Favouring Progress: Yemen’s Water Scarcity Dilemma of the 21st Century

Our RWSN Guest blogger Muna Omar takes a critical look at the issue of dwindling water supply in Yemen’s capital city

The population of Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, depend on deep wells that are usually dug to a maximum depth of 200 meters for their drinking water. The wells draw on a cretaceous sandstone aquifer northeast and northwest of the city, with a third of the wells operated by the state-owned Sana’a Local Corporation for Water Supply and Sanitation drilled to 800 to 1,100 meters. The combined output the corporation’s wells barely meet 35% of needs of Sana’a growing population which includes displaced people, asylum seekers, refugees and other newcomers.

Public piped water delivery is once every 40 days to some houses, while others don’t receive piped water at all. Sana’a’s population is thus supplied either by small, privately owned networks, hundreds of mobile tankers and water from people’s own private wells. As water quality has degenerated, privately owned kiosks that use a water filtration method to purify poor-quality groundwater have spread in Sana’a and other towns. Many people rely on costly water that is provided by private wells supplying tankers. These tankers don’t really consider appropriate cleaning, so the quality of the water is questionable.

Despite the challenges with pumping due to a shortage of fuel and with rising prices, private well owners are trying to capture the remains of the valuable groundwater resources before their neighbours do. Coupled with the on-going war, drought sees Yemen facing a major water crisis. Water table data is based on old research which can be challenging to verify now. Given the data and the current severe situation as water use exceeds aquifer recharge, it is estimated that the water table drops by approximately 2-6 feet annually.

Although Sana’s groundwater is probably the best water in Yemen, it is considered below acceptable standards for human consumption as water infrastructure has been damaged by warplanes and the sanitation workers went on strike because they didn’t get their salary. The latter left plenty of garbage on the streets that led to contamination of drinking water supplies. Meanwhile wastewater began to leak out into irrigation canals and contaminate drinking water supplies. Inadequate attention to groundwater pollution has directly affected the quality of Sana’a’s drinking water supplies.

It Yemen, as a whole, it is estimated that about 14.5 million people don’t have sustainable access to clean drinking water. Inadequate water supply has affected the country with the worst outbreak of cholera in the human history. Over 1 million suspected cases of cholera have been reported in Yemen from 27 April 2017 to present day. Other water-borne diseases include a recent peak in diphtheria that reached 1,795 probable cases with 93 Associated Deaths and a case fatality rate (CFR) of 5.2% by 19 May 2018.

Yemen’s water problem is not only immediate with groundwater resources under pressure as never before to meet not only drinking water needs, but also demands for irrigation. In Yemen, the pressures of climate change, demographic change and the on-going conflict place an immense burden on professionals working in the country. The enormity of the urgent needs mean that water resources management is neglected, despite being absolutely essential for the future of Yemen’s population.

Sana’a groundwater resources are significantly depleted in many areas and acknowledged globally as one of the world’s scarcest water supplies. Sana’a may be the first capital city in the world to run out of water. Looking forwards, how can the country produce more food, raise farmer incomes and meet increase water demands if there is less water available?

Clearly, there are several interrelated aspects contributing to the current water crisis in Sana’a specifically and Yemen in general, and the population has to innovate to find solutions. Future supply options include pumping desalinated water from the Red Sea over a distance of 250 km, over 2,700 meter-high mountains into the capital, itself located at an altitude of 2,200 meters. However, the feasibly of this is questionable with the enormous pumping cost would push the price of water up to $10 per cubic meter. Other options to supply Sana’a from adjacent regions are fraught due to water rights.

Groundwater data is the critical foundation for water managers to both prevent problems and formulate solutions. Data is lacking in many of Yemen’s groundwater basins. Even heavily used basins have no record of how much groundwater was withdrawn and remains in the aquifers, where it was pumped from? Nor are adequate data available on groundwater quality or aquifer characteristics. Furthermore, while the drought and other cutbacks on surface water supplies are motivating groundwater users to drill new or deeper wells in increasing numbers despite the fact that well owners don’t know how their aquifer is doing and so can’t anticipate changes. There is lack of data on private wells.

Lack of groundwater data in Yemen is not the result of ignorance about its importance, but is rather the victim of chronic underfunding and politics, which have been exacerbated by the on-going conflict. The war has made it almost impossible to measure and manage groundwater development and secure its long-term sustainability.

Having just completed the online course on “Professional drilling management” led by Skat Foundation, UNICEF, and the United Nations Development Programme Cap-Net, I have learned about the need to develop our knowledge in this regard. The course highlighted important immediate and long-term actions for Yemen:

  • Raise awareness within Yemen of the groundwater issues faced by the country.
  • Find practical ways to better understand groundwater, regulate its extraction, introduce control mechanisms and engage with the local population to develop effective actions.
  • Build capacity of government, NGOs, consultants, policy makers and beneficiaries through training in groundwater management.
  • Invest in building rain-water harvesting facilities in rural areas so the people don’t have to walk miles to collect water.
  • Invest in re-building infrastructure alongside improving water resources management.

Muna Omar is an Ethiopian refugee and a young water professional, living and working in Sana’a, undertaking monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian programmes in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and nutrition sectors such as a cholera-response project, and an executive assistant with a local NGO.

This article was first published in GeoDrilling International and is reproduced with permission and thanks.

Three common myths about solar-powered water pumping

By Andrew Armstrong (Water Mission), RWSN co-lead for Sustainable Groundwater Development

Solar pumping is the trendiest technology in rural water supply today. Policy-makers and practitioners are eager to better understand its benefits and limitations and the private sector is responding with a variety of product offerings. Much of this interest is motivated by the Sustainable Development Goal to increase water service levels in the most remote areas. A more compelling driver is that rural water users are willing to pay for service that is accessible near or within their homes. There is currently no more promising technology for meeting these expectations in off-grid settings than solar pumping. Despite this high interest and the fact that solar pumping technology has been around for decades, a great deal of misinformation is being propagated.

This post aims to address a few of the most common misconceptions.

Myth #1: Solar pumping is too complicated and not appropriate for remote, rural settings

The most common barrier to adoption of solar pumping is misunderstanding of its complexity and applicability. The technology is often avoided because of perceived technical and management challenges, which are in fact common to any rural water supply system. In reality, the design and installation processes associated with solar pumping are no more complicated than other motorized pumping schemes. Operation and maintenance is more straightforward than with handpumps and generator powered schemes which, as indicated in recent evaluations published by UNICEF and the Global Solar and Water Initiative, likely leads to higher functionality and reliability rates.

Solar pumps are applicable across the same head and flow profiles as grid- and generator-powered pumps, and most solar pumping equipment available today is essentially “plug and play”. External power backup for periods of low sunlight are rarely necessary if water demand is estimated and storage is sized appropriately. In addition, current off-the-shelf computer software tools simplify equipment selection and automatically consider daily and seasonal weather and solar irradiation fluctuations when estimating water outputs.

The high capital cost of solar pumping equipment often brings its large-scale applicability into question. However, the life-cycle cost benefits of solar pumping are well documented and are within and on the lower end  of IRC’s WASHCost benchmark ranges for piped schemes and boreholes fitted with handpumps. There is no fuel cost associated with solar pumps, and the cost of maintaining power generation equipment is greatly reduced because solar modules have no moving parts and long functional lifespans. Furthermore, the cost of solar modules, which represent the most expensive element of a solar pumping scheme, continues to decrease at a rapid rate.

Click here to read about the advantages of solar pumps compared to alternative technologies commonly utilized in remote, rural settings.

Myth #2: All solar powered water pumping equipment is created equal

Equipment manufacturers have taken advantage of demand and have flooded the market with solar pumping products of all varieties and price tags. Unfortunately, many are of poor quality and likely to fail in a fraction of the lifespan of higher priced, higher quality equipment. Low-quality products seldom come with warranties covering the first few years of operation during which failures are most likely to occur. Uninformed customers often fall into the trap of choosing cheaper equipment without considering that low-quality equipment fails quicker and costs more to maintain in the long-term. This results in solar pumping schemes which were expected to function for years failing and being abandoned after a few months in operation. The best way to guard against this is to stick with brands that have a proven track record for durability and reliability, even if it costs more up-front. It is also important to verify that products adhere to internationally-recognized certification and testing standards.

Another related challenge is that imitation spare parts for major brands are easier to find than authentic ones. Logos and barcodes can be forged such that it becomes difficult to detect if a part is counterfeit. This issue can be resolved by sourcing products from trusted dealers with good technical support capacity. The private sector can also have a positive influence on product quality. By providing local dealers with exclusive access to advanced training and support networks, major manufacturers can incentivize sales of quality equipment. In fact, some solar pumping suppliers such as Bluezone Malawi  are choosing to base their business model solely on high-quality products.

Myth #3: Scaling-up solar powered water pumping will lead to widescale depletion of groundwater aquifers

There is concern that solar pumps, because they can operate automatically whenever the sun shines, could pose a long-term threat to groundwater resources. It is true that exploitation of groundwater paired with low or misunderstood aquifer recharge can lead to potentially irreversible depletion, and there is a deficiency of good hydrogeological data in countries where the most interest is being placed on solar pumping. However, abstraction technology is just one of many factors that influence aquifer sustainability and solar pumping should not be devalued because of potential risks which can be mitigated. It is also important to note that the risk of groundwater depletion due to over abstraction with solar pumps depends on the application. Domestic supply withdrawals, in comparison to agriculture and protracted emergency applications, are likely to have negligible impacts.

Below are some actions that can be taken to mitigate the risk of groundwater depletion:

  • Proper borehole development and pump sizing to safe yield – Ensures solar pumps are physically incapable of depleting aquifers. A good resource for this is the RWSN/UNICEF Guidance Note on Professional Water Well Drilling. Simple control measures such as float valves and switches can also be employed to prevent wasting.
  • Better groundwater monitoring alerts authorities to potential risk areas. Many countries successfully employ remote monitoring systems (see, for example, the USGS’s National Groundwater Monitoring Network. Read more here.
  • Water pricing in the form of tariff collections and abstraction charges enables sustainable and equitable allocation of groundwater resources, but requires sound management built on transparency and accountability. Prepaid water metering technologies may also play a role.

Further resources

Resources are available to equip rural water professionals with knowledge and skills and stop the spread of misinformation about solar pumping. Of note:

In order to generate rich discussion and continue raising awareness of existing resources around solar pumping, the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development theme will host a three-week e-discussion from 28 May to 15 June 2018. For more information or to participate in the e-discussion, join the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development DGroup.

(Photo credits: Water Mission)



Why is Groundwater Data important?

by Dr Fabio Fussi, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca

The role of groundwater data in rural water supply has changed markedly in over the last few year:

6th RWSN Forum in Kampala, 2011: Some pilot projects of groundwater data collection and organization is presented. Uganda is presenting its groundwater atlas, a promising example for other countries.

7th RWSN Forum in Abidjan,  2016: there were entire sessions dedicated to groundwater data collection, mapping, analysis and application, with presentation of country programs from national water institutions, some example of international projects to create continental or world groundwater database (e.g. the groundwater atlas of Africa from the British Geological Survey) and application of groundwater data analysis.

What has raised the interest up to this level? There are several factors:

  • Data collection has become easy, with IT tools available in portable devices and smartphones for water point mapping. The increased availability of information has allowed to use these data to take decision about groundwater development and monitoring.
  • Depletion of groundwater resources (both in quantity and quality) requires the definition of sustainable groundwater development strategies and monitoring the effectiveness and impact of their implementation.
  • International donors have an increased interest to support countries to create groundwater information system, and national water institutions have, in several cases, understood the importance to put effort in this.

This seems a promising path for the future to support an effective and sustainable use of groundwater. However there are critical factors that must be taken into consideration:

  1. An increasing amount of data are available, but still there is lack of control in their quality. National databases are full of information, but limited effort is spent to revise them and depurate from mistakes. If this aspect is not properly considered, the risk of incorrect interpretation is high, leading to the formulation of incorrect strategies.
  2. Despite of the huge amount of information and the availability of powerful tools to process it, the level of data analysis to deepen our understating of groundwater system and give a practical support for complex decisions seems still basic. At this time we need creativity, technical capacity and collaboration between decision makers and scientist to unlock the potential of massive groundwater databases.
  3. An unbelievable amount of information is available, held by national water authorities and organizations involved in groundwater development. Most of this information is in hard copy, almost unused, not yet transformed into numeric database. This task is huge and time consuming, but if we can support it, we avoid the risk to loose relevant data and in they can be easily used to take decisions.

In the coming years the effect of climate change and the increase in water needs (due to population growth and improved living conditions) will lead to a more intense exploitation of groundwater resources, whose feasibility and sustainability must be carefully evaluated by a detailed interpretation of reliable data.

Getting groundwater off the ground

How do we  raise capacity for borehole drilling and its management globally? If everyone is to have access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, detailed attention is required for the siting, drilling and installation of boreholes in every single project in every country. Alas, this is not always the case. The result is that many boreholes fail within a very short time.

RWSN members are telling us that they want more in-country training.  The article linked below provides some suggestions. Do you have ideas or incentives for government and private enterprises invest in skill development in the groundwater sector, and in the rural water sector at large?

To find out more:



New 2017 RWSN Webinar series (18th April – 13th June 2017)

ENG: RWSN is delighted to announce the first of the 2017 series of webinars (on-line seminars) on rural water supply, running every Tuesday from April 18th, 2017 until June 13th, 2017. This series includes 9 weekly sessions on topics, which were presented and debated during the 2016 RWSN Forum in Abidjan, and related to the RWSN themes. For instance, we will find out about local government superheroes and their role in realising the human right to water and sanitation, but also hear about emerging cross-cutting issues such as improving WASH services in protracted crises. Each session will be bilingual, with one webinar in English as well as another language (French or Spanish) as we are trying to cater for a wide and varied audience. The format includes 1-2 presentations, comments from discussants, and a Question & Answer session where all participants are invited to ask questions or make comments. For more details on the first 2017 series, please refer to the table below.
The webinars in English start at 2.30 pm Paris time/ 1.30 pm London time/ 8.30 am Washington DC time. You can check your local time here. To register for one or all of the webinars, and receive an invitation please click on the following link: http://bit.ly/2movPGM


FR : Le RWSN a le plaisir de vous annoncer une nouvelle série de webinaires en 2017 (les séminaires en ligne) qui auront lieu les mardis, du 18 avril 2017 au 13 juin 2017. Cette série comprend 9 sessions hebdomadaires sur des sujets ayant été présentés et débattus lors du RWSN Forum à Abidjan en 2016, et correspondant aux thèmes RWSN. Par exemple, on apprendra le rôle des superhéros des gouvernements locaux pour la réalisation du droit à l’eau et à l’assainissement, mais on découvrira également des sujets transversaux émergeants tels que l’amélioration des services EAH dans les cas de crises prolongées. Chaque session sera bilingue, avec un webinaire en anglais et dans une autre langue (espagnol ou français) selon le sujet, nous souhaitons en effet toujours toucher le public le plus large dans toute sa diversité ! Les thèmes abordés sont le droit humain à l’eau et à l’assainissement, l’auto-approvisionnement, la durabilité des services et le cadre de référence d’applicabilité des technologies. Chaque session comprend 1 ou 2 présentations, des réactions de la part d’un ou plusieurs intervenants et une partie Questions/Réponses lors de laquelle tous les participant(e)s peuvent poser leurs questions ou réagir aux échanges. Vous trouverez le détail de cette première série de webinaires de 2017 dans le tableau ci-dessous.
Les webinaires en français sont à 11h heure de Paris/ 9h heure de Dakar. Pour vérifier l’horaire du webinaire, vous pouvez cliquer ici. Pour vous inscrire à l’un ou à tous les webinaires de cette série et recevoir une invitation, cliquez ici : http://bit.ly/2movPGM

ES: Desde el secretariado del RWSN tenemos el gusto de anunciar la nueva serie de webinars (seminarios en linea), la cual se efectuará entre el 28 de abril y el 13 de junio del 2017. Esta serie comprende 9 sesiones (una sesión por semana) respecto a los temas discutidos en el Foro RWSN en Abidjan en 2016, los cuales corresponden con los ejes temáticos del RWSN. Por ejemplo, aprenderemos sobre el rol de los superhéroes de los gobiernos locales para la realización de los derechos al agua y a saneamiento, pero también descubriremos temas transversales como la mejora de los servicios en agua y saneamiento en crisis humanitarias prolongadas. Cada sesión se implementará en dos idiomas, con una sesión en inglés y la otra o en francés o en español según el tema – de esta forma esperamos poder alcanzar a un público amplio y diverso. El formato incluye, para cada sesión, 1-2 presentaciones en línea, un comentario de al menos una persona, y una sesión de Preguntas y Respuestas donde todos los participantes tendrán la oportunidad de hacer preguntas o comentarios. Para mayor información sobre la serie por favor hacer clic en el vínculo abajo.

Los webinars en español empiezan a la 16.30 (hora de Madrid)/ 09.30 (hora de la Ciudad de México). Se pueden verificar los horarios para su localidad aqui. Para inscribirse a uno o a todos los webinarios de esta serie, haga clic aquí: http://bit.ly/2movPGM

18 April Improving WASH services in protracted crises
18 avril Améliorer les services EAH dans les situations de crises prolongées

25 April Professional Water Well Drilling: Guidance for Ensuring Quality
25 avril Le forage de puits d’eau professionnel : des orientations pour une meilleure qualité

02 May Making rights real – human rights guidance for practitioners
2 mai Faire des droits une réalité – conseils pratiques sur les droits de l’homme pour les professionnels

09 May Making water work for women – inspiring experiences
9 mai Faire fonctionner l’eau pour les femmes : des expériences inspirantes (1ère partie)

16 May Tackling corruption in rural WASH
16 mai S’attaquer à la corruption dans l’eau, l’assainissement et l’hygiène en milieu rural

23. May Making water work for women – inspiring experiences II
23 mai Faire fonctionner l’eau pour les femmes : des expériences inspirantes (2ème partie)

30. May Household wells: A lifeline in Nigeria?
30 mai Les puits d’eau résidentiels: une bouée de sauvetage au Nigéria ?

06 Jun Country-led monitoring
06 juin Le suivi au niveau des pays
6 de junio Monitoreo a nivel de países

13 Jun Searching for universal sustainability metrics for rural water services
13 de junio Buscando maneras universales de medir la sostenibilidad para servicios rurales de agua potable

More Information

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Obituary: Robin Temple Hazell (1927-2017)

by Dotun Adekile, Nigeria

I regret to inform you all that Robin Temple Hazell, one of the pioneers of systematic groundwater development in Africa, a member of the RWSN and a contributor to Dgroup discussions, passed away in his home, Bodmin, Cornwall on Sunday, 19th February, 2017. He would have been 90 years on 12th  March, 2017.

Continue reading “Obituary: Robin Temple Hazell (1927-2017)”

Groundwater Management into River Basin Organizations

A one-day training course in Dar es Salam, Tanzania Wednesday 20th, 2016.

 Background: Transboundary water management is of great importance to Africa as it has been emphasized in the African Water Vision 2025. Almost all Sub-Saharan African countries share at least one international river basin. In Africa there are about sixty transboundary lake and river basins and at least eighty transboundary aquifer basins. A training manual has been complied by a network of partners, including AGW-Net, ANBO, BGR, Cap-Net, IGRAC, IMAWESA, IWMI, IGRAC, and A4A – aqua for all in response to the needs expressed and is designed to help develop capacity on groundwater management within the basin organizations.

The Course: The 6th AWW (http://africawaterweek.com/6/) that takes place in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) in July 18-22, 2016, will launch the manual, and at the same time implement a one-day training course on groundwater management. The course aims to: (1) promote sustainable groundwater resources management within the framework of IWRM in RBOs; (2) make groundwater resources in Africa more “visible” to water managers who are required to manage it sustainably; (3) raise awareness on the importance of groundwater resource to Africa, and especially in light of the growing impacts of climate change. Continue reading “Groundwater Management into River Basin Organizations”

“Your challenges are our challenges”, reflections from Oklahoma, USA

Today I write from Oklahoma, USA, having just come to the end of the two and a half day University of Oklahoma 4th biennial WaTER Conference.  I had the honour of being one of the keynote speakers at this event, which was attended by over 170 people from 27 countries. It has been an extremely worthwhile experience on many fronts.

There is a growing interest in water supply and sanitation in “developing nations” in the USA.  The Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act 2005 seems be one of the catalysts for this change.  Over the past week I have engaged with numerous undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Oklahoma, Emory University, Mercer University and other US institutions. They are learning about the realities of millions without adequate water supply or sanitation as well as undertaking research. These students want to make a difference.

I was particularly touched by the opening speech of Dr Jim Chamberlain who reflected on the realities today in the USA, where there are people without adequate water supply.”your challenges are our challenges” he observed. He went on to mention common water quality and resource issues between here and other parts of the world.   And he was talking about Oklahoma today – a city that is expanding beyond the reach of its piped water supply network. I have learned about people in this State and more widely in the USA who are not connected to a piped water supply or sewerage system. They mostly rely on their own private boreholes, some hand dug wells, and septic tanks. What was particularly surprising though is that as in Lagos, Lusaka or Kampala, up-to-date statistics on the numbers of wells and population depending on them are lacking.  And private well regulation, including water quality testing falls between the cracks and is beyond the current remit of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

My keynote was entitled Sustainable Groundwater Development in Africa: More than Engineering. I tried to present an overview of some of the groundwater development opportunities and challenges of the African continent. The presentation was well received, in particular reflections on the diversity of the African continent, both above and below ground, as well as the size of Africa. Few people are aware that Africa is larger than the USA and China and a considerable part of Europe put together.

Dr David Sabatini of the Water and Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Centre asked all presenters to be mindful of a very broad audience, from anthropologists to engineers, from first year undergraduates to seasoned experts.  I tried my best, also aware that there would be people in the audience who had never been to Africa in their lives, alongside scholars and professionals from the continent.  And so we journeyed together from the phenomenal expansion of manual drilling in Nigeria and elsewhere, to the challenges of trying to escape poverty with irrigated agriculture to geology (including the continent’s mineral resources and resource curse), then onto hydrogeology, urban groundwater and finally a vision for future policy and implementation.

As a keynote speaker it was rather humbling to present the fact that the first continental estimates of the quantity of groundwater resources in African were only published three years ago; and to explain that very few African countries have good quality hydrogeological maps and studies. Having worked in rural water supply for seventeen years now, I scratch my head to find defendable reasons for the lack of organised and reliable drilling logs and groundwater data despite decades of development projects from the water decade through the MDGs.

However, I was relieved to present the work supported by UNICEF, WSP, UKAid and USAID over the past ten years to provide guidance for drilling in the form of documents and films; to share that UNICEF, together with WaterAid and Skat has an ongoing collaboration to try and raise the professionalism of both manual and mechanised drilling. And of course to recommend the ongoing UK-funded research to enable sustainable use of groundwater for the benefit of the poor – UPGro.

Undergraduate students ask very pertinent questions. The frankness of potential newcomers to the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Water Resources sector is very refreshing and I hope that they will join in solving some of the problems that those of us who have been around a bit longer are struggling with. But to do that, they need to be able to work in this field. Care’s Peter Lochery and winner of the 2015 University of Oklahoma Water Prize, talked of the importance of being a connector, rather than a leader. And so I close this blog with some questions.

How can better connections be made? What can we all do to enable new talent, whether from the USA, Nigeria, or anywhere else, to flow into the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Water Resources sector? Who can offer internships? What about apprenticeships or first jobs?  Where are the jobs? If we are to reach the Sustainable Development Goal targets for water supply we need an awful lot more skilled people – whether entrepreneurs, field staff, project managers or academics.  And we have to find ways of bringing them in to join us!  Do you have any tangible ideas? Or any offers for that matter?