Of the 844 million people worldwide who do not have basic water services, some 80 percent live in rural areas (UNICEF 2017). Two of the problems that small rural communities encounter are the expense of an improved water source and unsafe water storage. A communal rural water supply often consists of a drilled borehole with an imported hand pump, but for groups of less than 250 people, this becomes costly. Even if people have water from improved sources, water becomes re-contaminated in transport or unsafe storage at home.

With limited funds and a fast-growing population, especially in rural Africa, the question is, how can we reach ”the last mile,” the remote and small communities, the poorest? One solution is innovation of technology. If we can invent ways to reduce the cost of wells, pumps, water treatment and other technologies by 50 percent, twice as many people could have water with the same funds.

An effort underway is a range of innovative, low-cost technologies called SMART (Simple, Market-based, Affordable, Repairable Technologies). Examples are manual drilling, locally produced hand pumps, tube ground water recharge to store rainwater in the ground, household water filters, SaTopan latrines, and others. These and other innovative technologies can be disseminated via WET Centres (Water Expertise and Training Centres), SMART Centres or other WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) training centers. The introduction of innovative technologies and the training of the private sector in local production has much potential to assist in reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6) of universal access to safe water. This work could also help reach SDG1, poverty reduction; SDG2 for food security and at the same time SDG8, creating employment. Based  on 30 years field experiences, these are six practical ideas to reach the water-related SDGs.

Idea 1. Safe drinking water? Start with HWTS

Waterborne disease can be reduced by improving hygiene and using Household Water Treatment and Safe storage (HWTS) that makes water safe at the point of use. Known options are boiling and chlorine, but both have disadvantages. For instance, chlorine does not eliminate Cryptosporidium, and many people do not like the taste, so people do not use it consistently. That makes it useless in many cases, because if treatment options are not used at least 90 percent of the time there are few health benefits (Brown. 2012).

Better options are water kiosks and new, effective and attractive water filters. Examples are Swach, Pureit and Kent filters in India, NAZAVA filters in Indonesia, Tunsai filters in Cambodia or Tulip filters in Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania. Retail prices of these filters range from (USD) $15-$30, so they make safe water at a cost of (USD) $1-$2 per person per year. Worldwide, there still are 2.1 billion people without safe drinking water (UNICEF 2017). Treatment with an effective HWT option would be a logical first, and with a cost of (USD) $1-$2 per person per year, by far the most cost-effective option to reduce waterborne disease.


  1. Awareness and marketing: Mount large-scale campaigns on the importance of hygiene, including the facts that clear water can be unsafe and there is a need for HWT. “Seduce” families into investing in a filter, not with health arguments but with aspiration, peer pressure, and trust (Hystra, 2012). This is a task for governments and NGOs.
  2. Supply chains: Get new products in existing or newly built commercial supply chains. Create supply chains of a range of attractive, proven effective and affordable treatment options so people can choose the option they like and can afford (Heierli. 2012).
  3. Try & Buy: To convince families to buy a filter a novel idea is the so-called Try & Buy system, where families can try a filter for a month before they pay for it. Utilities who cannot guarantee safe water 24hours a day seven days a week could use this or other ideas to provide an extra service for their clients. Testing new dissemination models is a task for utilities, NGOs and the private sector
  4. Payment options: Families who cannot pay the entire price up front should have payment options via mobile phones, micro credits, etc.
  5. Support the poorest: Support poor families with a one-time subsidy. For instance, try programs similar to those that distribute bednets to pregnant women in rural areas. Free or subsidized filters should NOT disturb markets, but support the supply chain. One option is the use of vouchers which a family can use to “buy” a filter in a shop.
  6. National policies to scale up HWTS: To scale up HWT, it is essential that governments, NGOs and the private sector cooperate, and that there are policies in place. An example is Ethiopia and Malawi which have national strategies to drastically scale up HWTS.

Idea 2.  Increase functionality of communal rural water supply

There are some 1 million hand pumps in Africa, often on machine-drilled boreholes. These systems normally serve 250 people and have investment cost of (USD) $3000-$10,000. The cost is usually subsidized 90-100 percent by governments, NGOs or both. In general, communities themselves have to organize (pay for) maintenance and repairs, which is often done with a VLOM (Village Level Operation and Maintenance) model. However, in Africa an average of 35 percent of the pumps and wells are either not functioning or provide sub-standard services (quantity, quality, reliability, accessibility) (RWSN 2015). The reasons are errors in the drilling, errors in installation, expensive technologies and repairs, lack of nearby technicians and a VLOM concept that fails.


  1. Conditional repair of broken systems: Before repairing broken wells, ensure future sustainable management. If users (or others) are not capable or not willing to pay for maintenance and repairs in the future, it is no use to repair the pump. Promising maintenance models are UDUMA (Vergnet), the Blue zone (Fairwater), prepaid systems (Maji milele), or “circuit riders.” Another option is to apply, where possible, the FLOM (Family Level Operation and Maintenance) model. Make one family responsible for the collection of money and the maintenance. Experiences with this FLOM model by the organization GSB in Mozambique are promising.
  2. Deliver service: For communities of 500 people or more, consider installing a piped system with house connections rather than communal water tap points where people have to walk. In general, people are prepared to pay for service, for water that is delivered at the house.

Idea 3.  Reduce cost of new communal rural water supply

An estimated 60 percent of the rural and peri-urban population in Africa live in areas where groundwater levels are 40 meters or less below the surface, and where the geology is such that wells can be dug or drilled by hand. Drilling options include augering, sludging, percussion and jetting. New hand-drilling options like Baptist, SHIPO and Mzuzu drilling can even drill through relatively hard layers. Hand-drilled tube wells for communities of 250 people cost (USD) $1500-$5000 including a pump, depending on depth, casing diameter and geology. That breaks down to an approximate cost of (USD) $6-$20 per person.

If constructed well, hand-drilled tube wells have the same quality as machine-drilled boreholes, but they cost 50-70 percent less (UNICEF, EW Practica, 2009). From water levels to 40 meters deep, water can be pumped up with low-cost and locally produced hand pumps like EMAS or rope pumps. Canzee pumps can pump from 20 meters deep. In Tanzania over the last 10 years, some 3000 wells were drilled manually and equipped with rope pumps delivering water to an average of 100 people. Compared to machine-drilled wells and Afridev pumps, this combination reduced the cost of rural water points from (USD) $40 down to (USD) $15 per capita. That is roughly (USD) $0.25 per cubic meter.

If proper construction and management is in place, these water points meet the Financial, Institutional, Economical, Technical and Social sustainability criteria, the so-called FIETS criteria. This is confirmed by studies (Acra 2012, Maltha 2015) and field visits in Tanzania. Rope pumps installed in Njombe in 2005 on wells 28 meters deep are delivering water to 100-200 people. They are working well now and probably will still work 10 years from now.

The reason is that maintenance is simple and spare parts are both affordable and available because of local production. For part of the water points a woman is responsible for the maintenance and gets paid something. When a new rope is needed, she collects money from users and buys the rope at a local pump producer in Njombe (Holtslag.2016).


  1. Awareness: Inform NGOs, governments and the local private sector about new options. Publicize examples like Tanzania’s, not just the successes but also the failures. There are “simple is not easy” lessons from rope pump projects in Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia and Mozambique where the first introduction of the rope pump failed due to errors in construction and maintenance structures.
  2. Consider manual drilling: If new boreholes are planned, investigate if manual drilling is possible since that can drastically reduce the investment cost of a water point.
  3. Supply chain: Build up supply chains for a range of products such as pumps, storage tanks, irrigation, filters, etc. Include options that are affordable for small communities.
  4. Training: The most important actions to build up supply chains are the 3 Ts: Training, Training, Training. Train local entrepreneurs (masons, well diggers, metal workshops) in production, repairs, quality control, marketing and business skills. Good quality products and services are essential, and can be achieved by means of the certification of producers. Each country should have at least one WASH innovation and training center where knowledge is centralized and quality of products can be monitored. Knowledge of new technologies could be included in national vocational training as is happening in Tanzania and Ethiopia. See also Idea 6.

Idea 4.  Improve existing and make new family wells

In Africa some 180 million people still collect water from unimproved sources like lakes, rivers or open hand-dug wells ( UNICEF 2017). Hand-dug wells are often made by families at their own expense, and this is called self-supply.

Open wells can be improved with a well cover and a low-cost hand pump like a Canzee, EMAS or a Rope pump. With new low-cost drilling technologies like EMAS, Baptist or the Mzuzu method, hand-dug wells can be made deeper or new tube wells can be made. The government of Ethiopia promotes self-supply. Its plan is to reach 20 million people by improving existing wells and making new wells combined with low-cost pumps such as rope pumps. They support self-supply by giving five families a pump if these families themselves invest in a well. Compared to communal wells, family wells have advantages. Those include:

  1. Time: Since water is near, less time required for women and children to collect water.
  2. Hygiene: More water is used for handwashing, cleaning the dishes, the toilet, etc.
  3. Food production: Water can be used for chickens, cattle, irrigation.
  4. Income: Reduction of health costs, income from eggs, vegetables, etc. gives extra income.
  5. Ownership: Families that maintain their pumps  keep functionality at 95 percent or more (Maltha 2015, Veldman 2017).
  6. Communal supply: Families who have water share with neighbors.

Family wells can increased food production and increase family incomes. In this way they reduce rural poverty. Studies in Nicaragua indicate that a well in the garden of poor farmers can double incomes. A (USD) $100 hand pump on that well increases incomes even more, by an average of (USD) $220 per year (Alberts. 2002).

With a well and a pump, families can climb the “water ladder” (Fig. 1). An example: Around 2001, many families in Sebaco, Nicaragua received or bought a rope pump for (USD) $100 for domestic use and cattle watering. In 2010, these families had more trees around the house, improved houses and are now connected to a piped water system. With the increased incomes among others affected by the rope pump, families now have money to pay for a piped water system. Many families in Sebaco still use the rope pump for the garden or cattle.

In short, improved family wells result in access to an improved water source (SDG6), more food security (SDG2), and more income (SDG1). If family wells are used for irrigation, there is also a high impact on employment, since work is created for irrigation, packing, transport and sales.

To guarantee that water from family wells is safe, it is strongly recommended to treat the water with HWT like boiling, chlorine or a filter.


  1. Upgrade existing hand-dug wells: Many of the 3-5 million hand-dug wells in Africa dry up in the dry season. Sometimes this can be prevented by simple options like “tube recharge,” a (USD) $10 groundwater recharge system to inject up to 500 m3 of rainwater per year in the ground near wells. Options to make wells deeper are underlining, or well pipes with a tube bailer. An improvement is installing a windlass or a hand pump. A bucket and rope is a cause of the (re)contamination of a well. Installing a (USD) $100 hand pump can improve water quality by 60 percent (Gorter. 1998). Another improvement is to install a well cover and apron. The cost of these are (USD) $30-80U. With these upgrades, open wells become an “improved water source.” It is recommended that drinking water from shallow wells is treated with a HWT option like a filter.
  2. Make new low-cost wells: Where water levels are less than 40 meters deep and soils permit digging or hand drilling, new hand-dug or hand-drilled wells can be made. Some ideas:
    1. Use existing maps or make “drillability” maps indicating where hand drilling is possible. Organizations like UNICEF and Practica have performed surveys on the potential for manual drilling in some countries in West Africa, but mapping could be expanded to all countries.
    2. Reduce the cost of hand-dug wells by making smaller diameters. The volume to dig out of nine meters is 45 percent less than that of a well of 1.2 meters diameter.
    3. Use new technologies such as a well ventilator to bring fresh air in the well during digging. Other options are underlining, well pipe, soil punch & tube bailer, tube recharge, well reducer rings (SMARTech catalogue. 2016).
    4. Scale up manual drilling. Manual drilling is safer and sometimes cheaper than hand digging. For instance, with the EMAS method in Bolivia, tube wells are made at a cost of (USD) $400 for a 40m-deep well, including drilling, casing and a hand pump. More than 30,000 wells have been drilled even to 80 meters deep. With the Mzuzu drill, complete wells of 10-15 m deep can be made at a cost of (USD) $250 including casing and pump.
  3. Support Family systems: NGOs and governments interested in reaching SDG6 could invest about 30 percent of their water budget in support of family wells (self-supply). For instance, if families themselves invest in a well and apron that costs some (USD) $300-$600, they could be supported with a hand pump and cover that costs (USD) $150. For a family of five, this would mean that the support per person would be (USD) $30.  This is similar to or less than the subsidies that people received who already have a water point with a machine-drilled borehole. See also Idea 5.
  4. Use “Family power”: A great example is the “Well Club” concept implemented by the organization Water for All International (WFAI), in which families have drilled over 4200 wells. WFAI trains a few persons in a group of 10 families (a “well club”) who all want a family well. Then the families do all the work and help each other. The cost for a well is (USD) $100-$250 for materials, which breaks down to (USD) $20-$30 per capita, excluding cost of training and organization.
  5. Compare drilling options. Compare options like rotary jetting, Baptist, SHIPO, EMAS and Mzuzu drilling in similar geological situations to see which is the most cost-effective option and to see which option has most potential for the local private sector to become a business.

Idea 5. Make similar subsidies a human right

Communal rural water points with machine-drilled boreholes cost (USD) $5000-$13,000 (UNICEF, EW, Practica 2009), although prices are falling. The cost of imported hand pumps like an Indian Mark2, an Afridev, Blue pump or Life pump, installed on such a borehole, ranges from (USD) $600-$3000. In general, wells with these hand pumps are used by 250 people and the investment cost for the borehole and pump is funded (subsidized) by governments, NGOs or both, which means a subsidy of (USD) $20-$60 per capita for CAPEX (borehole and pump) costs, excluding the overhead costs of organizations.

Machine-drilled boreholes for communities of less than 250 people have increasingly higher costs per capita. For instance, a machine-drilled borehole for 50 people would cost (USD) $100-$200 per capita, so governments or NGOs tend not to invest in a machine-drilled borehole for small communities. Where small communities consist of dispersed families and manual drilling is possible, these families could be stimulated to make hand-dug or hand-drilled wells.

Water is a human right. Maybe another human right could be that all people should have similar subsidies independent of whether they live in communities of 250 people or in smaller villages or if they are dispersed.


  1. Cross subsidies: The water price in urban areas could increase a bit and with the extra money water supply in rural areas can be subsidized.
  2. The same subsidy for all: People who are not yet served with water access should receive a similar subsidy per capita (roughly (USD) $30) as people who are already served. Especially in rural and peri-urban areas, this subsidy could be in-kind and it could be used for family systems (self-supply); see Idea 4. For example, if a family of five invests in making a well and rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge system, their government, an NGO or both could support them with a well cover and a hand pump at a total cost of (USD) $150-$30 per capita.
  3. Compensate high-cost systems: Where the cost per capita of water access is very high because low-cost options are not possible (for instance where water layers are very deep or in rocky areas), people should get support to install adequate infrastructure.
  4. Pay for luxury: If low-cost options like a hand pump are possible, but people want a higher-cost option like a piped system, an electric pump, a solar pump etc., they should pay the additional cost.
  5. Increase product range so people can choose: Offer several water supply options (gravity system, piped system, rooftop harvesting, hand-drilled well, different pump models) and inform communities about the life-cycle cost (the long-term cost including replacement) of each option so they can choose the options they can manage and afford.

Idea 6. WASH centers in each country

For all actions mentioned above, the private sector, NGOs and governments need to have knowledge.  High quality products and installation is essential as a start. Governments and NGOs play a role in developing supply chains, training the local private sector in production and repairs, developing policies, and monitoring and quality control by means of certification. Good technicians, designers, managers and other skilled professionals are needed for whatever technology and service model are used. To train enterprises, NGOs and governments in innovation, there is a need for at least one WASH training center in each country. Centers concentrate knowledge, demonstrate existing and new technologies and provide training in technical and non-technical aspects.

An example of such a WASH center is the SHIPO SMART Centre in Tanzania. In 10 years, this center has helped provide improved water sources to 500,000 people by means of 3000 hand-drilled wells and 11,000 rope pumps, of which some 6000 are self-supply. These were made by 35 private pump and drilling companies. The cost per capita of rural water supply reduced from (USD) $40-$15 (Maltha. 2015).

New technologies, lessons learned and innovative approaches are in place. What is lacking is large-scale capacity building and SMART Centres or WET Centres as promoted by CAWST (the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), which are proven concepts for capacity building. As the saying goes, to help the poor do not give a fish but a fishing rod. We need to make another step: teach people how to make the fishing rod. So, in the future, families, communities and companies can solve part of the water problem with locally produced and affordable solutions.


Create one or more WASH training centers in each country. The centers should have knowledge, demonstrations available and capacity for training. Examples of such centers are the SMART Centres (coordinated by MetaMeta) in Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia and WET Centres (coordinated by CAWST) in Nepal, Ethiopia, Zambia and other countries.


  1. To reach the “the last mile” in small rural communities, lower-cost water technologies are needed.
  2. The SMART Centre approach results in “profit-based sustainability.” For the local private sector, production and repairs generate income, so the improvement will go on after projects end.
  3. To reach the SDG6, new technologies and approaches are needed. For rural areas, there are a range of effective and proven new solutions. The challenge now is massive dissemination. What is needed is a Marshall Plan for capacity building (IWA Stockholm 2016).
  4. Supported self-supply has much potential to assist in reaching SDG6 (water) but at the same time SDG1 (reduction of rural poverty), SDG2 (increase food security) and SDG8 (increase employment) in Africa and other continents.

References and Further Reading

  • Acra (2012). Appropriate Technologies for Rural Water Supply. ‘The Conference on Rope pumps Technology’. SHIPO, Njombe, Acra.
  • Alberts, J.H. and v. d. Zee, J.J. (2002). ‘A multi sectoral approach to sustainable rural water supply in Nicaragua. Role of the rope handpump’.
  • Danert 2015. Manually Drilled Boreholes. Providing water in Nigeria’s Megacity of Lagos and beyond Drilling sector in Nigeria.
  • Gorter. A  Randomised trial of the impact of rope pumps on water quality .Published in Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1995; 98:247-255
  • H, McGill. J (2015). ‘Improving self-supply water sources as a key to reach the water related SDG. 38th WEDC International Conference, Loughborough, Loughborough University.
  • Haanen, R. and Kaduma, L. (2011). ‘Low Cost Water Solutions (sharing six year experience in private sector and sponsored programme)’. 6th Rural Water Supply Network Forum 2011. Uganda:
  • Hystra (2013). ‘Marketing innovative devices for the base of the pyramid’.
  • UNICEF, EW, Practica Technical note 3 Manual drilling 2009
  • A 2015 Assessment of SHIPO Tanzania: www.smartcentretanzania.com
  • Olschewski, A. van Donk, M., Maillo J. (2015). ‘Innovative mechanisms for improving self-supply services. 38th WEDC International Conference, Loughborough, Loughborough University.
  • IRC 1995 Nicaraguan experiences with the Rope pump. http://www.washdoc.info/docsearch/title/113703
  • 2012. FIETS criteria (Financial, Institutional, Economical, Technical and Social).                     See www.simavi.org
  • Mekonta, L (2015). Great expectations: self-supply as a formal service delivery model for rural water in Ethiopia. 38th WEDC International Conference, Loughborough, Loughborough University.
  • Rosendahl, R. (2015). ‘The impact of Rope Pumps on Household Income in Mzuzu, Malawi’. Water Resource Management Group. Wageningen, Wageningen University. BSc.
  • RWSN (2015). ‘Accelerating Self- supply (ACCESS).’ Retrieved October 20, 2015, from http://www.rural-water-supply.net/en/self-supply.
  • 2016 World Health Organization Household Water Treatment Test.
  • Information on the SMART Centre approach and SMARTechs: www.smartcentregroup.com.
  • Information on 3R (Retention, Recharge, Reuse): www.bebuffered.com and www.waterchannel.org.
  • Information on water and sanitation solutions: www.akvo.org.
  • Booklets in the Smart series on sanitation, water harvesting, hygiene, finance and disinfection: www.akvo.org,   www.irc.org.

Henk Holtslag is a freelance adviser in low-cost technologies with 30 years of experience in developing countries. He promotes smart water solutions like rope pumps, manual drilling, groundwater recharge, water filters and other options that can be produced locally. He cooperates with the social enterprise MetaMeta to start up SMART Centres, which are WASH knowledge centers that train the local private sector in Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and starting in other countries. For information please see www.smartcentregroup.com and www.ropepumps.org.

Jim McGill worked in rural and peri-urban WaSH in Northern Malawi for over 25 years, during which time he co-founded the Malawi CCAP SMART Centre. The CCAP SMART Centre is a part of a network of SMART Centres that focus on training and promoting low-cost WaSH options. Jim moved to Niger in 2017 and he also works part-time in South Sudan, where he collaborates with local organizations in realizing WaSH improvements within the local settings.