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

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Geography


Extending and sustaining access to safe and reliable water services remains central to improving the health and livelihoods of poor people, particularly women, in Africa. Here an estimated 350 million rural inhabitants still have no form of safe drinking water, and depend on poor quality unreliable sources for all their domestic needs. Improving access to water, and helping to achieve new international goals of universal access to safe water hinges on accelerated development of groundwater resources, usually through drilling boreholes and equipping them with handpumps. However, emphasis on new infrastructure has obscured a hidden crisis of failure, with >30% of new sources non-functional within 5-years and many more unreliable. This problem has remained stubbornly persistent over the last four decades, with little sign of sustained progress despite various interventions. Part of the reason for this continued failure is the lack of systematic investigations into the complex multifaceted reasons for failure and therefore the same mistakes are often repeated. The accumulated costs to governments, donors and above all rural people are enormous.
Addressing the functionality crisis requires a step-change in understanding of what continues to go wrong. The complex issue must be approached from a truly interdisciplinary viewpoint: combining innovative natural sciences to assess the availability of local water resources and how this changes with seasons and climate; with detailed social science research of how local communities function and make decisions about managing their infrastructure; and understanding of how the engineered structures can degenerate. Underlying these reasons for source failure may be other contributory factors, such as government incentives, the role of the donor community, or long term changes in the demand for water.
The overall aim of the project is to build a robust, multi-country evidence base on the causes of the unacceptably high rates of groundwater system and service failure and use this knowledge to deliver a step-change in future functionality. To achieve this aim, our research draws on a novel interdisciplinary approach using the latest thinking and techniques in both natural and social science and applies them to three African countries that have struggled for decades with service sustainability - Uganda, Ethiopia and Malawi. There are five main objectives:1.to provide a rigorous definition of functionality of water points which accounts for seasonality, quality and expectations of service; 2. to apply this new definition to Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi to get a more realistic picture of water point functionality and therefore water coverage figures; 3. to investigate in detail 50 water points in each country by taking apart the water points and pumps, testing the local groundwater conditions, examining the renewability of groundwater and exploring in detail the local water committee; 4. we will also build on this information to forecast future rural water supply coverage by modelling the impact on water points of various potential future pathways; and 5. finally we will use all this information to develop an approach for building resilience into future rural water supply programmes and helping people decide when it is worth rehabilitating failed sources.
To carry out this ground breaking research we have brought together a consortium, led by the British Geological Survey, of leading interdisciplinary UK researchers at BGS, KCL, ODI and Cambridge with groundwater academics from three highly regarded African universities (Universities of Addis Ababa, Mekerere and Malawi), and WaterAid, a leading NGO on developing rural water supply services across Africa with a history of innovation.
The research has the potential to have a major impact on the delivery of reliable clean water throughout Africa, and if the results can be taken up widely break the pattern of repeated failure.

Planned Impact

Our research project tackles one of the most pressing and under-researched areas within the African water sector: why do so many groundwater based rural water supplies fail within a short space of time, and what steps can be made in designing new water points to increase their sustainability? The ultimate beneficiaries of this research are the rural people within Africa who currently use unreliable shared water points and the estimated 300-400 million people who still have no access to improved water services. Given the high rates of source failure (30-40%), the research has the potential to make a major impact on the sector. Increased sustainability of water supplies will enable the benefits of improved health, nutrition, education opportunities, safety/dignity and livelihood security, to accrue within communities, rather than being repeatedly lost in cycles of supply failure. This is essential for long-term development and will particularly benefit women and children who bear the brunt of water collection.
There are a number of intermediary beneficiaries and direct users of the research who can directly use the new knowledge and techniques (1) multi-lateral agencies and donors with both regional and country-specific 'support' and funding mandates (e.g. WSP, DFID); (2) government ministries, departments and development partners (including NGOs) at national and regional level involved in the design of guidelines and policies; (3)implementing agencies, such as local government, NGOs and private sector actors, that develop and backstop rural water supply infrastructure (e.g. drilling companies); (4) the academic community, who can build on the detailed interdisciplinary research and data generated.
Donors and multinational agencies. The research outcomes will particularly help in mapping trajectories to targets such as the proposed new Sustainable Development Goals. Our research with more nuanced definitions of functional water points and the forecasting of future functionality under various scenarios will be of particular benefit.
Government Departments and national NGOs. This group set national policy and standards and mechanisms for monitoring. The research outcomes will help define the combination of factors that lead to water source failure, or success, and also propose a strategy for increasing the potential for rural water supply service to remain functional. This group will be engaged in the project from the outset by the strong links WaterAid and our Africa academic partners have with national government and regional stakeholders (e.g. AMCOW; Ethiopia's Water Sector Advisory Group). A wider international community of government, NGO and water industry stakeholders will be engaged through forums such as World Water Week.
Local government, NGOs and Practitioners. These are the people that actually commission, site and drill boreholes, install handpumps, mobilise communities and set up water user groups. The research will equip this group with investigative techniques, and knowledge of which factors are critical in different areas to long term sustainability. This group will take part in the country research programmes, and we will publish a comprehensive manual targeted at this group and online resources.
Research community: There is currently no comprehensive interdisciplinary dataset providing a post construction audit of rural water supplies. The research will deliver an innovative research methodology, and dataset, relating to functionality, governance, institutional functioning and groundwater resources. The research will be disseminated to international community through several, potentially benchmark, papers in high impact journals, and international conferences providing cutting edge of thinking about hybrid governance and critical institutionalism, and understanding of African groundwater. Long-term open access to the new dataset will enable future comparative and longitudinal work.


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Whaley L (2017) Can 'functionality' save the community management model of rural water supply? in Water Resources and Rural Development

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Whaley L (2018) The Critical Institutional Analysis and Development (CIAD) Framework in International Journal of the Commons

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Cleaver F D (2018) Water Justice

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Whaley L (2019) Evidence, ideology, and the policy of community management in Africa in Environmental Research Letters

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Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/M008738/1 30/04/2015 31/10/2015 £299,022
NE/M008738/2 Transfer NE/M008738/1 01/11/2015 30/03/2020 £272,449
Description Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures PhD scholarship: How policy travels through people: understanding the values and practices of actors in a water governance
Amount £106,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Sheffield 
Department Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2016 
End 08/2020
Description Groundwater and Equity: Exploring barriers to access to water in the global south 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Webinar organised by
International waTERS Network http://icgc.umn.edu/collaborations/international-partnerships/partnership-university-british-columbia/international
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_Pn1G7siu0
Description Social science methods webinar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact social science methods webinar to share the UPGRO social science methods and approaches within the consortium and wider academic and practitioner community. Recorded UPGRO social science webinar.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description The borehole is not a madman 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Blogpost to "The Borehole is not a Madman": 3 reasons why Community Based Management demands a rethink, Blogpost for Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) a global network for rural water supply professionals, with 10,000 members in more than 150 countries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://rwsn.blog/2018/03/05/the-borehole-is-not-a-madman/