Manually Drilled Wells: Providing water in Nigeria’s Megacity of Lagos and beyond

Manual drilling crew in action (photo: K. Danert, 2014)

by Dr Kerstin Danert, Skat Foundation

In Lagos, a city of over 17 million people, water demands are mainly being met from tapping the groundwater that lies beneath the city. Boreholes provide water directly at people’s homes or business premises. Borehole construction is being paid for by householders and businesses themselves. Water vendors, selling water in jerry cans or trucks are also prolific. Given the limited reach of the piped infrastructure, much of the water vended is likely to also originate from below ground. In fact, exploitation of the large, relatively shallow aquifers that lie below Lagos is one of the main reasons that the city can continue to grow at all.

Ideal conditions

Hand dug wells are common, but the growing phenomenon is manually drilled wells. It is a simple drilling technique that needs a small petrol pump and five operators. It is called hand turning, or seismic drilling here. It provides employment for young men, and is enabling water supplies to be constructed in small spaces at people’s homes. There could be anything from 500 to over 1,000 manual drillers in Lagos State alone. The coastal sands are ideal, and wells are drilled to depths of 30 meters; sometimes more. Alas not all drillers are meeting Nigeria’s drilling standards, including providing a sanitary seal to 6m below the ground. However, we have been encouraged by the enthusiasm and energy of the recently established Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission, who want to tackle issues such as these head on, and are undertaking discussion with vocational training institutes.

Lagos_cutting tool_IMG_3294
drill bit (photo: K. Danert, 2014)

I am now in Ibadan, capital of Oyo State and some three hours drive from Lagos. Today was a chaotic, but very interesting day. Our planned visit to a drilling site some two hours north was curtailed as we travelled. Some drilling tools were stuck in the hole and drilling had to be aborted. But we were out early so had time to chase up on others. We spent the morning on a random walk to visit a rural village down a 5 km track North of Ibadan. Just took a chance and ended up visiting a poultry farm (one of seven in the vicinity). No manual drilling. Just two hand-dug wells providing an all year round water supply for countless chickens.

A disgrace

Our visit further along the track to the village however was another eye opener. We saw mostly old people and small children. An arthritic-ridden former driver and village representative related their water woes. A politician gave them a well. But it is only four concrete rings deep and runs dry for 4 months of the year. We saw it. A disgrace. Not even properly covered. Muddy. And only about 100 meters away from the all year supply at the poultry farm well. The village head informed us that politicians do such things for votes and shrugged his shoulders. Water is a huge problem. Long distances are even worse when people are aged and bent over double.

There were fragments of rainwater harvesting, but no proper knowledge about it. And it is unlikely that the village would pay for a manual driller, even if he could manage the terrain. The children of the people we interviewed work in Lagos though.

Free water – when it comes

Moving back towards the main road again in the next village the dwellings are larger and some are modern. The community proudly informed us that they have a tap. And so we went to visit it with the village chief. A man whose children are working in Abuja and Lagos. We admired the tap. Free water, when it comes. We were informed that it has not run for three days. It goes on and off, randomly. Can run for a couple of days, and then be off for more days. No pattern, no warning. We suspected power problems at the plant. We asked about alternative sources and he explained that people just try to store as much water as possible when the tap runs – pointing to the basin to collect the first drops should it start flowing again. Once the water stock runs out, people travel far to fetch water. Large vessels were dotted between the homes.


As we were about to leave, another man joined us to tell us about their river. Apparently they used to use it for drinking water. Even clearing bush for access. But since the poultry farms came they can no longer use it. We went to see. It stank, and one could see an oily film on the surface. They have pleaded with the owners and talked to others but to no avail. “You have to get into your car to go and fetch water” the man explained.

Still waiting for news about a drilling site to see, we continued up to the Ashejire dam. Having not yet secured a meeting with the Oyo State Water Corporation we were hopeful of some information about the city’s piped supplies. The dam was constructed in 1968, and commissioned in 1972. So we were born in the same year: a very impressive site, and with vibrant and enthusiastic staff. A team of about ten people proudly showed us around: the lab, the treatment plant, the pumps, and the electro-mechanical engineer who proudly reeled off plenty of data about volumes of water that they can produce. We followed the chattering group in their shiny minibus to visit the dam itself. All questions were answered and they were keen to join RWSN and be linked to other professionals around the world.


But perhaps their time to talk was aided by the fact that they had no power. When the power goes down, the plant shuts down – and it takes at least four hours to get water to reach through the network when it comes back on. Their pumps have been recently refurbished. The staff were buoyant about the current government. The problems, they explained, is the intermittent power and the actual piped network itself.

Political leaders do not want to put billions of naira of investment into pipes underground that nobody will see. They prefer to do roads that are above the ground,

was the explanation. Nevertheless, they are optimistic about what has happened recently with the refurbishments. Alas there was no conclusion about how many people, or what proportion of Ibadan benefits from their treated and tested water supplies. Some parts of the city do not pay for their water. But at least the staff at the dam and treatment works play their part. Politics came up in the conversation once again.

Drilling in a confined space (photo: K. Danert, 2014)

“There is money to be made in Nigeria”

It took at least 15 telephone calls, at least two hours waiting and about two hours driving to get to our drilling site. But it was worth it. Alabama is an energetic entrepreneur, and is proud to be a driller; a profession that he would like his son to go into.

I ask people why they want to go abroad. There is money to be made in Nigeria.

He has been drilling since 1990. He now has eight teams and drills between 5 and 15 boreholes per month. In one town he claims to have drilled 280 private boreholes. He specialises on the sediments and the areas peripheral to the basement. One set of tools use recycled car springs to break hard formation. His deepest well is 350 feet but 240 feet is normal. He grouts to 4 feet below ground level. Better than nothing, but not good enough.

Cooling off (photo: K. Danert, 2014)
Cooling off (photo: K. Danert, 2014)

His crew wore hard hats and boots. I took about a hundred photos and films. As in Lagos, the rhythm was five jerks followed by a quarter turn. The hard hats doubled up as showers to keep themselves cool.

And Alabama’s estimate for the number of drillers of Lagos and around? 4,000.

This blog is written as part of RWSN’s work to support UNICEF to document manual drilling experiences from around the world. You can find out more from the RWSN website and also learn about manual drilling in Chad

The final report on manual drilling in Nigeria will be published in August, with the Global Compendium on manual drilling due out later this year.

Author: Kerstin Danert

Skat, Switzerland and Director of the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) Secretariat

15 thoughts on “Manually Drilled Wells: Providing water in Nigeria’s Megacity of Lagos and beyond”

  1. Thanks for sharing the blog posting. Very descriptive of the visit and interactions with the people Kerstin spoke to.

    It seems likely the water that folks are obtaining may be contaminated: hand dug wells, drilled wells with no sanitary seal, and intermittent tap supply and unsafe storage.

    Are the local people and/or relevant government officials sensitized to the need for point-of-use/ household treatment of their water and safe storage measures? Did Kerstin happen to observe any such practices?

    Best regards
    Ryan Rowe

  2. Dear Kerstin et al,
    Thank you for our visit and this report.Firstly,i will like to comment on the provision of water to the people by politicians.I live and work in Lagos and it is a very common site to see broken down borehole water points and what is most annoying is the name of the politicians boldly written on those abandoned/unused water points.It is quite true that they are provided mainly for political reasons.
    Another issues that needs great attention by your team is the recurring water projects in Lagos that are not in use shortly after completion.I live in a suburb of IKORODU,near my house a borehole with a reticulated system has just been completed and used by the people without water in their homes.The first problem is that whenever there is power outage(which is most of the time),water will not flow,secondly,after few months of use,some water points in the reticulated system stopped working,due to damaged taps and because no one is there to replace them.
    These water facilities costs millions of Naira to be put in place and now out of place because of a few Naira.
    My research (unofficial)revealed that these projects are just provided without any management model in place,so i wonder if the Government officials involved have the necessary capacity to handled them.
    In my work in the ministry of the environment,i have come across many abandoned water projects(with photographic evidences also) scattered across the state and saddened with large amounts of wasted resources and suffering of fellow citizens due to non access to safe water.
    As a member of RWSN,i cannot help but pay attention to all these anomalies.
    Hope to hear from your team
    Thank you

  3. Very informative article particularly for Kenya which is going through full devolution of water supply services. Manual drilling therefore provides a chance for counties to accelerate rural water access to water. Keep it up!l

  4. “Dear kerstin et al, Hope your trip is going on well,this is to let you know that i wish to volunteer myself for any possible field work you might need towards the production of your final report on this visit. I can be reached on 09039336393.Looking forward to get involved. Thank you Waheed Bakare”

  5. Dear Ryan, From our interviews and discussions there is awareness among some about water treatment, with some people installing treatment plants and filters for their water supplies. However we have not found any data on the extent of such practices. There is also huge consumption of bottled and bagged water for drinking. Smiles, Kerstin

  6. Dear Waheed,
    Thank you very much for your response. We also visited some mini-piped schemes in Ikorodu and beyond. Some of them were very well built and appeared to be managed and maintained. Others are less so, or abandoned completely. What was also striking was the fact that there are so many different schemes built by different agencies, using different funding sources.

    There are clearly many issues that need to be addressed, including the running and management of such schemes. The Ministry of Rural Development explained that they are now following a “manager” option for running schemes, where the manager has a multi-year contract with the Government, who oversees his or her work. However I understand that this, is only for new schemes so there are may others without arrangments in place.

    May I suggest that you compile a small list of the schemes that you know are not working, with their locations, construction and (if appropriate) rehabilitation dates, as well as an explanation of what is wrong. This is something that could be shared with the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission for comment to try and trigger appropriate action. Smiles, Kerstin

  7. Whaeed,. AWDROP is currently carrying out study on water infrastructure functionalities in Nigeria using a mobile technology app (mwater)
    Oyo state is a pilot state, but we shall scale up to other states on completion of this project in september.
    You can link up with our other members in Lagos for more
    Nice piece

  8. Dear Kerstin, Many thanks for bringing into lime light your field experience and more especially as it relates to Lagos – megacity
    Going by your response to @ Waheed – “The Ministry of Rural Development explained that they are now following a “manager” option for running schemes, where the manager has a multi-year contract with the Government, who oversees his or her work”
    Permit me to say the aforesaid option which is basically Public-Private Partnership was borne out of past failed management options in rural water supply sector of the State. To reduce the inadequacy in supply and protect government investment, of these infrastructure,while not loosing sight of her responsibility to the citizenry, the option of partnering with private managers who manage the schemes especially the microwater schemes became inevitable to the government For the small scale water schemes the management of such are saddled with the CDAs. As most of the schemes are now demand driven request as against the idea of supply.However of concern in the State is the multiple organ of government institutions embarking on boreholes drilling to meet up water exigency Especially in the schools, I think there is a need to streamline this for better monitoring and data capturing/evaluation
    Once again i join others in giving kudos for a job well done

  9. I stay in Oluyole Ibadan, I moved in to the neighbourhood but discovered the water is dried. Please anyone with what I can do because is getting me worried after paying big amount for the apartment, although is locally drilled one and most locally drilled constantly have water even during dry season because of the dept. Please if one in Ibadan with experience please should advise this honourable fellow for it is making me really sad.

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