A political economy analysis of Malawi’s rural water supply sector

UPGro report from Malawi:

Many rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa still lack clean water for basic needs such as drinking and washing. Even where water points have been constructed, many break down prematurely or provide inadequate, seasonal or poor quality water supplies. While techno-managerial factors are relevant in explaining these problems, attention is needed to the institutional and political-economic dynamics shaping policy outcomes on the ground.

This report presents the findings from a political economy study of Malawi’s rural water supply sector. Combining a review of the literature with in-country interviews at a national and district level, the analysis identifies the underlying causes of bottlenecks in the service delivery chain, which undermine sustainability and functionality of water points. These relate to structural factors (i.e. the political, economic and institutional context) and actors’ practices, influence and incentives. The authors recommend that central government departments and development partners engaged in water service delivery:

  • give greater recognition and support to District Councils and District Water Development Offices, as their role is crucial to delivering sustainable water services
  • adhere to basic good practices in developing and implementing programmes
  • increase attention and funding to neglected areas of the service delivery chain, namely post-construction support and monitoring activities
  • avoid ideological approaches to decentralised service delivery, and focus instead on context-specific solutions, including support to successful innovations
  • provide spaces to critique dominant approaches to service delivery, as part of an adaptive learning process.

ODI is an independent, global think tank, working for a sustainable and peaceful world in which every person thrives. Their vision is a sustainable and peaceful world in which every person thrives. They harness the power of evidence and ideas through research and partnership to confront challenges, develop solutions and create change.

A political economy analysis of Uganda’s rural water supply sector

UPGro report from Uganda:

Many rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa still lack clean water for basic needs such as drinking and washing. Even where water points have been constructed, many break down prematurely or provide inadequate, seasonal or poor-quality water supplies. While techno-managerial factors are relevant in explaining these problems, attention is needed to the institutional and political-economic dynamics shaping policy outcomes on the ground.

This report presents the findings from a political economy study of Uganda’s rural water supply. Combining a review of the literature with in-country interviews at national and district level, the analysis identifies underlying causes of bottlenecks in the service delivery chain. Based on interviews with key informants, the authors recommend that the UpGro Hidden Crisis project:

  • involves stakeholders (particularly government) early on during project planning and shares preliminary findings
  • engages district-level actors and not only ministry experts in planning and undertaking the research
  • shares findings with politicians, as well as technical experts and development partners
  • produces accessible written outputs (e.g. reports and briefings) and disseminates these widely
  • hosts multi-stakeholder workshops or forums in which to discuss the research findings and their implications for policy and practice.

ODI is an independent, global think tank, working for a sustainable and peaceful world in which every person thrives. Their vision is a sustainable and peaceful world in which every person thrives. They harness the power of evidence and ideas through research and partnership to confront challenges, develop solutions and create change.

Hidden Crisis interviewed at WEDC Conference, Kenya

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. For the full interview then just click the link.

[IE] How did you know about the UPGro project, and how did you join the team?

[PM] I was recruited by the Principal Investigator for the Hidden Crisis Project, Professor, Eng. Theresa Mkandawire. By then, September 2017, I was just coming into Malawi from Australia where I was doing my MSc in Mineral Exploration and Mining Geology. This was after data collection of phase one of the UPGro project had just been completed.

[IE] In which UPGro study are you working on in Malawi?

[PM] I am the team leader for the physical science team of the phase two of the Hidden Crisis Project in Malawi. The study project seeks to completely understand failures of water points and how to keep water flowing from boreholes to reduce waste and thus improve water services for Africa’s poorest communities.

[IE] What are the early findings of the study?

[PM] Some of the early findings of the study include the following: Functionality of boreholes in Malawi has been affected by theft and vandalism. This comes in because of lack of proper security principles from the borehole users and other factors beyond their control.

Poor water quality in some boreholes has also led people to stop using such boreholes and look for alternative sources.

Most boreholes have failed due to poor or lack of proper maintenance. This has been due to several factors including poverty, lack of proper management to raise funds for maintenance among other reasons.

Poor downhole conditions also leads to frequent borehole breakdowns and poor water quality which both affect the borehole functionality. Some or most of the boreholes have silted up which reduces their capacity to cater for the communities.

Political issues from the government and within the communities also affect borehole functionality.

[IE] What new lessons have you learned through this study?

[PM] This study has taught me a lot of lessons. Firstly, I have learned how to be a good team leader in the field and in the offices. Being in the field (remote areas) is not an easy thing and more to that, making sure that every member of the team is happy with all the activities was not an easy thing.

I have also learned to persevere during hostile conditions while making sure that goals of the project are being achieved. More importantly I have gained a lot of technical skills including hydrogeological skills, field water chemistry, pumping and recovery tests and those involving groundwater and community water point management. I have also gained research skills.

[IE] How has the UPGro work impacted on your teaching career?

[PM] Teaching/lecturing in college goes hand-in-hand with research. Thus, research is a vital component in every lecturer’s career and Hidden Crisis Project has improved my research skills and increased my desire to publish more. The data we have gotten from this project will be available for research and publication of various papers which I intend to be part of.

[IE] What message would you give to your students based on this project?

[PM] In the mining industry, areas that have not been explored properly or thoroughly are called “Green Areas/fields”. So, the message to my students is that ground water in Malawi and most of African countries is a green field. There is more that people do not know about ground water, additionally, groundwater has the potential to reduce water problems and poverty in Malawi thereby ameliorating living standards. More research is needed in this area

[IE] What areas do you think may need further study in regard to unlocking the potential of groundwater?


  • The direct link between the geochemical properties of rocks around a water point and the water chemistry which may have impact on borehole functionality
  • How different people’s beliefs impact on water point management which affects functionality of boreholes. This might involve comparing borehole functionality within areas inhabited by people of different tribes, beliefs and social-political norms
  • How different geological environments affect the silting up of boreholes which may have an impact on functionality of boreholes

[IE] What are your future plans beyond UPGro project?

[PM] I want to pursue my PhD and continue with more research

Patrick was one of the UPGro Early Career Researchers that presented their work at the 41st WEDC Conference at Egerton University, Nakuru Kenya (9-13 July 2018)

Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment at Hidden Crisis Annual Meeting

This year’s annual project meeting of Hidden Crisis was hosted by our Ugandan country team in Kampala (5-8 February 2018).  This workshop marks a turning point in the project as we move from data collection to analysing, interpreting and disseminating the wealth of data generated within Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi.

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There was strong engagement from the three national Governments.  Ministry representatives travelled from Ethiopia and Malawi to take part in the workshop, and for Uganda, a large team attended for one full day, as well as attendees on other days.   This involvement greatly enhanced the projects discussions – particularly about how we frame the data analysis, and how we make the final research results of greatest value and impact to supporting future investment and governance of rural water supply.

In total, there were 10 Ministry officials at the workshop, and 26 project researchers from across the three African countries and UK groups.
Christopher Tumusiime, Assistant Commissioner for Research and Development [Rural Water Supply] with the Ugandan Ministry, gave an opening presentation to the workshop, highlighting the uptake and value of the earlier UPGro Catalyst Grant work (2013-14), and the importance of early engagement with government.

Eng. Aaron Kabirizi, Director of Water Development in Uganda, gave a keynote address – this highlighted ways in which key findings and messages from the Hidden Crisis research can be effectively communicated to senior policy makers within government.

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From L-R: Eng. Aaron Kabiriza (left); Chris Tumusiime (centre).

Other ministry attendees highlighted:

  • the value of the methodologies used within the two survey phases of the Hidden Crisis project, to improving monitoring and evaluation of rural water supply.
  • the need for practical guidelines and recommendations to allow adoption of the methods with existing practices.

Full list of ministry attendees included:

Uganda:  Eng. Aaron Kabirizi, Director of Water Development; Christopher Tumusiime, Assistant Commissioner for Research and Development; Joseph Oriono Eyatu, Commissioner of Rural Water Supply; Anthony Kyalilizo, Principal Water Officer Water Resources Regulation; Olweny Lamu, Principal Engineer Operation and Maintenance; Robert Mutiibwa, Principal Water Officer Groundwater Development; Martin Rwarinda, Principal Water Officer Water Resources Regulation; and Samuel Senfuma, Hydrogeologist.

Ethiopia: Ato Nuredin Mohammed, Director of Water Supply and Sanitation, Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy

Malawi: Prince Mleta, Deputy Director of Water Resources for the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.


The Hidden Crisis uncovered in Kampala

by Donald John MacAllister, February 2018

The Hidden Crisis team met, in Kampala, Uganda, 5-8 February 2018, for our annual project meeting. The meeting followed the successful completion of Survey 2 in Ethiopia and Uganda, the initiation of the Longitudinal Studies in all three countries, and some initial analysis of the Survey 1 results. The Malawi team are making good progress in Survey 2 and are due to complete the work in March 2018. So there was a huge amount to discuss at our third workshop.

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Team members from each of the project countries attended, with our Australian members dialling in by Skype on the final day. We were also fortunate to have the Director of the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment and many of his senior colleagues attend for a full day of the workshop. The Ministry has been very supportive of the work of the Hidden Crisis following its inception in 2015, and the success of the catalyst grant that ran in Uganda from 2013 – 2014.

The workshop reflected on the excellent progress that has been made in the project this year, discussed the key interdisciplinary research questions and analysis required, and began planning for the final 18 months of the project. The team also took the opportunity of being together to discuss how the key messages and outcomes from the project could be communicated to key stakeholders and different target audiences.

Survey 2 begins in Malawi

The final country survey of the Hidden Crisis research project has begun in earnest in Malawi. Following the successful completion of the survey in Ethiopia, the equipment was shipped back to the UK, quickly checked and repaired, before being shipped out to Malawi. Like Uganda and Ethiopia before it, the survey will take an in-depth look at the reasons behind low levels of functionality of hand pumped boreholes in four districts in Malawi; Balaka, Lilongwe, Machinga and Nkhotakota. Across these four districts 50 water points were selected from an original survey sample of 200 boreholes. Each water point, over two days, will undergo deconstruction and detailed investigations of the hand pump materials and condition, the aquifer properties, borehole design, water quality and recharge processes, before being reconstructed and handed back to the community. Simultaneously, detailed community social surveys, including focus groups and village mapping exercises, are being conducted.

Malawi COmbined 1
Clockwise from top left: The team conducting hand pump component investigations; the team preparing for a pumping test; repairing the riser pipe after removal for hand pump investigations, heat is used to soften the PVC cement so that the ends of the pipes can be removed from the couplers.

Reflections on 2017 – Donald John MacAllister

Having joined the project in February this year, it has been a whirlwind adventure to the three African countries, meeting our team members and learning the ropes. The effort that has gone into each country surveys is phenomenal and I can’t thank each of the field teams enough for all their efforts, long days and commitment to working for four to five months in the field. Without them the work would simply not be possible.

Each of the communities and hand pumped borehole water supplies I’ve had the privilege to visit, with the survey teams, have been unique. My experience over the last six months has clearly illustrated that the level of functionality of a hand pumped borehole cannot be explained solely by the engineering, physical or social factors that influence its continued use, nor is it easy to predict how and when a borehole might fail or be abandoned.

Malawi Combined 2
From L-R: The team conducting a pumping test; the team enjoying investigating the details of the borehole construction.

Two consecutive investigations at two hand pumped boreholes in the first week of the Malawi survey vividly illustrated the complex factors which influence hand pumped borehole functionality. At the first of these sites several facets of functionality were immediately apparent; firstly, the borehole dried up after less than 5 minutes of pumping at approximately 0.25 l/s, and secondly, the borehole contained high concentrations of faecal coliforms. It was clear that the aquifer was simply not capable of delivering the design yield of an Afridev hand pump at this location and there were clear contamination problems associated with this particular borehole. Despite this, long queues to use the supply and the presence of another source nearby, the community were meticulous in keeping the hand pumped borehole functional. When a part broke it was quickly replaced and the borehole was kept working under most circumstances.

At a neighbouring community we encountered a very different situation. The hand pumped borehole was high yielding and had good water quality. Yet the source had been abandoned, partly because, according to the community, the plunger had broken. Apart from the broken plunger it wasn’t clear why such a highly productive source had been abandoned. Further, investigation revealed three additional water sources in the area and this may have played a role.  Although no conclusions can be drawn from these two sites, they clearly illustrate some of the complex factors influencing functionality, including the complex interplay between sustainability of the service provided by the source, demand for that service and access to a productive water resource. However, it is clear that a one dimensional approach to assessing functionality will never adequately address the challenge of explaining the multi-faceted and underlying reasons for poor levels of functionality across sub-Saharan Africa, hence why our work takes a much broader approach.

Similar issues were encountered in Uganda and Ethiopia but the stark contrast of these two particular sites, so close geographically and in the survey schedule, illustrated to me the potential of the rich data set that will have been constructed when survey 2 is completed across the three countries in January next year. Together with the data collected in the first round of survey’s and the longitudinal studies, the data collected in this second round of survey’s will help inform our understanding of the issues encountered in Malawi and across the other countries.

Generating credible evidence for UPGro: start of Survey 2 in Uganda – by Gloria Berochan, WaterAid, Uganda

The Survey II of unlocking the potential of Ground water for the poor (UPGro) research project has kicked off in Uganda. The research aims at building a robust, credible body on groundwater supply failure, build knowledge and use this knowledge to influence the delivery of a step-change in future functionality.

The Survey 2 – is a detailed survey of 50 boreholes  equipped with hand pumps, aimed at providing detailed physical and social science datasets to better understand the underlying causes of poor functionality of rural water supplies.

The team is undertaking detailed fieldwork on the multiple factors governing water point failure –  collating social sciences, natural science and engineering data. The survey methods include:

  • detailed community discussions and transect walks with key attention to financing, management and governance arrangements
  • examination of the construction standard of the water point and the groundwater resource properties, including water chemistry.

This involves dismantling of the hand pumps, visual inspection of the components to quantify evidence of wear, corrosion and structural defects, galvanizing thickness of the pipes and rods for cross-country comparisons to standard pump components sourced from a reputable manufacturer in India.

So far, seven boreholes have been competed in Luwero district…43 more to go!
The Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) are strongly supportive and engaged in the work in Uganda:

We appreciate the efforts and progress so far made in unveiling the potential of ground water….because we need answers to reverse the high failures as a nation. Uganda therefore, waits eagerly for this ingenuity” said MWE officials.

Some field highlights

Uganda 1&2
From L-R: Uganda team researchers (Makerere University & WaterAid) and Donald John (BGS) at the MWE for an entry meeting prior to survey 2 field investigations; Discussing the material science of the hand pump parts after visual inspection.

Uganda 4

(Above) The team conducting Groundwater quality field measurements to;

  • Examine the reasons for HPB corrosion and assess the corrosiveness of aquifer water.
  • Assess the general groundwater chemistry and microbiology within the aquifer.
  • Determine the residence time of groundwater which will allow investigation of recharge dynamics for each individual HPB.

Uganda 5

(Above) The team used borehole CCTV camera to assess the construction details for comparisons with the original construction logs. This also allows assessing the current condition of the borehole. Key details being captured are;

  • Condition, type and interval of the casings
  • Well designs
  • Open-hole sections of the borehole
  • Any visible inflows, such as fractures and  evidence of bubbles and their origin, if it is possible and identifiable
Uganda 6&7
From L-R: The dynamics of dismantling uPVC pipes; Community mapping session.

UpGro Hidden Crisis Physical Sciences Longitudinal Studies – Uganda Lift Off!

Clockwise from top left: Measuring SWL in the elusive abandoned borehole and a cow; Installation of one of the rainfall collectors in the community chairpersons backyard; Securing the logger access hatch onto the pump pedastool; Modifying the handpump headworks so that a logger can be installed securely

The physical sciences longitudinal studies have kicked off in Uganda this week. The aim of these longitudinal studies is to capture the time-based hydroclimatic and hydrogeological processes of the groundwater system at selected hand pumped boreholes (HPBs). These temporal datasets provide valuable information to understanding HPB functionality that could not be addressed from the two main survey phases in the project (field survey 1 and 2).

The temporal datasets collected by the longitudinal studies will be used to estimate groundwater recharge to the groundwater system and also examine how the aquifers respond to climatic events or potential contamination issues.

What data is being collected?

  1. Bulk monthly rainfall samples, will be used with the groundwater chemistry data collected in Survey 1, to estimate groundwater recharge by applying the chloride mass balance (CMB) method.
  2. Water level data from HPBs, will be collected using manual measurements, as well as pressure transducers.  These data show the short (seasonal episodic events) and long term trends which can be used as indicators of the capacity of the water resource and its sustainability.

How? The mainstay of the fieldwork will be conducted by the in-country physical science researcher, Joseph Okullo from Makerere University, in conjunction with a number of ‘community researchers’, who will conduct frequent and regular monitoring and observation of rainfall collectors and water levels. Samples collected will be analysed at Flinders University in Australia.  The sites being used were selected from some of the sites sampled in the First Main Survey phase of the project.

Easy? The field program hasn’t been without its challenges. Mobilisation, logistics and consultation on the ground always take longer than you think. Most HPBs in Uganda are also India Mark II, which we have had to modify with the assistance of some additional ‘hydrogeologist’ tools (aka an angle grinder) so that water level measurements can be made and water level loggers deployed.   Re-finding HPB’s visited in Field Survey 1 is also not without some challenges – some proving quite elusive and others difficult to re-access at all times of the year in thunderstorms when tracks very muddy.

Watch this space for updates and results!