Sand dam’s contribution to year-round water supply

This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network – we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.

RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series on, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.

This is a blog post from RWSN Member Hannah Ritchie, based in the United Kingdom

In 2020, I joined forces with Sand Dams Worldwide (SDW) to help them answer the question of “how long water from sand dams is lasting throughout the year”. In this short blog post, I am happy to discuss with you our findings and the implications of this study. We’ll be discussing “why we are interested in this question”, “how we researched this question”, and “what we found out”.

Firstly though, for those of you not familiar with what a sand dam is, I would like to direct you here for a video, which explains them better than I could, and here to SDW’s website where you can find everything sand dam related you might need to know.

Why are we interested (and why you should be too)?

So, why do we care about whether sand dams are providing water year-round? There is uncertainty over whether water from sand dams is lasting all the way through the dry season, or whether people can only abstract water from sand dams at the beginning of the dry season, when they have just been replenished by the rains. Because of this conflict in results, we can’t easily conclude how effective sand dams are as a dryland and specifically dry season water source. For example, can people rely on them when other water sources are unavailable (such as when surface waters have run dry)? Or are the dams dry by the second week of the dry season? Answering this question is very important for understanding their level of use, acceptance, and financial viability, helping to inform future water management interventions and to ensure that communities are serviced with a continuous improved supply. Knowing whether there are certain dry season months when sand dams have no water being abstracted can also inform on months when water supply from other sources needs expanding. Finally, knowing which sand dams have more or less water being abstracted can aid in optimising sand dam design.

You might be thinking, “but no water abstracted doesn’t necessarily mean no water being available”, and you would be right. Because, whilst abstraction volumes may be linked to storage, many other variables, such as convenience, quality, and the use of other sources can also impact abstraction. Thus, the contribution that sand dams make to water security is not synonymous with the amount of water actually stored in the dam. Therefore, whilst this study can show us abstraction patterns from sand dams and therefore behaviours of use, it cannot confirm for certain whether there is or isn’t any water available.

How did we do it?

Now you know why we’re interested and why it matters, how did we actually go about answering the question: “how long water from sand dams is lasting throughout the year”? In 2019, 26 sand dam hand pumps in Makueni and Machakos Counties, Kenya were fitted with Waterpoint Data Transmitters (WDT) by ASDF. These devices measure the number of times and with what force a handpump is used over an hour and convert this into an estimated volume of water abstracted (Thomson et al., 2012). This data point is then transmitted by SMS. I had access to this remotely sensed data from April 2019 until October 2021. With a data point every hour for 26 sites over 31 months, I ended up with a very large data set!

Alongside this abstraction data, I also had access to interview and observation data provided by MSc student Joanna Chan, ASDF, and SDW. These variables included perceived salinity, abstraction limits, livestock use, whether the dam is said to have ever run dry, presence of rainwater harvesting tanks, actual salinity (μs/cm), area of dam wall (m2), average distance travelled from home to dam (km), and user numbers (Chan, 2019).

This data was then analysed to assess how much water people were abstracting and for how long throughout the year the water continued to be abstracted for. The variables collected from interview and observation were then analysed to provide insight into differences in abstraction between sites. For example, did sites with larger dam walls have more water being abstracted, or did salinity impact abstraction in any way?

Finally, we looked specifically at the last week in September (as a proxy for the end of the long dry season) to assess whether enough water to specifically meet drinking water needs (2 L/p/day) was still being abstracted at any sites. Due to the necessity of an improved source of water for drinking (of which a handpump is one), we wanted to know whether the handpumps could independently meet drinking water needs, in case no other water sources were available.

What did we find out? 

After analysing all of the data and wrapping my head around some statistical analysis, I like to think that we found some interesting results.

The most obvious finding was that of high variability in abstraction volume between the 26 hand pumps and seasons. We found abstraction to be significantly higher in the long dry season, indicating a high reliance and delivery of water when other sources are compromised. The diagram below shows median monthly abstraction (L/month) (red line) and average monthly rainfall (mm) (brown bars – dry season and blue bars rainy season) across all sites – indicating higher abstraction when rainfall is lower.

There was abstraction data available from 21 handpumps (81%) by the end of at least one of the analysed long dry seasons, with at least some water still being abstracted. At 59.1% of these sites, enough water to meet each user’s drinking water needs (2 L/p/day) was being abstracted in at least one of the analysed years. This indicates that such dams can meet the drinking water needs of users independently of other sources.

Using the variables which were collected in interviews and observations, we found that sites with a greater proportion of people using the water for livestock, higher salinity, and larger dam walls had significantly higher levels of abstraction. This is to be expected as higher salinity sites are often used more for livestock (Chan, 2019), which have a greater water demand than that for drinking, whilst larger dam walls can lead to a greater volume of sand build up and therefore water storage (Maddrell & Neal, 2012). 

These results highlight sand dams as a sustainable alternative to other dry season sources such as water vendors, which can be expensive and unreliable. However, lower abstraction in certain months and sites highlights that we must approach water management holistically. No one technique is necessarily the answer to dryland water security and all available water sources must be considered. Clearly, not all sand dams behave the same, with certain sand dams always likely to have higher levels of abstraction than others. However, high abstraction and sustained water availability by the end of the long dry season at many sites profess the positive contribution that sand dams can make to a community’s water supply, offering opportunities for further success in the future.

Closing remarks

I really hope you enjoyed learning about abstraction trends from sand dams as much as I enjoyed studying them (most of the time!) If you’re interested in learning more, I hope the paper will be published soon, which will be freely available for everyone to read. If you’d like to reach out, my email is Many thanks for reading.

A bit about the author

I am a PhD student at Cranfield University. I began my PhD in September 2019 in WaSH with the CDT Water WISER. With a background in geology and environmental engineering, I wanted to design my PhD project around earth sciences and development. This was how I ended up finding sand dams and partnering with SDW and Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF).

Outside of work I love to run, hike (generally be outdoors as much as possible), read, and am learning French. I am very passionate about science communication and firmly believe that research results need to be translated into accessible formats for all to read and understand, hence why I have written this blog post for you (definitely shorter, more fun, and less boring than reading a 15-page paper!)

Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at] for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.

Photo credits: Hannah Ritchie


Chan, J. (2019). Abstraction of Water from Sand Dams in Machakos and Makueni Counties (Kenya) via Handpumps.

Maddrell, S., & Neal, I. (2012). Sand Dams: a Practical Guide.

Thomson, P., Hope, R., & Foster, T. (2012). GSM-enabled remote monitoring of rural handpumps: A proof-of-concept study. Journal of Hydroinformatics, 14(4), 829–839.

30 años en la búsqueda de agua potable en Nicaragua

Este año celebramos los 30 años de la fundación formal de la Red de Abastecimiento de Agua en Zonas Rurales. Desde unos inicios muy técnicos como grupo de expertos (en su mayoría hombres) la Red de Tecnología de Bombas de Mano- hemos evolucionado hasta convertirnos en una red diversa y vibrante de más de 13.000 personas y 100 organizaciones que trabajan en una amplia gama de temas. En el camino, hemos ganado una reputación de imparcialidad, y nos hemos convertido en un convocante global en el sector del agua rural.

La RWSN no sería lo que es hoy sin las contribuciones y los incansables esfuerzos de muchos de nuestros miembros, organizaciones y personas. Como parte de la celebración del 30º aniversario de la RWSN, estamos llevando a cabo una serie de blogs en, invitando a nuestros amigos y expertos del sector a compartir sus pensamientos y experiencias en el sector del agua rural.

Esta es una entrada de blog del miembro de la RWSN Joshua Briemberg, con sede en Nicaragua.

Mi carrera en el sector del agua y el saneamiento comenzó en 1993, poco después de que naciera la RWSN. Fue una elección deliberada para mí después de un breve período en la industria petrolera del Reino Unido que siguió a vivir y trabajar durante 4 meses entre 1991 y 1992 en la zona rural de Nicaragua para construir una casa escuela de dos habitaciones. Durante ese tiempo, la diarrea estaba a la orden del día, y de la noche, en una rudimentaria letrina de pozo. Todavía recuerdo que miraba a las hojas de plátano gigantes que se agitaban a la luz de la luna para encontrar una sensación de paz en cierta agonía. En aquella época, luchaba por concentrarme mientras estaba en la universidad en Canadá, entre los estudios de ingeniería química, con una clase de tratamiento del agua que me llamaba la atención, y los estudios de humanidades, intrigado por el debate sobre los derechos del agua y los pueblos de las Primeras Naciones de Canadá.

Una vez terminada mi carrera de ingeniería en 1992, mi verdadera vocación siguió eludiéndose y me trasladé al Reino Unido. Durante mi estancia en Londres, primero como mensajero en bicicleta y luego como ingeniero de salud y seguridad para la construcción de una plataforma petrolífera de 11.000 millones de dólares en el Mar del Norte, la librería Intermediate Technology (que más tarde se convertiría en Practical Action) se convirtió en mi destino favorito y la publicación mensual Waterlines en una temprana inspiración, mientras planeaba volver a Nicaragua para hacer algo, cualquier cosa relacionada con el agua. También recuerdo haber llevado algún que otro paquete como mensajero a una pequeña oficina de WaterAid en un edificio cercano a Green Park. Veinte años más tarde, todavía viviendo en Nicaragua, se me pediría que diseñara y luego dirigiera el primer programa de país de WaterAid en América Latina.

En algún momento, dejé de lado cualquier idea de seguir una formación formal en las aulas de institutos de renombre como el WEDC de la Universidad de Loughborough, donde una vez me reuní con John Pickford, o el IHE de Delft, donde también hice una breve visita. El campo se convertiría en mi aula.

Mi andadura en el mundo del agua y el saneamiento en 1993 empezó de verdad al realizar un estudio sobre la presencia de pesticidas en las aguas subterráneas de las ciudades del histórico cinturón algodonero de Nicaragua en los años setenta. De ahí pasé a un par de trabajos en lo que iba a ser mi campo como ingeniero químico: planes maestros de alcantarillado para Managua y tratamiento de aguas residuales mientras estaba brevemente en Canadá.

Foto: Clase de graduados de Agua para la Vida

Pero fue entonces, cuando me encontré dirigiendo el primer ciclo de un programa de formación de ingenieros de pueblos para diseñar y construir pequeños sistemas rurales de abastecimiento de agua por gravedad alimentados por manantiales en las montañas del centro-norte, cuando realmente encontré mi vocación: el abastecimiento de agua en zonas rurales. En poco más de 30 años esta operación –Agua para la Vida– ha trabajado con pequeñas comunidades rurales de montaña para establecer más de 100 sistemas de abastecimiento de agua utilizando herramientas de diseño de última generación para optimizar el rendimiento y el coste. Los sistemas de abastecimiento de agua por gravedad alimentados por manantiales de montaña bien diseñados son asombrosamente duraderos con unos costes de funcionamiento muy manejables; el principal reto es la protección de la zona de recarga de la cuenca y garantizar la cohesión de la comunidad y una gestión eficaz.

Cautivado por la alegría de abrir el grifo y tener agua limpia a borbotones después de meses de sudor y esfuerzo, me sentí impulsado a seguir en la búsqueda de un vaso de agua limpia en todas partes.

Una cosa que descubrí durante estos años fue que, mientras diseñábamos para el crecimiento, las comunidades a menudo se reducían en tamaño debido a la migración en busca de mayores oportunidades económicas en otros lugares.

Aproveché los conocimientos aprendidos con las comunidades devastadas por la guerra en la frontera agrícola para trabajar con las comunidades indígenas Miskitu y Mayangna para llevar agua limpia de montaña a la gente a lo largo de un sistema de ríos en las profundidades más lejanas de una de las dos reservas de la biosfera en Nicaragua. El suministro de agua por tubería alimentada por gravedad siguió siendo mi opción por defecto hasta que se agotaron los manantiales.

En mi primera misión de reconocimiento, en 1997, en la aldea de Raiti, en el río Coco (Wangki), que separa Honduras de Nicaragua, me acompañó un hidrogeólogo estadounidense que no hablaba ni español ni la lengua local, el Miskitu. Durante la conversación con los líderes de la comunidad sobre la existencia de fuentes potenciales de manantiales, un líder de la comunidad me dijo que la fuente potencial estaba a unos 15 minutos de distancia mientras que otro dijo que estaba más bien a un día de distancia. Ni que decir tiene que mi hidrogeólogo decidió quedarse atrás y tardamos cerca de 6 horas en llegar al lugar que los aldeanos consideraban una fuente viable.

Desafortunadamente, como casi todas las fuentes de agua superficiales en la región oriental o caribeña de Nicaragua, estaba situada a una altura inferior a la de la comunidad, que era la forma en que las comunidades se protegían contra el riesgo de inundaciones. Y así comenzaron mis primeras experiencias de excavación y perforación de pozos con lo que para entonces se había convertido en un estándar nicaragüense: la bomba de mecate.

Transportando tubos en el Río Coco (2000-2003)

No fue hasta principios de la década de 2000, y con una década de experiencia empírica sobre el terreno, cuando empecé a entrar en contacto con redes como la RWSN, que se convirtieron en referencias esporádicas pero importantes, combinadas con otros focos de inspiración que encontraba en las escasas oportunidades en que salía de comunidades remotas por senderos, caminos de tierra y ríos.

A través de estos contactos, me inspiré para añadir nuevas herramientas a mi caja de herramientas en la búsqueda continua de agua limpia. La recogida de agua de lluvia y el tratamiento en el punto de uso o los filtros se convirtieron en aspectos importantes de mi búsqueda para llegar realmente a la última milla, al tiempo que experimentaba con bombas hidráulicas de ariete en el camino. Además de las tecnologías en sí, enfoques como el Marco de Aplicabilidad de la Tecnología (TAF), la aceleración del autoabastecimiento y el fortalecimiento de los sistemas se han convertido en herramientas esenciales en los últimos diez años de mi viaje.

Además de la RWSN, que no conocí formalmente hasta 2011, cuando asistí al 6º Foro Internacional de la RWSN en Kampala, Uganda, también encontré inspiración en la red HWTS, la Alianza Internacional para la Recolección de Agua de Lluvia (IRHA), el Grupo del Centro SMART, SuSanA, Agenda para el Cambio y otros. A nivel local, las redes WASH de Nicaragua y Centroamérica (RASNIC y RRAS-CA, respectivamente) representaron los esfuerzos por llevar la colaboración a los niveles regional, nacional y local.

De estos contactos surgieron no sólo referencias técnicas clave, sino una mayor comprensión de la importancia del contexto en la aplicabilidad de una solución, la complejidad de la sostenibilidad, la importancia de los enfoques basados en la demanda acompañados de sistemas que no son necesariamente exclusivos del sector público, sino que incluyen el papel del sector privado local, el espíritu empresarial, las alianzas y la aceleración de los modelos de autoabastecimiento de la prestación de servicios.

Todavía existe una tensión considerable entre estos dos enfoques del suministro de agua -el fortalecimiento de los sistemas y la aceleración de los modelos de autoabastecimiento-, aunque considero que estos últimos son complementarios y forman parte de los primeros, y a pesar de que en el ámbito del saneamiento las soluciones familiares individuales siguen siendo la norma para la población de las zonas rurales.

Ni que decir tiene que pasé de mis inicios en los sistemas de abastecimiento por gravedad alimentados por manantiales a los pozos de sondeo superficiales y profundos, a la perforación manual y mecánica, a las bombas manuales y a las impulsadas por energías renovables, a la captación de agua de lluvia en los tejados y al tratamiento y almacenamiento de agua en los hogares. También me adentré en el concepto de resiliencia y en los conceptos de usos múltiples y fuentes múltiples o sistemas híbridos, este último todavía menos considerado.

No debe pasar desapercibido que mi búsqueda de agua limpia en Nicaragua se ha visto confrontada y marcada en el camino por un número creciente de huracanes: Mitch en 1998, que me llevó al río Coco para construir sistemas de abastecimiento de agua donde no los había, pero donde las comunidades a lo largo del río habían sido totalmente arrasadas. Félix, en 2007, dejó una franja de destrucción en la costa caribeña nororiental. Y, más recientemente, Eta e Iota, en noviembre de 2020, arrasaron con todos los más de 250 sistemas de captación de agua de lluvia en los tejados, con tanques de ferrocemento de 4.000 litros, que habían sido construidos uno a uno durante 5 años por hombres y mujeres en la comunidad de Wawa Bar.

Training RWH System installers Wawa Boom (2021)

En el camino, también me encontré con algunas contribuciones significativas al abastecimiento de agua en las zonas rurales, incubadas en Nicaragua en el espíritu de su afamado poeta de las letras españolas modernas Rubén Darío: Si la Patria es pequeña, uno grande la sueña. Entre ellas se encuentran la bomba de mecate, el filtron de barro (Filtron) y un clorador en línea de fabricación artesanal (conocido originalmente como CTI-8).

Fueron el tratamiento y el almacenamiento de agua en el hogar y Ron Rivera, de Alfareros por la Paz, los que me iniciaron en el concepto de autoabastecimiento y los enfoques basados en el mercado. Este concepto ha terminado por costarme dos veces mi trabajo con organizaciones “sin ánimo de lucro” que no están dispuestas a socavar su modelo de caridad y su dependencia de un estado permanente de “filantropía humanitaria”.

Ahora que mi camino de vida entra en su recta final, mi enfoque es reunir tanto física como virtualmente la mayor cantidad de todas estas grandes iniciativas y las nuevas que surjan, dentro de un marco basado en el contexto y la construcción colectiva de modelos de prestación de servicios adecuados.  Mi vehículo desde 2017 es el Centro SMART de Nicaragua: Conectando, asistiendo, acelerando.  El Centro SMART fue inspirado en 2015 por Henk Holtslag, a quien conocí en el Foro de la RWSN en Kampala en 2011.

El Centro SMART en Nicaragua

A principios de este año, RWSN publicó una versión concisa de mi evaluación rápida del impacto a largo plazo del enfoque SMART: El caso de la bomba de mecate en Nicaragua, una mirada retrospectiva a 40 años de desarrollo como historia de éxito del autoabastecimiento acelerado. Sólo me queda esperar que el faro de la Red Rural de Abastecimiento de Agua siga iluminando el camino durante otros 30 años para que yo pueda aportar unos cuantos granos de arena más.

Sobre el autor:

Joshua ha trabajado como profesional en el sector de WASH rural durante más de 30 años, casi en su totalidad en Nicaragua, América Central, con la excepción de un período de 3 años en el que dirigió el desarrollo de un programa en Colombia. Su trabajo le ha llevado desde breves periodos en el sector público y en una empresa privada de consultoría de ingeniería, hasta organizaciones no gubernamentales pequeñas e internacionalmente reconocidas, y agencias de ayuda bilateral. Es el director fundador del Centro de Tecnologías SMART de Agua, Saneamiento e Higiene de Nicaragua, una empresa social que reúne a los sectores público y privado, las instituciones de microfinanciación y el mundo académico para promover los enfoques SMART, incluido el autoabastecimiento para llegar a la última milla. Recientemente ha sido coautor de una nota de campo de la RWSN en la que se hace un balance de los 40 años de historia de la bomba de mecate en Nicaragua.

¿Le ha gustado este blog? ¿Le gustaría compartir su perspectiva sobre el sector del agua rural o su historia como profesional del agua rural? Invitamos a todos los miembros de la RWSN a contribuir a esta serie de blogs del 30º aniversario. Los mejores blogs serán seleccionados para su publicación y traducción. Por favor, consulte las directrices del blog aquí y póngase en contacto con nosotros (ruralwater[at] para obtener más información.Si aprecia el trabajo de la RWSN y desea apoyarnos económicamente, puede hacerlo aquí.

30 years in the search for clean drinking water in Nicaragua

This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network – we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.

RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series on, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.

This is a blog post from RWSN Member Joshua Briemberg, based in Nicaragua.

My career in the water and sanitation sector started in 1993 not long after RWSN was born.  It was a deliberate choice for me after a brief stint in the UK oil industry that followed upon living and working during 4-months between 1991 and 1992 in rural Nicaragua to build a two-room school house.  During this time diarrhea  was often the order of the day, and night, for me in a rudimentary pit latrine.  I still remember looking up into giant banana leaves waving in the moonlight to find a sense of peace in certain agony. At the time, I struggled to focus while in university in Canada between studies in chemical engineering with one class in water treatment that caught my attention, and studies in humanities, intrigued by the discussion of water rights and the First Nations people of Canada.

Having finished my engineering degree in 1992, my true calling continued to elude me and I moved to the UK.  While in London, first as a bicycle courier and then as a health and safety engineer for the construction of an 11 billion dollar North Sea oil platform, the Intermediate Technology book shop (which later became Practical Action) became my favorite destination and the monthly publication Waterlines an early inspiration, as I planned a return to Nicaragua to do something, anything related to water.  I also remember carrying the odd parcel as a courier to a small WaterAid office in a building near Green Park.  Twenty years later, still living in Nicaragua I would be asked to design and then lead WaterAid’s first country program in Latin America.

Somewhere along the way, I let fall by the wayside any idea of pursuing further formal training  in the halls of renowned institutes like WEDC at the University of Loughborough, where I once met with John Pickford, or IHE in Delft where I also made a short visit.  The field was to become my classroom.

My journey in the world of water and sanitation in 1993 started for real by conducting a study of the presence of pesticides in the groundwater supplies for the cities of Nicaragua’s historic cotton-belt of the 1970s.  I moved on from there to a couple of jobs in what was meant to be my field as a chemical engineer – sewerage master plans for Managua and wastewater treatment while briefly back in Canada.

Photo: Agua Para la Vida Graduating Class

But it was then, as I found myself heading up the first cycle of a program to train village-engineers to design and build small rural spring-fed gravity-driven water supply systems in the north-central mountains that I truly found my calling: rural water supply.  In just over 30 years this operation – Agua para la Vida – has worked with small rural mountainous communities to establish more than 100 water supply systems using state-of-the-art design tools to optimize performance and cost.  Well-designed mountain spring-fed gravity-driven water supply systems are amazingly durable with highly manageable operating costs; the main challenge is the protection of the recharge area of the watershed and ensuring community cohesion and effective management.

Captivated by the joy of opening the tap and having clean water gushing out after months of sweat and toil, I was driven to carry on in pursuit of a glass of clean water everywhere.

One thing I found during these years was that while we designed for growth the communities often shrunk in size due to migration in search of greater economic opportunities elsewhere. 

I took the skills learned with war-ravaged communities on the agricultural frontier to work with indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna communities to bring clean mountain water to people along a system of rivers in the farthest depths of one of two biosphere reserves in Nicaragua.  Gravity-fed piped water supplies continued to be my default option until the springs ran out. 

On my first reconnaissance mission in 1997 to the village of Raiti on the Coco River (Wangki) that separates Honduras from Nicaragua, I was accompanied by an American hydrogeologist who spoke neither Spanish nor the local language Miskitu.  During the conversation with community leaders about the existence of potential spring sources, one community leader told me that the potential source was about 15 minutes away while another said it was more like a day away.  Needless to say my hydrogeologist decided to stay behind and it took us close to 6 hours to reach the place thought by the villagers to be a viable source! 

Unfortunately, like almost all surface water sources in the eastern or Caribbean region of Nicaragua, it was located at lower elevations than the community, which was the way the communities would protect themselves against the risk of flooding.  And thus began my first experiences with digging and drilling wells with what had become a Nicaraguan standard by then: the rope pump

Transporting pipes on the Rio Coco (2000-2003)

It was not until the early 2000s, and with a decade of empirical experience in the field, that I began to come in contact with networks such as RWSN which became sporadic but important references combined with other guiding lights of inspiration that I encountered in the rare opportunities when I emerged from remote communities by footpaths, dirt roads, and rivers. 

Through these contacts, I was inspired to add new tools to my toolbox in the continued search for clean water.  Rainwater harvesting and point-of-use treatment or filters became significant aspects of my search to truly reach the last mile, while also experimenting with hydraulic ram pumps along the way.  In addition to technologies themselves, approaches such as the Technology Applicability Framework (TAF), accelerating self-supply, and systems strengthening have become essential tools in the last ten years of my journey.

In addition to RWSN, which I did not formally encounter until 2011 when I attended the RWSN’s 6th International Forum in Kampala, Uganda, I also found inspiration from the HWTS network, the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance (IRHA), the SMART Centre GroupSuSanA, Agenda for Change, and others.  At the local level the Nicaraguan and Central American WASH Networks (RASNIC and RRAS-CA respectively) represented efforts to bring collaboration to the regional, national and local levels.

Out of these contacts came not only key technical references, but a greater understanding of the importance of context in the applicability of a solution, the complexity of sustainability, the importance of demand-based approaches accompanied by systems that are not necessarily exclusive to the public sector but include the role of the local private sector, entrepreneurship, alliances and the acceleration of self-supply models of service delivery.

There is still considerable tension between these two approaches to water supply – systems strengthening and accelerating self-supply models – although I consider the latter to be complementary and part of the former, and despite the fact that in sanitation individual family solutions continue to be the standard for the population in rural areas. 

Needless to say, I moved on from my beginnings in spring-fed gravity-driven systems to shallow and deep borehole wells, manual and machine drilling, handpumps and renewable energy-driven pumps, rooftop rainwater catchment, and household water treatment and storage.  I also ventured in to the concept of resilience and the concepts of both multiple uses and multiple sources or hybrid systems, the latter still less commonly considered.

It should not go unnoticed that my search for clean water in Nicaragua has been both confronted and marked along the way by an increasing number of hurricanes:  Mitch in 1998 that took me to the Coco River to build water supply systems where there had been none but where the communities along the river had been entirely wiped away.  Felix in 2007 left a swath of destruction across the northeast Caribbean Coast.  And most recently Eta and Iota back-to-back in November 2020 that wiped out all of the more than 250 rooftop rainwater catchment systems with 4,000 litre ferrocement tanks that had been built one by one over 5 years by men and women in the community of Wawa Bar.

Training RWH System installers Wawa Boom (2021)

On this journey, I also came across some significant contributions to rural water supply incubated in Nicaragua in the spirit of its famed poet of modern Spanish letter Ruben Dario: Si la Patria es pequeña, uno grande la sueña.  (If the homeland is small, one dreams it to be grand.)  These include the rope pump (known in Nicaragua as the bomba de mecate), the clay pot filter (Filtron), and an artisan-made in-line chlorinator (originally known as CTI-8).

It was household water treatment and storage, and Ron Rivera of Potters for Peace that started me on the road to the concept of self-supply and market-based approaches. This concept has ended up twice costing me my job with “non-profit” organizations unwilling to undermine their charity model and dependence on a permanent state of “humanitarian philanthropy”.

Now as my life journey enters its home stretch, my focus is on bringing together both physically and virtually as many of all these great initiatives and new ones as they come along, within a context-based framework and the collective construction of appropriate service delivery models.  My vehicle since 2017 is the Nicaragua SMART Centre: Connecting, assisting, accelerating.  The SMART Centre was inspired in 2015 by Henk Holtslag whom I first met that the RWSN Forum in Kampala in 2011.

The SMART Centre in Nicaragua

Earlier this year, RWSN published a concise version of my rapid assessment of the long term impact of the SMART approach: The case of the rope pump in Nicaragua, a look back at 40 years of development as a success story of accelerated self-supply. I can only hope that the beacon of the Rural Water Supply Network will continue to light the way for another 30 years so that I can contribute a few more grains of sand.

About the author: 

Joshua has worked as a practitioner in the rural WASH sector for over 30 years almost entirely in Nicaragua, Central America with the exception of a 3-year period when he led the development of a program in Colombia.  His work has taken him from brief stints in the public sector and with a private engineering consulting firm, to both small and internationally recognized non-governmental organizations, and bilateral aid agencies.  He is the founding director of the Nicaragua Centre for SMART Technologies for WASH (Centro de Tecnologías SMART de Agua, Saneamiento e Hygiene), a social enterprise bringing together the public and private sectors, microfinance institutions, and academia to promote SMART approaches including self-supply to reach the last mile.  He recently co-authored a RWSN Field Note taking stock of the 40-year history of the rope pump in Nicaragua.

Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at] for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.

Photo credits: Joshua Briemberg

Las tecnologías EMAS WaSH – experiencias, logros y objetivos futuros

Este año celebramos los 30 años de la fundación formal de la Red de Abastecimiento de Agua en Zonas Rurales. Desde unos inicios muy técnicos como grupo de expertos (en su mayoría hombres) la Red de Tecnología de Bombas de Mano- hemos evolucionado hasta convertirnos en una red diversa y vibrante de más de 13.000 personas y 100 organizaciones que trabajan en una amplia gama de temas. En el camino, hemos ganado una reputación de imparcialidad, y nos hemos convertido en un convocante global en el sector del agua rural.

La RWSN no sería lo que es hoy sin las contribuciones y los incansables esfuerzos de muchos de nuestros miembros, organizaciones y personas. Como parte de la celebración del 30º aniversario de la RWSN, estamos llevando a cabo una serie de blogs en, invitando a nuestros amigos y expertos del sector a compartir sus pensamientos y experiencias en el sector del agua rural.

Este blog fue escrito por nuestro miembro de RWSN, Jaime Aguirre, de Bilbao, España.

EMAS es el acrónimo de “Escuela móvil del agua y saneamiento”; fue acuñado en los años 80 en Bolivia por Wolfgang Buchner, con el apoyo de un grupo de voluntarios

La misión principal de EMAS es enseñar a las familias a obtener agua limpia por sí mismas. El “aprendizaje práctico” es la forma más óptima de aprender estas técnicas.

El programa WaSH de EMAS incluye varias tecnologías Do-It-Yourself, como la bomba manual  EMAS,  la perforación manual de pozos de hasta 90 metros, tanques de almacenamiento de agua y los aseos VIP, entre otros. Todas las tecnologías han estado en constante desarrollo desde los años 90. Se han implantado en más de 25 países, principalmente en América Latina y África. La biblioteca de la RWSN alberga documentación y evaluaciones del uso de las tecnologías EMAS en Uganda, Sierra Leona, Panama y Bolivia, entre otros.

El objetivo de las tecnologías de EMAS es facilitar el acceso al agua potable y al saneamiento mediante la formación de técnicos locales y beneficiarios. Estas formaciones son cursos compactos en los que durante varias semanas se muestran y practican todas las técnicas. A largo plazo, todas las instalaciones pueden ser mantenidas por el usuario debido a la simplicidad de la tecnología. El resultado:

  • Mejora del acceso al agua potable para las poblaciones rurales del mundo, combinada con instalaciones sanitarias sencillas, evitando así la propagación de enfermedades infecciosas y reduciendo las tasas de mortalidad.
  • Aumento de la calidad de vida, por ejemplo, al eliminar el laborioso acarreo de agua, lo que ahorra tiempo a las mujeres y los niños y permite realizar pequeños trabajos agrícolas.
  • Los constructores de pozos formados son autosuficientes e independientes, y pueden, si es necesario, recibir más asesoramiento y formación.
  • Sostenibilidad: Los pozos y las instalaciones de agua son muy asequibles. La experiencia ha demostrado que los propietarios mantienen bastante bien las instalaciones, lo que se traduce en una larga vida útil. Las reparaciones que puedan ser necesarias suelen ser fáciles de realizar.
  • Todos los materiales necesarios para estas reparaciones pueden obtenerse localmente.
  • Los materiales y los métodos son respetuosos con el medio ambiente y la mayoría de los pasos se realizan manualmente.
  • La extracción de cantidades moderadas de agua y su uso disciplinado no tienen un impacto negativo en el medio ambiente ni en los niveles de agua subterránea.
  • Mejora de las oportunidades para que las personas permanezcan en sus regiones de origen de forma permanente.

    Algunas de las principales tecnologías son:

Perforación en el centro WASH de Sierra Leona

La bomba manual EMAS es el componente clave de las tecnologías EMAS porque es capaz de bombear agua verticalmente hasta 50 m. Mientras que otras bombas manuales tienen una mayor resistencia al uso intensivo o incluso inapropiado (muchas veces cuando la bomba está siendo utilizada por toda una comunidad), la bomba EMAS está diseñada principalmente para el uso doméstico. Las bombas EMAS tienen una larga vida útil, ya que las reparaciones que puedan ser necesarias suelen ser fáciles de realizar por el usuario.

Las instrucciones en vídeo pueden verse en nuestro canal de YouTube que cuenta con unos 15.000 seguidores y algunos vídeos tienen más de 700.000 visitas.  

A veces hay que hacer adaptaciones de las tecnologías en algunos países debido a la disponibilidad de material.

Amadou, técnico de Senegal marchando con su equipo de perforación a hacer un nuevo pozo

Por el momento, se han perforado aproximadamente 70.000 pozos EMAS en todo el mundo. La mayoría han sido financiados por las familias o los beneficiarios. Desde los años 80, más de 100 técnicos formados han creado una microempresa que ofrece servicios WASH a su comunidad. Las tecnologías de EMAS se han implantado en más de 25 países a través de cooperaciones con diversas organizaciones locales e internacionales (por ejemplo, OPS). Como resultado de la cooperación con Welthungerhilfe se han perforado más de 3.000 pozos EMAS en Sierra Leona.

EMAS pretende asociarse con organizaciones que incluyan WASH en sus programas y que también deseen implementar las tecnologías mencionadas a través de proyectos de formación en WASH. Los proyectos deben incluir un seguimiento y apoyo a los técnicos WASH formados durante su camino para convertirse en PYMES. Muchos casos demuestran que los trabajadores de las PYMES crean su propia empresa y sirven a otras regiones que tienen una gran demanda de servicios WASH.

A corto plazo, se lanzará una página de aprendizaje de EMAS para compartir todas las experiencias en varios países y también facilitar todo el material disponible. Esta página también se dirigirá a los usuarios con conocimientos técnicos que deseen aprender más sobre las tecnologías.

Curso de creación de bombas EMAS en Sierra Leona

Perforación en Mali

Sistemas EMAS incluyendo captación de agua pluvial con cisterna enterrada, bomba manual, ducha, lavamanos y baño

Sobre el autor: Jaime Aguirre es originalmente un ingeniero mecánico que trabajo muchos años como ingeniero de diseño en el sector de la energía eólica. Después de algunas experiencias decepcionantes con la implementación de tecnologías WaSH de alta tecnología, se unió en 2014 voluntariamente a una formación EMAS en Bolivia. Desde entonces, se ha dedicado permanentemente a impartir formación junto con la ONG EMAS-International e.V. con sede en Alemania. En 2015 puso en marcha la ONG española TADEH en Bilbao, España, que ofrece formación en tecnologías de autoabastecimiento EMAS en todo el mundo.

¿Le ha gustado este blog? ¿Le gustaría compartir su perspectiva sobre el sector del agua rural o su historia como profesional del agua rural? Invitamos a todos los miembros de la RWSN a contribuir a esta serie de blogs del 30º aniversario. Los mejores blogs serán seleccionados para su publicación y traducción. Por favor, consulte las directrices del blog aquí y póngase en contacto con nosotros (ruralwater[at] para obtener más información.Si aprecia el trabajo de la RWSN y desea apoyarnos económicamente, puede hacerlo aquí.

The EMAS WaSH technologies –­ experiences, achievements and future goals

This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network- we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.

RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series on, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.

This is a guest blog by RWSN Member Jaime Aguirre, based in Bilbao, Spain.

EMAS is the Spanish acronym for “Escuela móvil del agua y saneamiento” meaning Mobile School of Water and Sanitation; the acronym was coined in the 1980´s in Bolivia by Wolfgang Buchner, supported by a group of volunteers.

The main mission of EMAS is to teach families how to obtain clean water by themselves. “Hand-on learning” is the most optimal way to learn these techniques.

The EMAS WaSH scheme include various Do-It-Yourself technologies like the EMAS manual pump, manual well drilling up to 90 metres, water storage tanks, and VIP toilets among others. All technologies have been in constant development since the 1990’s. They have been implemented in more than 25 countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa. The RWSN library hosts documentation and assessments of the use of EMAS technologies in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Panama and Bolivia amongst others.

The goal of EMAS technologies is to provide access to clean water and sanitation through training of local technicians and beneficiaries. These trainings are compact courses where over several weeks all techniques are demonstrated and practiced. In a long term, all facilities can be maintained by the user due to the technology’s simplicity. The result:

  • Improved access to clean drinking water for the world’s rural populations combined with simple sanitary facilities, thus preventing the spread of infectious diseases and reducing mortality rates.
  • Increased quality of life, e.g. by eliminating laborious water-hauling, thus saving women and children time and enabling small farming operations.
  • The trained well builders are self-sufficient and independent, and can, if necessary, receive repeated advising and training.
  • Sustainability: The wells and water facilities are very affordable. Experience has shown that the owners maintain the facilities quite well, which results in long service lives. Any repairs that may be needed are usually easy to complete.
  • All materials needed for these repairs can be obtained locally.
  • The materials and methods are environmentally responsible and most of the steps are performed manually.
  • The withdrawal of moderate amounts of water and its disciplined use have no negative impact on the environment or groundwater levels.
  • Improved opportunities for people to stay in their home regions permanently.

Some of the main technologies include:

The EMAS hand pump is the key component of the EMAS-technologies because it is capable of pumping water vertically up to 50 m. While other hand pumps have higher resistance to intensive or even inappropriate use (many times when the pump is being used by a whole community), the EMAS pump is designed mainly for household use. EMAS pumps have a long service life since any repairs that may be needed are usually easy to complete by the user.

Video-instructions can be viewed on a YouTube channel which counts about 15.000 followers with some videos having over 700.000 views.

Sometimes adaptions of the technologies have to be made or are even necessary in some countries due to material availability.

As of now, approximately 70.000 EMAS wells have been drilled worldwide.  The majority have been financed by the families or beneficiaries. Since the 1980’s, worldwide more than 100 trained technicians have created a micro enterprise offering WASH services to their community. EMAS technologies have been implemented in over 25 countries through cooperations with various local and international organizations (e.g.  PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) ). As a result of the cooperation with Welthungerhilfe more than 3.000 EMAS wells have been drilled in Sierra Leone.  

EMAS aims to partner with organizations which include WASH in their programmes and also wish to implement the mentioned technologies trough training projects in WASH. Projects should include follow-up and support to trained WASH technicians to help them in becoming SMEs. Many cases show that workers of SMEs create their own company and serve other regions which have high demand for WASH services.

An EMAS learning page will be launched shortly in order to share all experiences in various countries and also facilitate all available material. This webpage will also target users with technical skills who wish to learn more about the technologies.

Drilling a well in  Sierra Leona WASH Center

Amadou, EMAS technician from Senegal going with his drilling equipment to make a new well

Training of EMAS pump making at Sierra Leone

Drilling training  at Mali

EMAS systems including rainharvesting, underground tank, bomba manual, toilet, shower and sink

About the Author: Jaime Aguirre is originally a mechanical engineer who acted many years as design engineer  in the wind energy sector. After some disappointing experiences with the implementation of high-tech WaSH technologies he joined in 2014 voluntarily an EMAS training in Bolivia. Since then, he has permanently been engaged in providing training together with German based NGO EMAS-International e.V. In 2015 he initiated the Spanish NGO TADEH in Bilbao, Spain which provides training in EMAS Self Supply technologies worldwide.

Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector  or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at] for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.

Two decades of Self-Supply in RWSN  – how far have we got?

This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network- we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.

RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series on, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.

This is a guest blog by RWSN Member Sally Sutton, based in the United Kingdom.

2003 saw the emergence of the more colourful RWSN butterfly from the HTN chrysalis – and my first venture with dirty hands from practical water supply development into the heady heights of international conferences.  The move from whether to use foam or mud, ABS, stainless or mild steel casing, resistivity or water diviners, had for me begun two decades earlier to embrace issues of health, social cohesion, equity and marketing (and even childcare (see photo below)). These aspects combined the technical and social issues in rural water supply, which equally reflected my interests and training.

Sally and her daughter Sarah supervising drilling in Western Province, Zambia.  Never too young to learn? (Photo credit: Sally Sutton)

2003 was also the year of the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, a meeting of 24,000 participants. Mingling among them were Piers Cross, Rupert Taylor, Erich Baumann, and Peter Wurzel. All key players in the HTN network committed to turning it into a broader organization, covering more aspects of rural supply.  By chance, as a result of leading a four year DFID-funded research project, I had won a ‘Water Action Prize’ bursary to present a poster session on ‘Community-led improvements to rural water supply’ in Kyoto. I was a very small fish in a big and truly awesome pond. Piers et al were looking for someone to build up a new theme on small water supplies and seeing my poster session, they seemed to think that greater household/community involvement was one way to go. They, as HTN, gave me four months to set up the theme and organize a full set of papers and presenters as part of the Durban conference at which RWSN was born. This was quite a frightening task since the theme didn’t exist and I didn’t know many people in the sector, or the organisation and until Kyoto hadn’t been involved in international conferences at all.  Truly a baptism by fire.

The name of the theme has been heatedly debated many times from that day on. ‘Small group water supplies’, ‘household and small community supplies’, and ‘household solutions’, amongst many other alternatives were discussed at meetings, in Durban, St Gallen, and Vienna.  With the help of Joe Narkevic as the link to the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) at the time, ‘Self-supply’ emerged as a pithy title, which accentuated the key element of owner investment which the other options lacked. It has many drawbacks but is also gaining ground as a label for similar approaches in other fields, such as electricity. Here the parallels in off-grid solutions justify the adoption of the same name. So RWSN has stuck with ‘Self-supply’ and it has slowly gained ground as a concept.

Ground-gaining is not the same as acceptance, or adoption into everyday practice.  It is a start in what seems to be a long-term development process- reminiscent of turning around the Queen Elizabeth 2, (a most cumbersome ocean liner).  And here RWSN plays a vital role. It provides continuity, linkages, platforms for dialogue and discussion and a credibility on which progress can be built in the introduction of new approaches and technologies.  For instance, in the first eight years, pilot studies were established through RWSN’s links to WSP, which funded both coordination and pilot projects to explore what self-supply could mean on the ground. The same is true for groundwater development and links to UNICEF with Kerstin Danert at the helm. With four sub-Saharan countries exploring self-supply through WSP and UNICEF / WaterAid (see photo below) and two more through other channels (WeltHungerHilfe and SHIPO/SMART centres), some of the potential and lessons learnt on the ground became clearer and strengthened RWSN’s ability to lead the field. These and many other self-supply experiences in developed and developing countries are examined in our recently published book. (see below in notes about the author for more information).

Piloting brings cooperation between both government and non-government organisations in action research (Photo credit: Sally Sutton)

With Andre Olschewski and subsequently with Matthias Saladin as theme leaders, a strong network of interested members has been fortified through forums, Dgroups and through e-discussions, notifications of articles, conferences, and much, much more. It highlights the importance of networking, and particularly the roles of committed individuals, national champions and the international dimension that RWSN brings. Yet rural water supply remains the ugly duckling, with limited donor interest and their continued devotion to business as usual, and with little or no inquisitiveness into who the remaining unserved really are and what they want, rather than what they ‘need’ (see photo below). The ‘Need’ with an outsider’s perception leads only to solutions outsiders identify and with which they are familiar, impacting on long-term sustainability and   necessitating donor dependence.

Self-supply encourages pride in ownership and choice in what colour boot polish or paint to use to show it! (Photo credit: Peter Morgan)

RWSN with its themes of self-supply, sustainable groundwater and leaving no-one behind embraces aspects which are particularly relevant to the remaining un-served, reflecting the voices of the more marginalized, the more expensive to supply with standard solutions, and looks more at how to reach them equitably and sustainably. Its history shows it has the potential to channel donor interest into more relevant hybrid strategies,  mixing levels of service and technology options to fit different socio-hydrological conditions,  a potential which is increasingly, but not yet adequately fulfilled.    The strength of voice is being magnified through the linking by RWSN of many NGOs who are of the same view but individually are unheard. RWSN is a unique and invaluable asset, hopefully with the power to shout even louder in the future and with even greater effect. A luta continua!

About the author: Sally Sutton was originally a geographer, who explored both physical and social aspects of the subject and is happy to have found a field which employs both equally. After 8 years of  – doctoral research in hydrogeochemistry and then in Omani traditional groundwater systems in the 1970’s, she acted as principal hydrogeologist for a major consulting engineering company, mainly in the Middle East.  After ten years she moved to work in Africa building up Zambian government services in drilling but also focusing more on aspects of sustainability of systems and different service levels for different socio-economic and hydrological situations. From 1997 onwards her principal focus has been on household investment in individual and group supplies, all over Africa, culminating in the swan song book written with John Butterworth ‘Self-Supply, filling the gaps in public water supply provision’. This explores self-supply in developed and developing countries.

Photo credits: Sally Sutton; Peter Morgan; Rik Haanen.

Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector  or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at] for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.


Rural water supply access in Tanzania: why has it stagnated?

re-posted from:

Despite massive investments in rural water supply in Tanzania, the number of people with access to improved water sources has not increased. This begs the question, what could be the reason for this stagnation?

This blog post is written by Lukas Kwezi and Catarina Fonseca 

Investments in rural water supply in Tanzania have increased significantly over the past decade. According to a 2015/16 water sector status report by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, about US$ 500 million has been spent on rural water supply since the start of the Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) in 2006, with about one-third of total spending coming from government.

This increased spend has largely been due to the drive to accelerate delivery of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and political commitment to meet the Tanzania Development Vision 2025 through various initiatives such as the Big Results Now (BRN).

For every new person served with an improved water source, there are two new persons without access

The Tanzanian population has tripled from 12.3 million in 1967 to 44.9 million in 2012. In 2015, due to reduced mortality rates and persistently high fertility rate, the total population had grown to almost 50 million, with about 70% of this population living in rural areas. Despite massive urbanisation, rural population growth was three times higher than urban population growth during this period.

However, access to drinking water coverage has only increased by one percentage point from 45% in 1990 to 46% in 2015 (see Figure 1). This clearly indicates that the investments made in the sub-sector have only managed to keep pace with population growth rather than expanding access to new population.

Figure 1: WHO/UNICEF JMP, URT (2015 Update)
Figure 1: WHO/UNICEF JMP, URT (2015 Update)

Population growth offers opportunities for investments and economic growth, but many agree that the increase in population is putting a huge strain on provision of basic services and resources, especially water. Recent data from the World Bank shows that the average volume of renewable freshwater per capita per year in Tanzania has declined by 80% since independence (from 7,862 m3 in 1962 to 1,621 m3 in 2014), putting the country in the water-stressed category. Water resource challenges are going to increase with growing agricultural intensification combined with climate change in the coming years. These facts highlight the importance of formulating water sector strategies that address the needs of the current and future population.

Where did the money go?

Construction of new schemes has been prioritised over building effective systems for operation and maintenance. For example, recent analysis shows that during the period 2012-2015, 75% of the expenditure in the rural water subsector went to the construction of new infrastructures, while only 14% went to recurrent expenditure – mainly salaries and allowances at local government level. While focus on new construction is not necessarily wastage of resources, the bias towards new construction compromised a focus on maintaining old and existing schemes. We all know that ‘Old is Gold’, but old gold must be smelted and polished to maintain its value.

On the other hand, over 80% of schemes constructed were motorised schemes with average per capita costs of US$ 24-90, deviating from the envisioned 48% hand pumps during programme design. Although the costs compare reasonably well regionally, the change in technology, meant that the programme was able to reach only half of the target population. Besides, motorised schemes come with their own risks: they are often costly and complex to operate and maintain.

Sustainability challenge: it’s not the pipes, it’s the institutions and its people

Studies in Sub-Saharan Africa show that for local authorities to provide sustainable water services, they should spend between US$ 1-3 per person per year on direct support costs and US$1.5-7 per person per year on major maintenance. However, evidence shows that in Tanzania, local authorities spend only 6-10% of what they should spend to ensure sustainable services.

Local authorities often lack adequate funds for direct support. This means that they are unable to fulfil their administration, contract management, and operation and maintenance support functions, to ensure sustainability of water services, and prevent future problems. Also, when unexpected major maintenance occurs (e.g. renewal or replacement of a pump), local authorities and communities often do not have the resources.

Anecdotal evidence from different regions in the country shows that it may take between 3-6 months to negotiate and settle the costs of repairs. During this period, even if major repairs cost only US$ 100, people revert to using unimproved water sources. Studies estimate that about one-third of water points in Tanzania become non-functional after two years of operation, forcing people to return to using unprotected, unsafe sources, indicating low levels of sustainability of rural water services. The implication is that a significant number of people that may have already been provided with first time access fall back to using unimproved water sources.

Rough estimates show that 5.3 million people could be provided with improved water sources if the bulk of non-functional water points were made functional. If this trend is not reversed, reaching the bottom 40% is going to be even more difficult.

What needs to change?

The second phase of the Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) began in July 2016, with the aim to provide access to clean, safe water to 85% of the rural population by 2020/21. The government estimates that about US$ 862 million would be required to finance the plan. This is a very ambitious target but achievable if sector stakeholders can adopt new approaches and ways of working beyond the narrow focus on new construction.

First, we need to shift incentives and accountability (at all levels of government, politicians, donors, private sector, local authorities and communities) from delivering water points to delivery of sustainable services. The government has now embarked on results-based financing approaches to rural water supply. However, the implementation should be accompanied by a change in mind-set of planners, politicians, engineers, donors and communities. They need to realise that in order to deliver quality services and achieve the desired outcomes, it is not enough just to create an infrastructure (school, health facility, water point). Equally, we also need to strengthen and invest in the institutional system that manages and maintains the infrastructure.

Secondly, we need to get better at monitoring results. This encompasses cultivating a culture of accurate and timely reporting; measuring and verification of whether results reported have been achieved or not, and ensuring information generated is used to inform planning, budgeting and decision-making processes. New technologies can really create a ‘data revolution’ that will allow government and citizens to monitor and continuously improve service provision – if it’s part of the governance and formal accountability mechanisms.

Thirdly, we need to broaden the approach and adopt alternative service delivery models; for example by considering self-supply as a complementary water service delivery model in areas which are difficult to reach. This would mean adopting a broader financing framework to rural water supply that goes beyond capital investments for community-managed water supply systems.

Lastly, the current water policy, which assumes that communities are able to cover full costs related to operation and maintenance of water infrastructures, needs to be reviewed, along with clarifying financial responsibilities and accountability by different parties for capital investments, minor maintenance, major maintenance and direct support costs.

Disclaimer: Lukas Kwezi currently works for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) as Water and Sanitation Adviser, based in Dar es Salaam. He writes blog posts in his spare time. Though he may talk about the work he does in the sector, this is neither a corporate nor a political blog and the opinions and ideas expressed here are solely his own, not those of his employers. 

Self-supply highlights from 2016

This is a review of the 2016 highlights from a Self-supply point of view: Events, papers, presentations, policy breakthroughs, etc.

We are well into 2017 already, but it is still a good moment to look back to some highlights of 2016 from the point of view of Self-supply:

  • In the first half of 2016, the UNICEF-funded studies of Self-supply in Zambia and Zimbabwe were completed. The studies showcase these two experiences at scale, and they are the fundament for making an economic case for Self-Supply , demonstrating that using Self-supply as part of the strategies to reacp1430235h full coverage can be very cost-effective.
  • In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a 2nd national meeting on Self-supply was organized bringing together dozens of national stakeholders involved in the scaling up of Self-supply at country level through the national ONE WASH Programme.
  • The 2016 edition of the WEDC conference also saw its share of Self-supply: A paper presented by Annemarieke Maltha (on experiences of the SMART Centre approach in Tanzania) and one by Sally Sutton on the experiences in Zambia, among others.
  • The RWSN mini-series of webinars in the autumn 2016 included an event on Self-supply, focusing on the economic analysis of country strategies in Zambia and Zimbabwe (see recordings of the webinar here).
  • Self-supply also made a splash at the 7th RWSN Forum in Abidjan (29.11 – 03.12.2016), with 7 sessions related to Self-supply (see a list of Self-supply papers here). Apart from the frequent appearance of the Self-supply Theme in the sessions it also was notable to see how often the term came up in discussions and in plenary speeches, including within the panel of the closing ceremony.
  • At the same event, a bottom-up, spontaneous initiative of a small group of people helped to engage in conversations with many of the participants of the Forum and resulted in 150 signing a paper confirming their personal approval and support of the Self-supply approach.
  • As one possible way of implementing Self-Supply, the initiative of SMART Centre Group emerged and gained traction throughout the year. SMART Centres are business incubators which foster the local private sector in the WASH sector. Currently, there are SMART Centres in 5 countries formally recognized as such (see, but many other organizations are implementing similar concepts around the world, and it will be interesting to see how these different initiatives can support each other and create synergies – or even merge – in the future.

Overall, it has been a fantastic year for Self-supply. Especially if we consider that the term “Self-supply” did not even exist before 2004 (when it was created by RWSN), it is remarkable that after a relatively slow process of foundation building we are now witnessing the moment when Self-supply is getting into mainstream – and hopefully we will see a wider use and further development of the concept in the near future. On behalf of RWSN, and particularly Skat as the lead agency for the Self-supply theme, we are encouraged by the results achieved so far and look forward to the next phase of development – and to another year of progress, exchange and learning with our RWSN partners.

If you are interested in Self-supply, you may want to subscribe to the Self-supply Dgroup (, or check out the respective part of the RWSN website:


Matthias Saladin is the Theme leader of Accerating Self-supply at the Rural Water Supply Network. You can leave comments or questions here or write to him:


Can Self-Supply Save the World?

Some highlights from the RWSN Forum and thoughts on 12 years of a learning journey, by Matthias Saladin, Skat

Of course the title is a rhetorical question – no one really expects one specific approach to transform the whole water sector, let alone save the world. Nevertheless, Self-supply as a concept is gaining traction and prominence in the sector as I witnessed during the 7th RWSN Forum, which took place from November 29 to December 02 in Abidjan. Just a couple of years ago, the term “Self-supply” did not even exist. In fact, it was coined within RWSN as part of a strategic planning exercise in 2004, where Self-supply was defined as one of the flagships of RWSN. Of course, people providing water for themselves (“Self-supply”) is a process which has been going on for millennia and all over the planet (for example, some 44 million people in the US today rely on Self-supply for their drinking water), but Self-supply as a term was born in 2004, and the idea that this approach can (and should) be fostered by specific activities and frameworks both by government and other actors still is relatively new to many people, even within the water sector.

In this blog entry, I would like to reflect on some aspects of this learning journey of the past 12 years, and I invite you to reply, discuss, disagree, criticize or support, whatever suits you best.

Flashlights on Self-supply at the 7th RWSN Forum

But first things first: The 7th RWSN Forum was a massive success, both in terms of participation and outreach, but also specifically for the Theme of Self-supply: I identified at least 7 sessions where papers related to Self-supply were presented, some of which I was not even aware of before the Forum. For example, Sara Marks of Eawag (Switzerland) presented some results of a study from Burkina Faso (feel free to read the respective paper and presentation) where they looked into the various benefits of a project implementing a (subsidized) Self-supply approach to facilitate multiple-use water services (MUS). Among other things, they found that the water of households who had invested in an upgraded private well and equipped it with a Rope Pump was of better quality than that of unimproved wells.

Meanwhile, session 6A was designed to provide an update on the “state of the art” in Self-supply, including an overview paper of André Olschewski, a case study from Sally Sutton on Self-supply in some African countries, an overview of how Self-supply can be accelerated in Ethiopia, and an example of how capacities in the private sector can be strengthened through SMART Centres (or watch the movie on the SMART Centre in Zambia here).

In several other sessions, specific aspects of Self-supply were analyzed in more detail, for example by Patrick Alubbe of, who made a case for micro-credit as a scalable intervention who can help more people gaining access to higher level of drinking water services (see the paper of Gupta and Labh and Patrick’s presentation).

Making a Splash – and causing allergic reactions

Apart from this wide and deep presence of Self-supply in the thematic sessions, the concept also made a splash at key moments of the RWSN Forum: For example, it was prominently mentioned by the final remarks of Mr. Jonathan Kamkwalala, a senior manager of the World Bank, during the closing ceremony. Moreover, more than 150 people signed an informal “Call to action”, which suggests that Self-supply deserves more attention on behalf of governments, donors, civil society organizations, researchers, and other key players. The undersigned expressed a “strong interest in developing support for Self-supply within our own spheres of activity and urge all development partners to explore this approach and reach its considerable potential”. Given this strong support by a large number of people, I hope that we will see a lot of action in this field in the weeks and months to come – for example by starting to monitor and report on Self-supply within organizations, regions,  and eventually countries and globally. As we know, we do not manage what we do not measure, so measuring definitively would be a good start.

In spite of these highlights and an overall strong presence of Self-supply during the Forum, not everything is rosy in regard to Self-supply. On one hand, I observed that while many people recognize the important role Self-supply already plays and will have to play to reach the SDGs, with another group of people it creates almost allergic reactions. Having listened to some of these people, I think I identified three areas of conflict, which are related to three misconceptions around Self-supply:

1.       Self-supply means abandoning the poor.

2.       Self-supply means that government has no role to play.

3.       Self-supply is incompatible with the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.

For the moment, I will only respond to the third misconception.  It can readily be clarified, simply by listening of the presentation of the UN Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation during a webinar hosted by RWSN last year (e.g., read this summary), where he makes it clear that Self-supply is in line with the progressive realization of these Human Rights. And this hint also helps clarifying the first misconception: Self-supply does not imply abandoning the poor, but supporting them in a different way – rather than the government itself providing services, it facilitates and strengthens the private sector (and civil society organizations) to provide them. Thus, rather than abandoning the poor, what Supported Self-supply does is actually empower them and enable them to take on a more active role in moving up the ladder of water services.

Importantly, the Government has to play a role in Supported Self-supply – in fact, it is a crucial role consisting of several functions (adequate policy framework, building up capacities, oversight of the private sector, etc.), but this will be the topic of my next blog. So for the moment, I leave it there, confirming that the Government is a key actor in Supported Self-supply.

Striking a balance

Overall, the concept of Self-supply clearly has an important role to play if we want to provide some (even if it’s just basic) level of services to everyone – there simply is no alternative in reaching specific target groups, especially in the remote rural areas. However, we also have to be aware that Self-supply has its limitations, and that there are aspects related to Self-supply which have to be addressed with a lot of care (e.g., quality of the services installed, potential over-exploitation of water resources by private households). I also perceived that several people and organizations are looking for shiny examples of countries where Supported Self-supply was implemented at scale, which then could be replicated elsewhere (the “Blueprint Fallacy” which unfortunately is quite common in the water sector, particularly among global players).

However, at the moment there are only a few such examples (e.g. manual drilling in Nigeria/Lagos, Domestic Rainwater Harvesting in Thailand, the Upgraded Family Wells in Zimbabwe), and many of these cases refer to contexts where government services were weak or collapsing – which do not make for a good example for promotion, particularly with government agencies. With all due respect, but which government agency would like to copy the experience of Zimbabwe in the 1990s? Thus, the examples are not as shiny as we wish.

Nevertheless, the fact is that Self-supply actually took off in some places while government services, institutions and the whole economy was collapsing – a clear hint to the power of this approach, even under difficult conditions. But we also need to figure out how governments can foster the approach – that is, how to better Support Self-supply.

The way forward

In spite of all the progress made I think there still is a lot of work to be done both within RWSN and beyond. Here are just a few areas of work a group of “Self-Suppliers” identified during an informal conversation at the Forum:

  • Revisit the basic terms, definitions and concepts and make them more intuitive to understand.
  • Help people, particularly within government and funding agencies, understand better the key role government has to play to support Self-supply
  • In cooperation with research institutions, improve our understanding of the potential and limits of Self-supply, and the variety of benefits it can generate (not only in health, but also in productivity, income-generation, equality and non-discrimination, inclusiveness, well-being, cost-savings to government agencies, etc.).
  • Keep up the dialogue with people and organizations who think that Self-supply is a nightmare and should be hindered wherever possible. Their arguments will help us guide future research and for making a better case where and why Self-supply has a role to play.
  • Engage with actors (particularly non-profit organizations) who undermine existing and flourishing markets by giving away stuff for free. Giving away products and services for free is not Self-supply, does not build up capacity with anyone and damages existing supply chains.

Thus, looking back to the first 12 years of promoting Self-supply, I think we have come a long way. Given that before 2004 the term did not even exist, the change is truly remarkable – and RWSN was the lead agency of making this sea change in public awareness possible. At the same time, we still need to work on the fundaments, the walls and the windows of the Self-supply house, and we need to make them strong enough to keep growing in the coming 12 years and beyond. I hope that many of you will be part of this journey, and I invite you – as a small first step – to subscribe to the Dgroup on Accelerating Self-supply, which is a platform for discussion, exchange and mutual learning, and to contribute to the dialogue on that platform. I look forward to hearing from many of you there!

Onwards and Upwards,


Handing over Self-supply


André Olschewski will be leaving Skat and handing over his role as Theme Leader for Accelerating Self-supply (ACCESS) to Matthias Saladin. André reflects on the last five years:

Dear all,

There is widespread recognition that many people particularly rural dwellers improve their water supplies with their own investments. This was barely part of the discourse when RWSN launched the Self-supply theme and term in 2004 under the leadership of Dr. Sally Sutton, supported by WSP and UNICEF. As with any innovations, taking the concept of Self-supply from the periphery towards mainstream development has not been simple or an easy journey.

Continue reading “Handing over Self-supply”