Dr. Luke Whaley is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography. He is working alongside Prof. Frances Cleaver and others on a large consortium project researching non-functional water points in sub-Saharan Africa.  In this blog, he discusses the ‘Hidden Crisis’ facing groundwater supply in this region. 


For decades groundwater has served as a crucial source of water across much of rural Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). It has particular attributes that make it well suited to meeting the needs of dispersed rural communities, and is typically of better quality than surface water. Recently, added emphasis has been given to the strategic importance of groundwater as new reserves are discovered across Africa and elsewhere, and as the current effects and future threat of climate change position groundwater as an important buffer with water availability becoming more unpredictable and less secure.

The 1980s witnessed a drive to provide improved water supply to the many people across the world who lacked it. In rural SSA this often entailed the development of community boreholes equipped with handpumps. From 2000 onwards, Millennium Development Goal 7C – which sought “to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation” – provided added emphasis to the initial push of the 1980s. Now, as the MDGs have drawn to a close to be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals, the quest to provide water of adequate quality, quantity, and reliability continues.

And yet despite the huge, ongoing efforts to ensure a safe and reliable water supply to all, and the impressive gains that have been made across many countries and regions of the world, a troubling picture bubbles below the surface. This relates to the fact that whilst large strides have been made toward the provision of water supply infrastructure, existing evidence suggests that roughly a third of newly-developed groundwater-based water sources fail within a few years of construction. What’s more, many others only provide water during particular periods of the year. This picture is compounded by evidence that suggests failure rates have remained stubbornly high at 30-50% for the last 40 years, in spite of a series of different development paradigms.

Critically, there is no data or analysis on why sources are non-functional and therefore little opportunity to learn from past mistakes. This pressing issue defines the remit of a large consortium project I am part of entitled “Hidden Crisis”. The project comprises a range of academic, research, and non-governmental institutions across the UK, east Africa, and Australia, focusing on three project countries, namely Ethiopia, Malawi, and Uganda. Through interdisciplinary approaches and analysis, the project is attempting to understand the complex and multi-faceted nature of the problems leading to non-functional water points.

Professor Frances Cleaver and I, from Sheffield University, are charged with leading on the design, implementation, and analysis of the social-science dimension of the project. The project itself is divided into two broad phases, the first extensive where we are conducting detailed surveys across each of the three countries to better understand the physical and social nature of the problems, and then a second phase which will delve in much more detail into the causes of these problems. Alongside these two main phases, we will also be conducting several longitudinal studies in each of the three project countries. These studies, which will each span a year in total, seek to garner the participation of “community researchers” in order to track how the timing of different events and livelihood demands impact upon local water management arrangements.

Overall this project holds the promise of shedding valuable light on an issue which at present greatly undermines many rural livelihoods across SSA. Through an interdisciplinary approach, and working alongside development organisations, professionals, and government representatives, there is every chance of producing project outcomes that impact beyond academia. By developing a more rigorous understanding of what ‘functionality’ is, of the various social and physical factors that underpin it and the ways in which they interrelate, by producing practical tools for assessing functionality in the field, as well as putting forward sound policy advice, the intention is to meaningfully contribute to measures that help to resolve this ‘hidden crisis’.

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