Appropriate Technology Strategies
for Rural Water Development
After the Decade

Presented at the 16th Annual Third World Conference
April 5-7, 1990, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Presented at Water and Wastewater Conference
April 24-27, 1990. Barcelona, Spain

by Cliff Missen, MA
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa

Water procurement in lesser-developed countries has been brought to the forefront during the last ten years as the United Nations declared 1981 through 1990 as the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade. In the months that this paper was being prepared and presented, the UN's International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade drew to a close, falling far short of its goal of "clean water for all by 1990." According to United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and World Health Organization (WHO) officials, more than half of those living in the developing world continue to live without access to potable water.1

While the Decade has produced a measurable increase in urban access to potable water world wide, as well as a much heralded heightened institutional awareness of the role that water plays in the health and development of a country,2 success in the development of rural water systems has proved remarkably elusive.

In 1980, at the start of the Decade, 72% of those in urban areas of the Third World had access to potable water, while only 32% of those in the rural areas had such access.3 During the first five years of the Decade, these figures advanced to 77% and 36% respectively. Commendable growth when one considers the task of simply keeping up with steep population increases during a period of worldwide economic slow down, but there still exists a vast disparity between services provided to the rural and urban sectors.

How are these numbers significant? What social, economic, and political factors bring about this inequity? Why is it that rural water development seems so particularly difficult to accomplish?

This paper will examining the statistics to show that the majority of Third World inhabitants live in the rural areas and have yet to be served with clean water--despite the fact that the rural areas harbor the majority of water-related disease and suffering. The literature will be reviewed to try to account for the reasons for the historical and pervasive urban bias. Finally, it will be proposed that the use, and disregard, of certain technologies have served to amplify this rural/urban gulf. It will be argued that the Decade has failed in the rural areas of the least developed countries precisely because of the institutional inability on the part of government and international agencies to identify and promote small-scale appropriate technologies for water procurement.

Two notes on procedure: since this is a short paper and time is at a premium, the scope of the statistical research will be narrowed to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of Africa, which, it becomes clear after perusing the literature, provide a fairly well-rounded sample of the state of water development in other LDCs. Secondly, statistics having to do with the water decade are notoriously dubious. The numbers fluctuate wildly from one source to another; especially comparing country-reported and World Health Organization gathered statistics. For continuity's sake, WHO figures will be cited as much as possible. It should also be recognized that many think that water supply coverage statistics, no matter the source, are overly optimistic.4 Many critics point out that "access" to a water source may only mean that one lives within a kilometer of a standpipe or pump, with no measure as to the practical accessibility of such water sources.5



This paper's first task is rather straightforward--to demonstrate that the disparity between the urban and rural sectors is more than mysterious percentage notations. Here it was necessary to combine population statistics (numbers of people) with potable water coverage figures (percentages) to ascertain the actual amount of human beings who did not have access to clean water by 1985. (Table 1)


(x1000) % % % (X1000)
Benin 4200 35% 79% 35% 1788
Botswana 1157 20% 100% 33% 620
Burkina Faso 8100 8% 50% 26% 5514
Burundi 4800 2% 33% 22% 3669
Cape Verde 348 5% 99% 21% 261
Central African Rep. 2703 45% 24% 5% 1412
Chad 5100 27% 27% 30% 2606
Comoros 472 25% 99% 52% 170
Equatorial Guinea 410 59% 47% 47% 89
Ethiopia 43850 15% 93% 42% 21618
Gambia 789 20% 100% 33% 423
Guinea 6380 22% 62% 15% 4255
Guinea-Bissau 925 27% 19% 22% 527
Lesotho 1628 17% 37% 14% 1162
Malawi 7400 5% 66% 49% 3585
Mali 7600 20% 48% 17% 5046
Mauritania 1864 31% 80% 16% 1080
Niger 6600 15% 48% 34% 3703
Rwanda 6200 5% 55% 60% 2356
Sierra Leone 3849 25% 86% 20% 2309
Somalia 5500 34% 57% 20% 2904
Sudan 22600 21% 90% 20% 14283
Togo 3100 23% 68% 26% 1766
Uganda 15200 7% 45% 12% 12440
United Rep. of Tanzania 23000 14% 80% 38% 12264
TOTALS (x1000) 183775 30425 21738 47498 105852
PERCENTAGES 100% 17% 71% 31% 58%
of total

Second UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries. Geneva, May 1989
World Development Report The World Bank. Oxford University Press. New York, 1988
World Health Statistics Annual 1986 World Health Organization. Geneva, 1986


Roughly speaking, two-thirds of the total population of the African LDCs do not have access to a potable water supply. (Graph 1)


graph11.gif (3828 bytes)


Much more striking is that 83% of the population of the selected African LDCs, or 153 million persons, reside in the rural areas and roughly a third of these, 47 million have access to a clean water source while 105 million go without. On the other hand, 17% of the populace, or 30 million persons, are urban dwellers and over two-thirds of them are served with potable water while 29%, or 8.6 million, are not. (Graph 2)


graph21.gif (5032 bytes)


So, percentage-wise rural water supply is seriously lagging behind the urban sector. (31% vs. 71%) Yet, numerically, twice as many persons in the rural sector have access to potable water. (47 million vs. 21 million.) However, there remains thirteen times more rural than urban residents who continue to exist without clean water. (105 million vs. 8 million.)

(Worldwide, 1.2 billion are without access to an adequate water supply and the urban/rural numerical disparity is reversed: of those served with water, 55% are urban and 45% rural.6)

Finally, one must consider the fact that, in the first five years of the Decade, an estimated 88% of the funds earmarked for decade activities were spent in the cities.7

Why the emphasis on the cities when the mass of the need is in the rural areas? Or perhaps more pertinent: why not develop the rural areas?

Politically, the urban folks have clout. With the seat of power and the political/economic elites typically in the urban areas, it is natural that what monies are available are spent in the urban areas. But, beside their own comfort, urban planners and decision makers have other formidable pressures to improve urban water services.

The effects of urban overcrowding and the threat of outbreaks of disease make water development an imperative in the cities of the Third World.8   As WHO points out:

In urban areas, good water supply is essential to the existence of a city and to protect public health. There is usually no alternative to a public water system. In rural areas, the justification becomes much more tenuous: The threat of epidemic due to waterborne diseases lessens as population density decreases...9

The urban population, as well as the urban industrial base, is more likely to collectively pay for a waterworks (or at least offset the cost), whereas small, spatially separated villages are less able.

A country can realize significant economies of scale serving more persons from the same water source. With some systems, per capita spending in the urban sector is almost half the cost in the rural areas.10

Urban water developments have been shown to improve overall economic development. The long-term effects of a healthier urban population, coupled with the propensity for such public services to attract and encourage industries, has greater effect on a country's productivity.11

Urban migration considerations may or may not influence water resources development planning since there are two possible outcomes that depend entirely on other factors. Development of rural water systems, especially in the designated growth poles, may actually encourage rural resident to stay put, alleviating pressures on the primary city. However, there is always the possibility that improving the health of those in an agricultural settings could increase the supply of healthy labor beyond the land's carrying capacity, forcing the over-farming of marginal lands and causing more rural to urban migration.12

Planning water systems for the urban areas may be socially and politically easier. First, there is not as much need for user input. Instead of having to work with every consortium of villagers to decide who, when, where, and how a system is to be built, city planning is much more central. Urban dwellers are most often in a take-it-or-leave-it situation and their only input to the process is the payment of their water bill.

Most importantly, water development in the urban areas is technically easier since the water systems can be centrally constructed and operated--mirroring the technology already used by the more developed countries and allowing the use of imported state-of-the-art equipment and off-the-shelf technologies.

Because of this, most urban water development schemes can seem more attractive to bilateral aid agencies who look to contribute their country's products and experts. (This "tied aid" has been cited as a major impediment to progress by several countries and institutions during the first half of the Decade.)13

The resulting complex water supply structures involves one or more high-volume water sources and highly trained technicians able to centrally treat and provide water to a large number of urban dwellers served through static piping systems of simple standpipes or in home plumbing which, once installed, are relatively maintenance free.

The urban areas are better able than their rural counterparts to attract and support the expertise to control the water distribution systems and maintain quality controls. Where a small cadre of technicians is all that is required to maintain urban water supplies, each village in the rural areas, for social, political, and geographical reasons, may need to have a trained technician available to repair the well or treat the water.

Rural areas simply pose more challenging problems to the modern water development planner. The settlements in the rural sector are generally sparsely populated and widely distributed. Water sources in rural areas are typically small-scale, serving a few hundred people and their livestock (needing only to meet immediate consumption needs). This means that numerous water sources need to be developed to provide for fewer individuals and, if we follow the current trend of using modern machinery and methods, this means that more costly and complex equipment is required to build wells in areas where the prerequisite finances, training and skills are most lacking.

Of course, on the other hand, there are ample reasons to develop the water resources in the rural areas. The improvement of the human condition being the primary, (WHO estimates that 80% of death and disease in Africa can be linked to water-related diseases) but, at least on paper, and especially on the ledger sheet, rural water development looks like a losing proposition.

There is a major caveat here. Most of the factors that make rural water development so expensive are directly related to the technology used to develop a water source. How does a crew of four highly trained technicians with a $500,000 drilling rig, using expensive drilling muds, welding equipment, and precious fuels, make an honest buck in a village where the average income of the 150 or so agriculturalist peasants is about $100 a year?

Given the high cost of the equipment and technicians, and considering the machinery depreciates rapidly while the salaries add up, the well making process is rushed as much as possible, meaning that less time is available for village involvement. Yet village involvement in the planning and construction process is precisely what has been identified as the key to insuring long-term use and maintenance in rural areas.14 As well, many countries have complained that the use of foreign equipment accompanied by foreign technicians reduces the pool of trained and experienced national engineers, exacerbating the long-term manpower shortage problems that virtually every Third World country is experiencing.15

Sadly, scores of countries, whose rural populations employ the simplest traditional practices in their agriculture and dwellings, have adopted an official policy of using modern imported drilling machinery to make wells in the rural villages (usually under the aegis of foreign experts and international monetary assistance).

Many in the field assert that rural water development need not be so costly. They stress that the quality of rural service does not necessarily need to match that in the urban sector: the protection of current water sources, the treatment of a readily available water, small-scale water catchment devices, the provision of a few wells with handpumps, the development of a local springs or a small earthen dam could suffice to produce marked changes in the quality of a given community's water supply.

Rural dwellers typically do not use as much water as their urban counterparts, especially if they have to collect their water from a common source16, and are more likely to contribute free labor to the water source's construction. Taken together, the preceding elements have the result of driving down the construction costs to the point where the urban sector's economy of scale is overcome.17

So if less expensive simple technology is the key to providing wholesale, inexpensive, community-controlled, development-inducing, health-improving, locally repairable water systems, what's the catch?

Ironically, the years in which the Decade has taken place were also those years wherein the advocates for smaller, simpler, more technologically appropriate development have found their voice. Many have particularly addressed the need for small-scale water development strategies, yet there are few examples of widely adopted successful projects or technologies.18

Those commonly cited appropriate technology success stories usually involve recipient participation in the construction of water delivery systems (pipelines), which are accessory to an already developed water source, or rainwater catchment structures and dams, which are only applicable in a handful of areas and bring an entire new set of water quality complications.

Another oft-cited example of an appropriate technology spawned by the Decade is the Village Level Operation and Maintenance (VLOM) handpump. The VLOM handpumps (there are many designs) are built to be sturdy enough to take continual use by hundreds of users while delivering an adequate flow of water. They are designed to be easily and locally repairable, with as few spare parts as possible. While the $500 to $1000 VLOM handpump is a striking success, the pump is simply an accessory to the water source.

The fact remains that, when applying the modern technology model, the most expensive part of a rural community well (the most commonly constructed water source), is the hole in the ground--not the accessories and attachments. The expense of developing a water source from the underground aquifer, the equipment and personnel costs as well as the planning, shipping, transport and administrative costs, far outweigh the cumulative outlay for well linings, concrete, and pumps.19

Despite all the rhetoric surrounding the Decade, there are still few examples of new appropriate technologies that can be used to create new water sources. Some manufacturers in the developed world have devised newer, smaller drilling rigs for Third World use, but these are usually miniature replicas of their larger, highly complex cousins that still can cost $50,000 and upwards. The net effect in many countries is a scenario whereby the government and/or assistance agency applies the latest "all-singing, all-dancing" (as one field technician put it) truck mounted technology to the task of making a well, and then defers to the issues of appropriate technologies when considering the well pumps and maintenance.

A survey of African LDCs, reveals that most countries report their well making resources to be large, modern, western produced equipment--in various states of disrepair. (Table 2.)


An Assessment of Water Well Making Inventory
of Selected African LCDs

Benin 7 young engineers 2 Bucyus-Erie Cable Tool
Recently fixed Atlas Copco Mobile
Ingersoll Rand TH55
Burkina Faso 5 engineers
8 senior techs
13 various machines
Dando, Failing, Shafer, Stenuick, etc.
Diversity in machinery making maintenance difficult.
Cent. African Rep   Mobil Drill B53
2 Atlas Copco B80
Ancient" cable tool rig
Chad   Under reorganization but "clearly insufficient"
Gambia UN expert
UN volunteer
Guinea 16 senior staff
11 assistant engineers
311 "others"
Halco Mast 625D (rotory/DHH)
Miscellaneous well digging tools
Mali 75 engineers, geologists,
technicians, drillers, etc
Foraco SM-70
AC Aquadrill 441 & 661
2 Failing 1500
4 Foraco SIS-66
Stenuik HST-35
TOP 200 & 300
Polydrill 500
Mauritania 9 well construction teams # Ingersoll TH 100
well digging equipment
Sierra Leone   One rig. Scrapped because no spare parts
No other equipment
Togo   1 Rotory DHH
1 Cable Tool
Old, slow and difficult to repair

Ground Water in North and West Africa UN Department of Technical Co-operation for Development and Economic Commission for Africa. Natural Resources/Water Series No.18 New York. 1988

Various country development plans.


Clearly more in-depth research could be done, but this quick assessment of African LDC's well making inventories plainly shows a bias towards imported large-scale mechanical drilling rigs. Of the ten countries reviewed, six reported major problems keeping their machinery in working condition. Most declared that water resource development consumed inordinate amounts of the country's foreign exchange for the importation of tools and spare parts. Many have seen their equipment idled for years between infusions of funds and spare parts from international donors. And yet others have found it difficult to retain trained national professionals when the machinery they are supposed to operate is in constant disrepair.20

Only two of the ten countries surveyed claimed well digging tools as resources, although practically all the countries have local contractors and PVOs who use this technique. One of the countries had plans to expand or supplement their small-scale well production while none planned to research and develop more appropriate water well making technologies.

Worldwide, only a handful of developing countries (China, India, Pakistan most notably) include traditional and simple well making technologies as a part of their national development plan.

Today simple well making technologies exist, some dating back over 3000 years21, which are economically and technically suitable for most rural areas' geology. They share the common traits of being inexpensive, labor intensive, made from local materials, and moderately efficient. They do not require the spending of foreign currency and have the added benefit of employing local labor.

By and large, there are only a few ways to make holes in the ground outside of the modern drilling machines. But these methods have proved moderately effective for thousands of years without the benefit of modern technology and could possibly be rendered more effective with additional research and the application of the latest alloys, cheap plastics, and commonly available materials.

Of course, the techniques to be used depend entirely on the geologic and geographic conditions of any given area, but there are simple technologies that cover most circumstances.

In alluvial fills and sandy soils, there is the sludger method that has been widely used in Pakistan and India. This involves a pipe that is lifted and dropped in a hole filled with water. The pipe chops the earth at the bottom of the hole and sucks the cuttings out through the top.

Augers can be used in a number of sedimentary soils for shallow wells. These are large corkscrew-like devices that can be built and maintained by local blacksmiths or craftspersons.22

In stable soils with shallow aquifers, the time-honored tradition of well digging remains a viable option. Its detractors often cite the dug well's inability to penetrate deep into the aquifer and the difficulty in protecting the subsequent water supply. But application of newer, yet simpler technologies to extend the well, as well as the application of smaller well linings, backfilling, and handpumps can lend new life to this aged technique.

Simple hand powered percussion drills have been around for thousands of years. Developed by the Chinese in 1100bc. and used to drill the first deep wells in Europe and America, they are the precursors to today's larger drilling rigs. Time consuming and labor oriented (a 1923 brine well took four years to penetrate over 4,000 feet using pliable bamboo strips23), percussion drills come in various sizes and shapes and can be adapted to most conditions.

Contrary to popular belief, not every water source needs a handpump (although if the village can afford the $500+ initial cost and yearly upkeep, the chances of the water supply becoming contaminated are significantly lessened). Neither is it true that boreholes require handpumps. Large diameter well casings of steel, concrete, or plastic leave plenty of room for narrow buckets. Open wells can be protected by enclosed extraction designs and supplied with dedicated ropes and buckets to prevent surface contaminants from being introduced to the well.

These are just some of the known and practical water well making schemes available. Some techniques are waiting to be rediscovered while others may have yet to be invented. However, until concentrated and funded efforts are made to identify the possible water well development technologies that incorporate indigenous third world skills and materials, dependence on foreign technology and expertise will be the rule. There is little indication that such technologies are currently being developed, but there are a few examples where countries have used the older technologies with success.24

Let's fantasize for just a moment and consider what the water development scene could look like when a country has a variety of well making technologies available to it. Larger modern machines could be used to drill wells in urban and medium sized towns where the size of the population and the local economy made such expenditures feasible, while smaller pickup-truck mounted rigs -- developed and standardized by the government and operated by private contractors -- served the larger and accessible villages who could afford a moderately priced system. The government could offer training and the loan of equipment (some of the hand powered designs cost as little as $600 per outfit and can be used repeatedly) to villages or petty contractors who could then, on their own schedule and with their own funds, produce locally appropriate water sources.

It could certainly be that, within such a scheme, government extension workers could work through local communication channels to create interest in developing new water sources. Since there would be no time constraints imposed by idled machinery, the depth of the local understanding and commitment could be improved. The all-important issues of site-selection, social impacts, future maintenance, and local contribution to the building of the water source could be raised and concluded on a schedule more amenable to the villagers.

The government could then be in the role to assist in providing the technical, geologic, and instructive inputs while expecting that each village be responsible to design and develop their own water source, with penalties assessed for non-compliance. (A true carrot-and-stick approach.)

Appropriate technologies for water procurement have their drawbacks: some older well designs, especially involving horizontal underground tunnels, are inherently unsafe to construct; some types of water sources, like open hand-dug wells and surface storage, are difficult to protect from contamination; and, in many cases, the appropriate technologies promoted here are simply not "sexy" enough -- the recipients prefer the modern mechanical methods.

Rural resistance to "second hand technology" is not uncommon. In some areas, rural residents have proved to not be appreciative of technologies (windmills, handpumps, etc.) that do not represent the cutting edge.25 While conducting a water project in Liberia, this author found people willing to wait a mythical "few years" (which could easily stretch into a lifetime) for the promise of an international donor's fully-funded truck-drilled well rather than invest a small amount of time and money into an immediate hand drilled/dug well.

Finally, since appropriate rural water systems call for smaller-scale technologies which are no longer used in the so-called developed world, donors, especially those required to spend their development dollars at home, may be pressured into promoting those projects which best suit their modern technology. This would understandably leave them less than enthusiastic about participating in the research and development of locally produced techniques.



In summary, this paper has demonstrated that there continues to be a potent urban bias in regards to the spending of water supply development funds. The myriad of incentives and pressures which influence the decisions of national planners have been surveyed and it appears that some of the most powerful arguments in favor of urban water development are economic: the returns are greater and the costs can be shared.

However, it has been shown that, to develop new water sources, many countries rely solely on expensive imported well making technologies that require highly trained personnel and consume costly fuels and materials. These technologies, by their very nature, prohibit broad diffusion of water well making tools and skills--severely limiting the number of new water sources that can be made and restricting the time frame allowed to develop a new source. (Thereby reducing user participation and, subsequently, the chances that the consumers will play an enthusiastic part in the well use and maintenance.)

It has been argued that rural water development need not be so costly and that many steps--the inclusion of rural labor, the improvement of current water sources, the downscaling of quality/quantity expectations and physical plants--could reduce the per capita water supply costs to a much more locally manageable level.

The strategy that shows the most promise is the development and promotion of simple and appropriate water well making technologies. These history-proven techniques are inexpensive, easily distributed, locally manufactured, and do not restrict the community's ability to conduct the all-too-necessary social and political rituals that enhance a water source's success.

To be most effective, these techniques could stand additional research and development to enhance their capabilities and incorporate modern materials and devices. This is where it is suggested that countries and development agencies alike should be focusing their energies in the next "decade."

But herein lies a twist: in this era of increasing "tied aid", what international donors would be willing to help fund projects to bolster a Third World country's independence from imported machinery?

Yet, until such techniques are identified and advanced, the prospects of full coverage of safe water supplies in the rural areas of the Third World will continue to be mired in the cost-conscious and technology-bound bog that makes up the bulk of today's water development planning.


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