the bright sparks we met at Naisi and Pirimiti Secondary Schools and encouraged them to work hard for their exams. Several students said they were keen to study at university in future, in subjects like medicine, chemistry or maths. We hope to welcome them soon!
In his concluding remarks, the Naisi head teacher wrapped it all:
‘We appreciate your effort of showing the students that science is fun and that students can be innovative and resourceful by using locally available resources to better their lives. Your talk has cleared the myths and stereotypes among our rural learners especially girls that science is tough ’.
Photo credits: Naomi Oates, Fiskani Kondowe, and Evance Mwathunga
Patrick Makuluni is a lecturer in the Mining Department of the University of Malawi, the Polytechnic. Makuluni holds MSc in Mineral Exploration and Mining Geology from Curtin University in Australia and BSc in Civil Engineering from University of Malawi, the Polytechnic.
Recently, the scientist published a paper showing how to recognise where sediments (the exact piece of rock) are coming from by using the geometrical properties of the sediments as opposed to the more expensive methods that have been used previously.
The 30 year old scientist is a family man and his life has always been around his children, work, research and fun. He has developed an interest in Hydrogeology and he would like pursue a PhD in Petroleum Engineering.