Boreholes and trees – why drilling supervision matters

by Professor Richard Carter, Chair of RWSN [1]

About 1 billion people in rural areas rely on boreholes (mostly fitted with handpumps) for their water supply. Another 300 million in small towns and cities get their domestic water from boreholes.[2]

(c) RWSN/Skat

What is a borehole?

Someone [3] once defined a tree as “a big plant with a stick up the middle”. Using this analogy, a borehole is “a long thin hole in the ground which produces water”. But of course just as trees are a bit more complicated than the definition would suggest, and just as trees come in all shapes and sizes, so too boreholes are more than ‘long thin holes …’. No two boreholes are quite the same.

If I wish to plant a tree and get fruit or timber from it sometime in the future, then I need to choose the right species, plant it in the right place, and nurture it until it becomes established. So too if I want to construct a borehole which will deliver clean water over both the short-term and the long-term, I need to choose its location with care, design it properly and ensure that it is drilled and finished straight and true.

Invisible construction

Trees are visible – they stick up above ground – so it is relatively easy to judge their health. We all know at least a little about trees, because we encounter them every day. Boreholes on the other hand are almost entirely invisible below ground, and they tend to be constructed using noisy dirty machines operated by big burly drillers, who may not always welcome oversight and supervision by the person or organisation that is paying for their work. Furthermore, the client may simply not know what to look for on a well drilling site.

And yet that supervision is vital. I would not hand over close to $10,000 to any driller, however trusted and respected, to go and drill me a borehole and then report back that he was successful in his work, unless either I or my representative were there in person watching, measuring, observing and assuring myself of the quality and effectiveness of his work.

But that is exactly how many drilling contracts work in developing countries. The client – the paying organisation – sends the driller to site with a “no water, no fee” contract, and predictably the driller reports back, at the same time as delivering his invoice, that he has indeed found water. The client is none the wiser. Was the borehole drilled to the correct depth? Were the right lining and backfilling materials used? Were they installed properly? The client simply doesn’t know, and has little choice but to take the driller’s word for it.

Unsustainable consequences

The consequence of no-supervision or inadequate supervision is that some drillers (thankfully not all), cut corners, save themselves money, and not only let down the client, but more importantly let down those who needed the water in the first place.  But by the time the poor performance of the borehole is discovered, the driller and the client organisation have moved on to other places, other contracts.

All of this background is to explain the importance of drilling supervision, and to add that very little training is available for the water well drilling supervisor. What is his/her role? What should (s)he do while on a drilling site? What observations, measurements and reports should be made? It was to address these questions, both in theory and, more importantly, in practice, that WaterAid’s Technical Support Unit teamed up with Cranfield University’s MSc programme in Community Water and Sanitation to present a week-long course on drilling supervision in May 2012.

We covered the important functions of drilling supervision, and put these into practice as we drilled and completed two water wells. This course was UK-based, but our plans are to roll out this training in WaterAid countries in Africa, according to demand and available resources.

I started this short article with a couple of definitions, and I finish with a definition of a drilling supervisor – “the eyes and ears of an intelligent and responsible client”.  In my view, a client who does not arrange for adequate supervision of well drilling operations is neither intelligent nor responsible.

[1.] Former Head of WaterAid’s Technical Support Unit, now independent consultant (
[2.] Both these statistics come from the 2012 update of the Joint Monitoring Programme ‘Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation’ UNICEF/WHO.
[3.] Colin Tudge (2005) The Secret Life of Trees. Penguin Books.

Re-posted from: WaterAid: Water Well Drilling Supervision Training,  with thanks.

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit to find out more

3 thoughts on “Boreholes and trees – why drilling supervision matters”

  1. I like this article of Rchard Carter. He picks a number of very important points out of many featuring in water well drilling.

    I think that we in “groundwater” have problems, we have not convinced our “non-groundwater” friends that groundwater science and water well drilling are based upon sound knowledge and experience and not too many people have this enough knowledge and experience to apply it. Also rural water supply is many times linked with “low-cost technology” but this does not mean that one needs very little knowledge and experience.

    Look around in the many rural water supply projects, check: 1.) proper professional borehole siting and reporting? 2.) proper professional up to date groundwater (and surface water) database? project data being stored in data base as part of the project; 3.) can one, few years after project competion, find and access the data in an up to date the database?

    It all comes together in good supervision

  2. Thanks for helping me understand more about boreholes. I’m really glad that you stressed the importance of having supervision, and that a professional will know if the borehole was drilled to the correct depth and if the right materials were used. Honestly, I’m kind of interested in learning more about the rules and regulations that are involved with these materials, as well as how to make sure that a hole was drilled to the correct depth. Not only that, but it would be cool to learn these from a professional as well.

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