Turnkey contracts for borehole siting and drilling

This is the first in a series of four blogs entitled Professional Borehole Drilling: Learning from Uganda written by Elisabeth Liddle, and a RWSN webinar in 2019 about professional borehole drilling. It draws on research in Uganda by Liddle and Fenner (2018). We welcome your thoughts in reply to this blog below.

Drilling under a ‘turnkey contract’ has become increasingly common across sub-Saharan Africa. Recent research in Uganda by Liddle and Fenner (2018) found turnkey contracts to be the most common contract type when the private sector provides new rural handpump-boreholes, although this has not always been the case. In this blog we provide an overview of what turkey contracts are, why they are being used in Uganda, and the benefits and challenges associated with their use in Uganda.

What is a turnkey contract they and why are they being used in Uganda?

Under a turnkey contract a drilling contractor is responsible for both the siting and the drilling/installation work. Turnkey contracts are paid via ‘lump sum no-water-no-pay’ payment terms. If the borehole is successful, the driller will be paid the full lump sum price, regardless of the costs incurred on-site. If, however, the borehole is unsuccessful (dry or low-yielding), the driller will not be paid at all.

Turnkey contracts rose to prominence in Uganda in the mid-2000s as implementing agencies (District Local Governments and Non-Governmental Organisations) became increasingly frustrated with the number of unsuccessful boreholes that were being drilled when consultants were conducting the siting work. Because the consultant was telling the driller where to drill, if the borehole was unsuccessful, the implementing agency had to pay the driller for all the work done and materials used, i.e. according to a Bill of Quantities (BoQ). Unsuccessful boreholes were blamed on the quality of the consultants’ siting work, with briefcase consultants (meaning those with no formal geology or hydrogeology training) having flooded the market. Because of the low prices they offered, coupled with a lack of regulation, these consultants were gaining siting contracts.

Paying for unsuccessful boreholes was challenging and it was becoming difficult for District Local Governments to meet their targets for new safe water sources. Project managers were being made to look inept. Moreover, political leaders failed to understand that some unsuccessful boreholes were a common part of drilling, hence, if a driller was paid for an unsuccessful borehole, politicians saw this as corrupt. Some district water officers were even threatened with jail.

The solution found was to remove the consultant and hand over all of the responsibility for finding water to the driller. If the driller then drilled an unsuccessful borehole, they would not be paid as they were the ones responsible for siting the borehole. The risk of finding water of an inadequate yield fell squarely on the driller.

Benefits and challenges of turnkey contract use

Turnkey contracts have greatly simplified the procurement and contract management process for project managers in Uganda. Under turnkey contracts, implementing agencies only need to procure and manage a drilling contractor. Furthermore, as the amount the drilling contractor will be paid if the borehole is successful is determined during the tender process, there are no surprise costs for the implementing agency. Additionally, under the no water, no pay payment terms, agencies do not have to directly spend any money on unsuccessful boreholes; money is only being spent on boreholes that are declared successful.

While turnkey contracts have notable benefits, several concerns were raised among those interviewed in Uganda as to the quality of the work:

  • Siting based on ease of finding water: under turnkey contracts, drilling contractors need to find sufficient water in order to be paid. Consequently, it was widely reported that drilling contractors are siting boreholes where it is easy to find water, for example, in valleys, or near swamps or riverbanks. Not only are drilling contractors extremely likely to find water in these areas, hence be paid, but they will often drill to a much shallower depths than their lump sum cost estimate was based on. A greater margin can therefore be made in these areas. Boreholes situated in such areas, however, are vulnerable to pollution. While a borehole may pass water quality tests immediately after drilling, the water may be unsafe for human consumption in the rainy months as surface pollutant transport and leaching rates increase or in several years’ time as pollutants accumulate in these areas. Furthermore, community access may be limited, especially in rainy months when these areas may be vulnerable to flooding.
  • Short-cuts on-site: under no-water-no-pay payment terms, drilling contractors need to save money wherever possible so they can recover the losses that they make on unsuccessful boreholes. To save money, it was reported that certain drilling contractors in Uganda are known for:
  • Using low quality and/or hydrogeologically inappropriate materials, for example, galvanised iron rising mains rather than stainless steel in acidic groundwaters. Galvanised iron rising mains are 4-5 times cheaper than stainless steel. When galvanised iron rising mains are used in acidic groundwaters (which are common in Uganda), red/brown coloured water, unfit for human consumption is extremely likely (Casey et al., 2016).
  • Using inappropriate materials for the borehole design, for example, using 5″ casing when a 6/6.5″ open-hole borehole[1] has been drilled as 5″ casing is cheaper than 6/6.5″. To prevent the 5″ casing from falling into the 6/6.5″ open-hole, drilling contractors heat the base and stretch this to fit on top of the open area. 42% of drilling contractors interviewed (n = 14) admitted to this practice. While some see this as a clever trick, others were concerned that silt will accumulate in these boreholes over time, due to gaps between the casing and the consolidated rock and/or cracks that form in the thinly stretched areas of the casing. Such siltation will not only wear the handpump parts down, but it may also lead to appearance problems from the users’ perspective as this silt enters the water supply.
  • Stopping drilling at the first water strike. A great deal of money can be saved here; in Ethiopia, for example, drilling to 50 metres instead of 60 metres reduces the drilling cost by 13% (Calow et al., 2012). If the borehole does not penetrate the main aquifer, however, the quantity of water available post-construction may be problematic, even if the borehole passes the pumping test.
  • Skewing the pump test data or cutting the pump test time short to mask low-yielding, unsuccessful sites. These boreholes will inevitably be low-yielding post-construction, or in worst case, dry.

The need for drilling contractors to take the above shortcuts in Uganda is exacerbated by the fact that, in many cases, the lump sum contractors are paid for drilling a successful borehole is too low in the first instance. Furthermore, supervision by a trained hydrogeologist is rare.

Where to from here for turnkey contracts?

Opinions on whether turnkey contracts should continue to be used in Uganda differ among different actors: the majority of implementing agencies in Uganda believe the use of turnkey contracts should continue, while consultants and the Ministry of Water and the Environment (MWE) believe that they should cease, given the quality of work concerns outlined above.

MWE went so far to release a directive in January 2017 discouraging the use of turnkey contracts, instead stating that split contracts, one for siting (awarded to a hydrogeologist/consultant) and one for drilling/installation (awarded to a drilling contractor) be used going forward. Opinions among drilling contractors themselves seemed impartial; most do not mind working under turnkey contracts, they simply ask that the lump sum prices implementing agencies are willing to pay for successful boreholes increase in the future so they are not forced to take shortcuts on-site.

What do you think?

So what do you think? Do you have experiences of turnkey contracts for borehole drilling, or other practices that you would like to share. You can respond below by posting in the reply below, or you can join the live webinar on the 14th of May (register here).


Calow, R., MacDonald, A., and Cross, P. (2012). Corruption in rural water supply in Ethiopia. In J. Plummer (Ed.), Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia: Perceptions, realities and the way forward for key sectors (pp 121-179). Washington DC, USA: World Bank. Available from https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8555.pdf

Casey, V., Brown, L., Carpenter, J.D., Nekesa, J., and Etti, B. (2016). The role of handpump corrosion in the contamination and failure of rural water supplies. Waterlines, 35(1), 59-77. Available from https://www.developmentbookshelf.com/doi/full/10.3362/1756-3488.2016.006

Liddle, E.S. and Fenner, R.A. (2018). Review of handpump-borehole implementation in Uganda, Nottingham, UK: BGS (OR/18/002). Available from https://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/520591/

[1] Boreholes may be ‘fully-cased’ or ‘open-hole’. If a borehole is ‘fully-cased’ the entire vertical is cased, with screens in the water bearing layers. If the borehole is ‘open-hole’, however, only the unconsolidated areas of the vertical borehole are cased – the remaining consolidated rock is left ‘open’ (no casing or screens).


This work is part of the Hidden Crisis project within the UPGro research programme – co-funded by NERC, DFID, and ESRC.

The fieldwork undertaken for this report is part of the authors PhD research at the University of Cambridge, under the supervision of Professor Richard Fenner. This fieldwork was funded by the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund and UPGro: Hidden Crisis.

Thank you to those of you from Makerere University and WaterAid Uganda who provided logistical and field support while I was conducting the interviews for this report (especially Dr Michael Owor, Felece Katusiime, and Joseph Okullo from Makerere University and Gloria Berochan from WaterAid Uganda). Thank you also to all of the respondents for being eager and willing to participate in this research.

Photo: “Hidden Crisis team members using a CCTV camera to undertake downhole observations of the borehole construction of a community borehole” (Source: ‘BGS © NERC. UPGro Hidden Crisis Project.’)

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit https://www.rural-water-supply.net/ to find out more

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