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In Africa, access to clean water isn’t just about pipes and pumps

Equally important are the often-overlooked issues in infrastructure, including information flow, governance and accountability.

When a pump fails, it may not be enough to simply install a new one. | Reuters/Mike Hutchings

When a pump fails, it may not be enough to simply install a new one. | Reuters/Mike Hutchings

When Jenna Davis describes her approach to water and sanitation problems in the world’s poorest communities, she often talks about the puzzle of Africa’s broken handpumps.

Handpumps atop wells are often the only way to get fresh water in villages that don’t have a piped network. But as many as one-third of handpumps don’t work. And because so many fail years before the end of their expected design lives, it isn’t enough to simply install new ones.

“If you replace the broken pumps, but don’t address why they were breaking down at such high rates, you may be wasting precious resources,” says Davis, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Water, Health and Development Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The point is to recognize that a pump is more than just a pump. It’s part of a broader system that requires resources, information and accountability.

Davis said case studies show many different reasons for failure. Sometimes there’s no money for spare parts, or there is no one who knows how to fix the pump. But sometimes the problem is information flow or accountability: The person who knows how to fix the pump is sitting in the capital and doesn’t know that it’s broken; or the people who control the resources face no real consequences if the pump isn’t repaired.

This seemingly simple idea is at the center of a new collaboration between Davis’s team and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

In March 2018 the Hilton Foundation awarded Davis and her team a four-year, $1.9 million grant to create a monitoring, evaluating and learning framework for the foundation’s new Safe Water Strategy. The framework will help Hilton track the progress of the $55 million of water and sanitation investments that it intends to make in six African nations over the next five years. This approach will explore the entire system in which infrastructure investments occur. Those systems include often-overlooked issues such as information flows, governance and accountability.

In addition, Davis’s team will carry out applied research under a second, three-year award they received from the Hilton Foundation in August. With regard to handpump sustainability, Davis plans to analyze a service model being piloted in Uganda, with villages contracting with technicians to do preventive maintenance on water systems.

Her team will assess issues such as how much the villagers value the increased reliability of supply, water quality and proximity to water sources; how the costs of preventive maintenance compare to the current approach of building and neglecting systems that fail and have to be rebuilt; and how increased reliability impacts community well-being. For instance, if more families had a working pump close to home, would that free children from fetching water and allow them to spend those hours attending school?

Davis is also developing research collaborations with other Hilton grantees. One such project focuses on inexpensive strategies, such as portable hand-washing stations, to improve hygiene and prevent infection in remote hospitals or clinics with limited water and sanitation infrastructure.

Here, too, Davis wants to focus on the systems issues. As sensible as portable washing stations might sound, she says, it will be important to understand why a clinic hasn’t already deployed them. Is it too costly to keep them stocked with soap and water? Is no one held accountable for maintaining them? Do staff and patients consider them a lower priority than other clinic amenities?

“There is a reason that things are the way they are,” Davis says.

“If we don’t understand why there wasn’t a hand-washing station there last week, then putting one there this week may not be a sustainable solution.” 

The “long game,” Davis says, is to get all the different participants — donors, development organizations, government agencies, local leaders to grapple together with the full organizational and social complexity of such challenges.

“I did come at this from a technical perspective initially,” she adds. “But once I spent time in the field I realized that I could do impeccable engineering but ultimately have very limited impact on communities’ well-being. So I began to think about planning, epidemiology and microeconomics. It’s why the growing interest in systems thinking really resonates with me.”


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