Boreholes vs. Sustainability

The above-ground, gravity fed cistern at Bbinikila, built with One School’s help.  Gravity does the work, and gravity doesn’t break!
Blog post by One School at a Time Director, Bay Roberts.
Whenever I travel in rural Uganda, I look to see  how the people get their water. I want to know. In most cases, they are collecting the water from small still-water seeps, usually shared with domestic animals like cows and goats. Sometimes a community is lucky enough to have a hand-pump-equipped borehole. These systems provide a contamination-free method to extract water. But, I started to notice a pattern. None of these boreholes ever seemed to be working but….. they were everywhere. So far, over the 8 years I have been visiting Uganda, I have only seen one working borehole!
Sure enough, upon further research I found that hand-pump-equipped boreholes are one of the most common water supply technologies adopted in rural Africa. There are currently approximately 250,000 hand-pumps in Africa. Sadly, these systems demonstrate low levels of sustainability. The pump can break and the borehole itself my cease to provide safe drinking water only a short time after construction (especially if the borehole was drilled during the rainy season). In 1994, it was estimated that 40-50% of hand-pumps in sub-Saharan Africa were not working. This is backed up by more recent data from Uganda and South Africa which indicate similar operational failure rates. An evaluation in Mali in 1997 found 90% of pumps inoperable just one year after installation. The primary reason for these high failure rates, and hence low sustainability, is insufficient attention to operation and maintenance of the pump.
Who is installing all these systems? Most rural water supply boreholes in Africa are drilled
by private contractors or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). In general, operating staff have limited technical knowledge and equipment, and often lack basic knowledge regarding the hydrogeological conditions within which they are working. There is also often a lack of effective government regulation or supervision. Consequently, the quality of workmanship varies considerably, as does the ability to identify, predict, and mitigate against possible borehole failure.
If it’s just the pump that typically breaks, why not fix it? There are a multitude of reasons. When a NGO installs a technology in an area without building community and creating a sense of ownership for the resource, then the community feels no responsibility for maintaining/repairing it.  Zimbabwean Rudo Gweshe explains that her community was not actively involved in the management of water points. She states, “We used to think that maintaining boreholes was the responsibility of those who would have drilled the boreholes”.
Other barriers to caring for these systems are: 1) the parts are too expensive or difficult to obtain 2) there is no maintenance budget for the community to access and 3) there are no trained hand pump technicians in the area. In Uganda, the local district administration used to subsidize local agents who supplied spare parts for hand pumps. But in the last elections, the president of Uganda promised to abolish the poll tax which was the district administration’s only source of income. So now there is no subsidy to stockpile parts.
I searched everywhere on the Internet to find out the total cost of these systems: drilling, hand pump, and labor. My guess is the cost is about $10,000 to $15,000 per system, although I have heard higher estimates up to $20,000. If I was advised to spend $20,000 on something that had a 50% chance of breaking soon after purchase, I would not do it. I would be incredulous and outraged! So why are systems being installed with such a high rate of failure? Why would anyone be willing to invest in something with such a dismal track record?
I have come to the conclusion that in the NGO’s well-intentioned rush to solve a problem (lack of clean drinking water for impoverished communities), they have neglected one simple essential step: evaluate the efficacy of the work being done over time BEFORE scaling up. Scaling up programs that have poor success is a waste of precious time and resources. Why not figure out what works first before scaling up? We westerners love technology. What technology can we dump to fix the problem and leave as quickly as possible? But working with people is messy. We are animals, after all, not machines. Technologies inevitably break, and then it is up to the humans to fix them!
Attitudes are beginning to shift. Water engineer Bob Reed, of the Water, Education, and Development Centre, has worked on dozens of water projects in Africa and Asia. He states that “hand pumps are too mechanical. The first step is less technology, not more.” And governments, funding organizations, and NGO’s are beginning to see the need for community participation to ensure the success of development efforts.
One School at a Time has not scaled up. We are still exploring what works and what doesn’t. Right now, we only partner with 5 Ugandan schools, reaching about 2,000 students. Clean, on site drinking water is an urgent priority at ALL our partner schools. We have discovered that the most sustainable water systems are also the simplest. Our systems collect rain water off the school roofs which is collected in a 40,000 liter above ground cistern. No pump is required–the users just open the stop cock at the base of the cistern to fill their jerry jugs. Each school is an active participant in the decision to install the water system, and each school board establishes a small fund for maintenance and repair.  One School monitors these water systems over time to ensure that they are maintained and working. If they are not, we find out why, learn from our mistakes, and then work hard to make adjustments to address the problem.
The following sources were used to write this blog:
A bore hole in the same area where One School works.  The pump broke and the well supplied water for only one year before falling into disuse.
The only working borehole well that Bay Roberts has seen in Uganda.  
The solution:  One School’s gravity fed cistern.  Just turn on the spigot and gravity does the rest.  
2015 addendum:
Here is a comment we received on this blog from someone tasked with maintaining boreholes in Mubende District, Uganda:
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post “Boreholes vs. Sustainability”:I have been involved with borehole repair between Hoima and Masindi since 2007. There is a competent borehole technician on a bicycle who gets a physical assist from the local menfolk. The problem is always the money. Only a few of the 35 boreholes (yes, they are everywhere) have shown themselves able to raise the $250US per year needed to replace rods, pipes and cylinders. One secret to success is to have an old respected man in charge of collections. Otherwise the immediate need for salt, matches, clothes, school fees and food in the hungry season preempts long term saving. When the pump quits working the women and kids can go back to hauling from the swamp, then return to gather firewood. Forget solar and tanks with faucets, all of which have parts that can be stolen. I have even had a complete pump head stolen.

The government figured this out long ago and selected protected water sources (filtered seeps) as the preferred method of meeting the Millenium Development Goal of clean water within one kilometer of home. Ask the villagers, and they want a centrally located borehole with no thought of maintenance.

The government had a tally of progress which seemed encouraging. Unfortunately the Excel spreadsheet had a default of 95% completion for the many sub-counties failing to file a report, which made the result meaningless.

In a subsistence agriculture economy there is need for an honest middleman to tour the villages and pick up produce for sale in the city. A weekly farmer’s market close to the main road is a step in the right direction. One NGO went so far as to establish a coffee plantation.

I have reluctantly come to consider the money sent for borehole repair to be a charitable donation and a help keeping the UGX afloat. Some may tie their charity to saving souls. One wonders what a quadrupling of the population will do in the coming century.