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Groundwater, poverty and development

Time (GMT +00) 09:00 17:00


Event Summary

Groundwater (GW) is the hidden resource in development policy and practice. Africa has significant GW potential, but over-exploitation, pollution and a lack of understanding across natural and social sciences threaten the sustainable development of the resource. As explained by Roger Calow (ODI) who introduced this UpGro event, development researchers and practitioners are increasingly interested in securing the exploitation and management of GW. We must understand the complex natural and social dynamics at play, in order to ensure equitable and sustainable use.

The  Chairman of the event, Richard Carter (UpGro Knowledge Broker Team) emphasised that more and better focused research is needed to understand the role of GW in supporting development in low- and middle-income countries. However, the lessons and knowledge generated must also be shared across sectors and within affected countries and communities. The question that this conference addressed was how can we improve links between research, practice and long-term implementation, with active involvement of the people who use the resource, to ensure GW security now and under climate change?

In her keynote speech, Ruth Kelman (NERC) explained that UpGro is a seven year international programme (from 2013 to 2020), of the value of 12 million GBP and with five consortium grants, focused on improving the evidence base around GW availability and management in sub-Saharan Africa. Research themes cover three areas: the natural science of GW availability, the governance and management of GW, and the impact of future trends (including climate change) on GW resources.

The second keynote speech delivered by Louise Shaxson (ODI) emphasised the need to bridge the gap between research and practice through stakeholder engagement. She outlined the importance of communication in each project phase, considering what impact is needed, who to engage to ensure action is taken, how to deliver the message and who in the network should engage with it. These considerations should support the co-production of knowledge around complex governance structures and wicked problems such as GWGWover-exploitation.

Session 1: GW use, governance and institutions

Martin Todd (University of Sussex) began this session by discussing the increasing demand for GWGW in Africa, and the modelled and observed impacts of climate change on GW availability. Once more, he noted that GWGW is a neglected issue with limited data, but the project is now working to establish a network of observatories on recharge and hydrology to improve data availability. These results are then compared with those of models and used to improve accuracy, understanding and future projections of resource availability. In turn, this will help build the evidence-base that is required for sound decision-making around GW, although stakeholder engagement and criteria mapping is also important.

Further developing this discussion point, Kirstin Conti (IGRAC) outlined the drivers of increased water use at the national, regional and local level, and how communities’ social norms can conflict with state decisions around allocation. According to her research, GW security decreases with the size of the geographic level as governance structures become more subject to distortion and bias due to community power dynamics. There is also less understanding of the natural science dynamics of GW among users.

To illustrate the challenges posed by GW governance, Jacob Katuva (Oxford University) presented a case study of GW use for handpumps in Kenya. His research mapped water use according to wealth, hydrogeology and climatic variability. This way, he was able to identify the conditions that broker collaboration between stakeholders towards establishing a maintenance service provider which is able to respond to varying spatial and temporal demands for the resource.

Parallel Session A: Rural Focus

Naomi Oates (ODI) chaired this exciting session which generated heated debate around governance models for rural handpumps. Millions of people, particularly those living in poor, rural communities, still lack access to water. However, identifying the ‘right’ solution is a challenge, as each approach has its own difficulties and reasons to fail.

To start this session, Geoff Parkin (Newcastle University) discussed small-scale irrigation, a common type of rural GWGW use focused on resources situated  less than 25 metres below ground. Shallow GWGW has great potential for development due to easy access, but is also vulnerable to over-exploitation and climate risk. To better manage this, Newcastle University is studying systems in Ethiopia. Preliminary results illustrate the importance of both community based monitoring and multi-scale modelling to understand usage and availability patterns.

Along these lines, John Chilton (IAH) highlighted the issue of dysfunctional handpumps in rural Africa. Up to two thirds of the pipes that are built are not functional as a consequence of multiple factors, including poor water quality, mechanical breakdown and low output. Problems tend to start at the construction phase and are then compounded by poor procurement, limited understanding of GW dynamics and low community capacity for maintenance and improvement. The speaker emphasised the need for both organisational and community training and engagement throughout the process, as well as further research to identify the fundamental causes of handpipe failures.

Countering this argument, the research of Alida Pelgrim-Adams (Practica) highlighted the need for the professionalization of hand pump management in Africa. The speaker urged practitioners in this sector to reconsider how to cover set-up, running and replacement costs and identify better arrangements for non-payments to avoid free-riding which undermines the system. Her research encouraged a move away from community-managed soft pumps towards new and innovative approaches including private scheme operators and pre-paid systems. Better collaboration with local government and community entrepreneurs, she said, should be fostered to account for life-cycle costs, willingness and ability to pay and incentives to keep pumps operational.

Also presenting an alternative to popular mechanised boreholes, Fabio Fussi (University of Milan-Bicocca) argued in favour of manual drilling of boreholes. In fact, manual drilling is 4-10 times cheaper than mechanised drilling and can provide sustainable clean water for poor and isolated communities. Fabio and his research team are mapping areas that are suitable for manual drilling, considering seasonal changes and hydrology. Currently, they are validating results from field data collected in Senegal and Guinea. It is expected that these maps will help more people access GWGW.

Parallel Session B – Urban Focus

The first speaker of this session was Sandy Elsworth (Consultant) who elaborated on urban borehole remediation programmes in Zimbabwe. Drawing from work conducted in Bulawayo city, Sandy highlighted how the majority of boreholes had become inoperative and abandoned. He explained that while such failure was usually linked to a technological issue (e.g. pump failure), in fact it was due to a lack of expertise and equipment to properly inspect boreholes. He criticised current donor-led remediation programmes that are continuously financing the construction of new boreholes, thus opening the doors to over exploitation. Instead, he argued, such programmes should invest in maintaining existing boreholes and train people on how to manage GWGW resources.

Alison Parker (Cranfield University) reported on another issue currently affecting GW sources within urban areas. Looking at the case of Lusaka, Alison explained that 60% of the city is currently depending on water extracted from boreholes – a trend that is expected to increase in the future. The concerning issue is that there is a lack of data on the levels of recharge and extraction of the aquifer, reflecting the failure of water management organisations to monitor water levels. Moreover, staff at different levels lack the capacity to understand hydrological information. Alison’s final message was clear: that cities need to invest in better management systems whilst equipping decision-makers with hydrological knowledge. 

James Sorenson (BGS) provided an overview of how wastewater flowing throughout large African cities is affecting the quality of water supply in informal settlements. Taking the example of the Zambian city of Kabwe, James explained how  shallow GW sources are being contaminated by the old sewage network, as well as by pharmaceuticals and personal care products. This poses a direct health risk to communities living in the areas that are not reached by the network. In order to quickly measure the levels of contamination, James proposed the use of the tryptophan indicator.

The last presentation was given by James Firebrace (JFA Ltd). James illustrated the case of Taiz, a city in Yemen where GW depletion forced local authorities to think of new alternatives to the traditional water supply systems. In Taiz GW levels have dropped substantially over the years due to climate change and growing demand from an increasing population. In response, local communities have started developing alternative strategies, such as storage, resale, private networks, and rainwater collection. However, this meant that prices increased and service deteriorated, mostly affecting the poorest people. Government intervention was required. Local authorities in Taiz are now working to build a network sourcing of desalinised water to be distributed by different means: private sellers, franchisees and water meters.

Parallel Session C – Water Security

The session started with Rachel Cassidy (AFBINI)’s presentation about an UPGro Catalyst Project aimed at developing coastal GW monitoring networks, establishing the status of GW resources in the coastal zone, identifying issues with past practices and proposing alternatives. The project focused on Kilifi (Kenya), Tanzania and the Comoros Islands, in order to reflect the different urban/rural groups that are settled in different geological conditions. So far, research findings have highlighted that there is still a poor understanding of coastal GW systems, so that many development agencies fund projects against scientific advice. This research also revealed that communities would like to be more involved in the management of their water resources, but feel overlooked, and this applies especially to women.

The presentation by Eike Luedeling (ICRAF) explored the idea of politically-sensitive aquifers, drawing insights from research conducted on the Merti aquifer in Kenya. Eike highlighted how cities, and hence demand for water, have expanded rapidly around the Merti aquifer. As a response, the government built a city pipeline that draws water directly from the Merti aquifer, which raised controversial issues in relation to the equitable sharing of these water resources: who should be in charge with decision-making, what stakeholders should be involved? ICRAF’s research has highlighted that structured analyses of decisions impact pathway and the use of decision analysis methods have the potential to aid decisions on GW use in the face of multiple risks and imperfect information.

Finally, David MacDonald (BGS) introduced the BRAVE project aimed at developing a tool to link land surface and GW models. This should then enable decision-makers to examine the sensitivity of GW recharge and assess the impact of reduced recharge periods on GW supplies. The BRAVE project will look at specific case studies in the Volta basin to assess the impact of climate variability on water supplies in areas of low GW storage.

Parallel Session D – Innovation

The first speaker of this session, Carolyn Roberts (UK-KTN), presented two case studies from Tunisia and Uganda to illustrate the problem of over-exploitation of fossil GW and mal-functioning boreholes, respectively. Both issues were defined as ‘wicked’ , with no clear and available solution. Therefore, Carolyn argued, an innovative and integrated governance approach is required: one that is rule-based, competitive (from a financial, scientific perspective and for private investors), and participatory.

Lyla Mehta (IDS) gave an example of this innovative and integrated governance approach working in practice, through the development of rural feeder roads in Ethiopia. In this case, initially, the impact of road construction on GW was not considered, which led to increased flooding. The project team discovered that the relationship was complex, and that the amount to which communities benefit from roads given flooding depends on household wealth. Therefore, stakeholder engagement, information and compensation provisions must be clear from the start, to protect poor households.

Finally, Sharon Velasques-Orta (Newcastle University) presented a technological innovation to preserve GW resources: a microbial cell containing catalytic bacteria that consume organic waste. These biosensors, currently being tested in Tanzania, can measure GW quantity and quality, river water quality and sediment and pit-latrine contamination in fresh-water sources. In this way, communities can regularly monitor their own water resources, respond to changes and treat contamination. It is also hoped that community ownership of monitoring systems will encourage GW protection and preservation.

Closing Session

The final keynote speech was delivered by Vincent Casey (WaterAid). Vincent emphasised that the lessons from this event must be used by both researchers and practitioners to improve development and drive change in the way in which we manage our water resources. He explained that researchers and practitioners can sometimes adopt an unhelpful ‘them and us’ attitude. Instead, it is important to build partnerships between the two words, and align interests along shared goals so that research can have a full impact and benefit all water users in the long run. Chairman Richard Carter (UpGro) had the final words, thanking all participants, speakers, ODI and the UpGro funders and partners for their work in making this event happen.


The event will highlight the UPGro programme (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor), funded by DFID, NERC and ESRC.  It will also be an opportunity for other groundwater researchers and practitioners to share and discuss their work.

Groundwater will be examined from the points of view of the natural and social sciences, engineering, management and governance.

Questions to be addressed include:

  • What do we know about the dependence of the rural and urban poor on groundwater?
  • How does dependence on groundwater contribute to people’s water security or vulnerability?
  • How can groundwater be developed and managed in order to better enhance water security?
  • What do we know about the threats to groundwater as a resource?
  • What are the limitations on the development of groundwater for domestic water security and food security?
  • How can institutional arrangements for the monitoring, management and governance of groundwater be improved?
  • How can we foster an understanding and appreciation, among political leaders, of the value, opportunities and limitations of groundwater?


Opening plenary - Richard Carter - UPGro Knowledge Broker team

Parallel session A, rural focus - Naomi Oates - ODI

Parallel session B, urban focus - Guy Jobbins - ODI

Parallel session C, water security - Rob Hope – Oxford University

Parallel session D, innovation - Vincent Casey - WaterAid

Final Plenary - Richard Carter - UPGro Knowledge Broker team


Ruth Kelman - NERC

Louise Shaxson - ODI

Martin Todd - University of Sussex

Kirstin Conti - IGRAC

Jacob Katuva - Oxford University

Geoff Parkin - Newcastle University

John Chilton - IAH

Alida Pelgrim-Adams - Practica

​Fabio Fussi - University of Milano-Bicocca

Sandy Elsworth - Independent consultant

Alison Parker - Cranfield University

James Sorenson - BGS

James Firebrace - JFA Ltd

Rachel Cassidy - AFBINI

Eike Luedeling - ICRAF

David MacDonald - BGS

Carolyn Roberts - UK-KTN

Lyla Mehta - IDS

Sharon Velasquez-Orta - Newcastle University

Vincent Casey - WaterAid

Overseas Development Institute, 203 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NJ, UK