Long considered a symbol of development aid, up to 40% of handpumps in sub-Saharan Africa are broken at any one time. Technology is offering smart solutions
Over the past few decades, the humble handpump has become the go-to option for rural water supply in developing countries. They’re used to extract groundwater which is mostly clean, easy and cheap to access, and available year-round. Handpumps are usually a better option than open wells – which are highly vulnerable to contamination – and piped schemes or motorised pumps, which require the skills, finances, and management that’s often lacking in remote, rural areas.
However, though around 60,000 handpumps (pdf) are installed across sub-Saharan Africa every year, typically 30 to 40% of those in the region do not work at any one time, according to estimates made by the Rural Water Supply Network.
More often than not, broken handpumps are abandoned and fall into disuse. The World Bank has estimated that over the last 20 years this represents a loss of investment of more than $1.2bn (pdf).
Water points can fail for a number of reasons. First, most handpumps are manufactured in India where quality controls are not always enforced and poor-grade recycled metal is used, meaning parts break more easily.
Second, and most commonly, handpumps stop working because the borehole it extracts groundwater through was drilled in the wrong place or in the wrong way.
Not enough data about the land or geology contributes to this problem. “When you drill a borehole in the UK, there are incredibly detailed maps and borehole logs [registered with the British Geological Survey (BGS)] to help you decide where to drill,” says Sean Furey, a water and sanitation specialist at Skat Consulting. “Even in countries where a similar organisation exists, that sort of data isn’t available because NGOs, the private sector or even governments who commission boreholes aren’t aware that they need to submit their drilling logs.”
Lastly, a shortage of skilled drillers and site supervisors exacerbates the problem of poorly drilled or sited boreholes. “If you don’t have a supervisor on site all the time, checking that the driller’s doing the right job, that’s when things can go wrong,” says Furey. “The driller might not be paying attention, or maybe the rig was set up in the wrong way so instead of going straight down, the drill goes off at an angle.”
Globally, 663 million people still lack access to an improved water source – one that protects from external contamination – according to data released by the WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme last year. Eight in 10 of those people live in rural areas and almost half – 319 million people – live in sub-Saharan Africa.
To date, evidence of water point failure has been purely anecdotal. This is where the Hidden Crisis project – part of the UPGro (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor) research programme – comes in. “The quality of data we have as a sector is very bad,” says Vincent Casey, a senior water and sanitation adviser at WaterAid. “We can see that there are issues with handpump failure but we can’t see much about the service levels: will they be fixed, how long was the downtime, how many times did the handpump break in a year?”
Over the next few years, researchers from WaterAid, Overseas Development Institute, BGS and other organisations will analyse 600 handpumps across Uganda, Malawi and Ethiopia, to get “statistically significant data” about the main causes of handpump and borehole failure. The Hidden Crisis project will then propose policy recommendations to address them.
There are numerous solutions to this “hidden crisis” already in the pipeline.
Invented by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the waterpoint data transmitter fits on to the handle of a waterpump, and using a small low-cost accelerometer – similar to one in a smartphone that switches the screen from portrait to landscape – monitors the arching movement of the handle. It uses this data to estimate water usage and sends the information via SMS to a web-based dashboard.
In areas of Kenya where this smart water pump is currently being used, social enterprises FundiFix – monitors the dashboard. The manager identifies which pumps are being used and where a water point might be broken, then sends a mechanic to fix it. “The mechanic will call the community ahead and ask questions, so they’re usually able to identify the problem and go to the pump with the correct spare parts to fix it there and then,” says Patrick Thomson, a lead researcher at the Smith’s schools water programme.
The device has been retrofitted onto 300 handpumps across three sites in Kenya – in Kwale, Kitui and Kakamega – and through various trials the response time to fix a broken pump has been reduced from a month to two days.
The team is now working with Unicef to expand the scheme within Kenya and to other countries – Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – as well as looking into ways to identify pump breakdowns before they occur. By monitoring the noise the handpump makes, managers can tell whether a part of the equipment is deteriorating and needs to be replaced before the pump stops producing water. “We hope to be able to reduce downtimes to zero, which could have huge benefits in terms of public health and the burden of collecting water,” says Thomson.
Experts are also keen to highlight the need for qualified engineers and supervisors. While some NGOs, like WaterAid, ensure boreholes are drilled correctly in the first place, there’s not much you can do to right a poorly drilled borehole, says Casey. “We’re working with the RWSN to promote the importance of higher standards of drilling, siting of boreholes, and supervision of their construction to governments, other NGOs, and to other people operating in the rural water supply sector,” he says.
Last year WaterAid, Unicef and the RWSN released a series of animated films that can be downloaded and shown around academic institutions to highlight the importance of professional water well drilling.
“The quality of implementation is what we’re trying to champion because so many of us are just fed up of seeing poor quality water points,” says Furey.
Most important, perhaps, are the efforts to ensure that the long-term sustainability of water points is placed at the forefront of water point installations across the sector.
“The method whereby agencies go in and just put boreholes in without the necessary support structures has to end,” says Casey. A coalition of NGOs – including WaterAid, IRC and Water for People – are working towards the Agenda for Change, a plan to transform how rural water supplies are provided. “It’s about working with national systems, supporting where changes or adjustments to those systems need to be made, and really pushing to get these sustainable water supply services in place,” says Casey. “There’s a momentum gathering and we’d like more NGOs to come onboard with the principles.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 22 March 2015.