Improving access to safe drinking water: prospection for low-fluoride sources

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Geological Survey
Department Name: Groundwater


Fluoride in drinking water is one of the most significant water-quality problems affecting populations in Africa. Long-term use of drinking water with fluoride significantly above the WHO guideline value of 1.5 mg/L can have serious effects on health, manifested most prominently by dental and skeletal fluorosis. The Rift Valley of Ethiopia is an arid, groundwater-dependent region with well-established links between fluoride in drinking water and fluorosis. Despite the recognised fluoride anomalies on a regional scale, local-scale variations and their controls are poorly defined and understood. This pilot project aims to investigate the spatial and temporal distributions of fluoride in groundwater in a selected study area of the Rift. The project will characterise the variability, evaluate the underlying causes and determine whether the variations show sufficient predictability to be of practical benefit in providing guidance on improving abstraction strategies. The institutional arrangements governing water management and supply (regulation, policy, funding, capacity and prioritisation) will be assessed in order to understand the governance context of water supply in the area investigated. Through these combined approaches, the project aims to define the most effective ways to translate an improved knowledge on fluoride distributions into improved access to sources of safe, low-fluoride drinking water.

Planned Impact

The impact of this research will be in working towards improved systems for well siting and groundwater management in order to reduce exposure to fluoride from drinking water for the rural poor in Ethiopia. This works toward the goal of improving access to safe drinking water. Improved access in turn paves the way for development in improving health, alleviating poverty, sustaining economic growth, reducing gender inequalities and improving quality of life for the communities affected.

Immediate outcomes from the research aim to benefit the bodies involved with water supply and health, in the study area specifically, in other regions and potentially other countries of the Rift Valley. These include national and regional government (Ministry of Water and Energy, Regional Water Bureaus and Woreda Desks, National Fluoride Steering Committee, Ministry of Health) and local and international NGOs active in the water sector. Stakeholder engagement during the project lifetime will facilitate dissemination of research findings and provide the best chance to stimulate take-up. The research will test the hypothesis that fluoride distributions can be predicted to a sufficient degree to allow rules-of-thumb guidance to be given on well siting and use to minimise exposure to fluoride. Understanding the regional groundwater governance context will establish the institutional arrangements in place and the scope of those needed to translate improved knowledge of fluoride distributions into improved and sustainable access to safe drinking water for the rural poor.

Research findings will also be targeted towards the international research community with interests in fluoride occurrence, mobility, health and water treatment, via publication in high-impact international journals, accessibility of groundwater data and information via research team websites.

This pilot project aims to share expertise and strengthen local capacity in groundwater sampling, analytical and interpretation techniques. Scope for capacity building in mineralogical assessment (SEM analysis and interpretation) will also be explored during the course of the project.


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Description Fluoride distributions in groundwater in the areas studied have some notable spatial structure. We hypothesise that this is due to i) surface water/groundwater interaction affecting local water quality, and ii) influx of deep geothermal water in localised areas, controlled by faults. Investigating whether this is applicable more widely than our study areas is a logical next step. Cost-benefit analysis of groundwater/surface water use in the study area places the costs of defluoridation higher than of piped water supply. Problems with maintenance, raw materials supply and user acceptance also mean that the defluoridation approach is only sustainable with NGO support and community buy-in.
Exploitation Route We have been unsuccessful in obtaining funds via a Consortium application for East Africa under the UPGro programme. We have also been unsuccessful in the NERC Water Quality programme.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Healthcare,Other

Description Skat-organised webinar on fluoride occurrence and mitigation, Oromia, Ethiopia 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Webinar to audience with broad expertise.

Had a discussant to increase wide interest and promote further discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Stakeholder workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact About 25 people attended a workshop organised on fluoride controls and mitigation in groundwater, Oromia, Ethiopia

The workshop generated much discussion and helped to hone thinking on aspects of mitigation for further investigation
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014