Not-so-limited mechanised boreholes

Elder Joe, whom you still may remember from a previous blog post, is the proud secretary of a water committee in the outskirts of Odumase town in Ghana. The committee looks after a handpump that was installed only last year. The committee is doing well. He shows us the booklet with the bank statements and their account has been growing steadily over the past year. They were able to afford already a repair to a leaking foot valve without any problem. Still, they are not happy. “Pumping the water is so heavy. We would prefer to mechanize it. Would that be possible?”. In the area, there are many what in Ghana are called “limited mechanized boreholes”, referring to a system consisting of a borehole, a motorized pump (working on electricity), an overhead tank, and one or two points with spouts, where people can fetch water for a small price. Elder Joe has aspirations to climb the water ladder, but why wasn’t that done when the pump was installed last year?

Though we are in this area for research on spares and repairs, I cannot resist digging a bit deeper into this. While waiting for our transport, the intricacies and contradictions of water demand, and the assumptions we have become clear. On the one side of the road is another borehole with handpump. People are fetching “basins” of about 40 liter for about 10 pesewas (0.02 US$), which they pay to a woman who acts as vendor. On the other side of the road, another woman sells sachets of water for the same price. From the number of sachets that she has on sale (and empty ones that are lying around), it seems many people are happy to pay the 10 pesewas for the sachet. But Mrs Susana, the first vendor, tells that people would even be happier to pay more for the basin if they would not have to pump. She, herself, at least would prefer the limited mechanized system, as you then don’t have to pump, but just open the tap. It goes faster and you don’t have to queue so long. And the extra costs wouldn’t be so much. You would just drink a sachet a day less, and then you can afford the limited mechanized scheme.



Mrs. Susana with her petty cash container, explaining she would like to have a limited mechanised borehole

This is as much confirmed by the vendor at one of those limited mechanized schemes elsewhere in the area. She also proudly shows us the very basic system: there are no complicated switch boards – just an on/off switch for the motorized pump. We see that the filling of a bucket from one of the spouts goes much faster than through the tedious pumping with an Afridev. The vendor mentions that mostly she makes some 20 Cedis (10 US$) per day, but sometimes up to 50 Cedis (25 US$), when the utility system in town is not functioning, and when the people from town come to fill their buckets here. Whether that income is enough to carry out the repairs is to be seen. The system still hasn’t experienced any break down. But vendors and users seem happy with it – and the ones who don’t use the limited mechanized scheme, aspire to that.

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The relative ease of filling up buckets and basins at the spout of the limited mechanised borehole or the tedious pumping at the Afridev

So, why is this demand to climb the ladder not met? Why were such systems not provided in the first place? As Patrick Moriarty asked, what happened to the demand-responsive approach? One of the engineers who accompanies us explains that the borehole in Elder Joe’s area was developed as part of a programme, that only offered hand pumps and no limited mechanized schemes. So, yes, people could express whether they had a demand for water, but not for how they would like to get that water. Moreover, the guidelines stipulate that limited mechanized boreholes can only be installed in communities of over a certain population, as otherwise revenue might be too little to cover the costs. There is some logic into that. However, the communities of Mrs Susana and Elder Joe seem relatively well-off, this not being a remote rural village, but the outskirts of a trading town. Though difficult to judge in a short visit, this community seems to be willing and able to pay a bit more. And even though this neighborhood is too small to meet the criterion for a limited mechanized scheme, it could make up for that by the fact that it is relatively well-off. As rural villages turn into small towns, people prefer to spend money on water, rather than spending time on it, and their demand for water of potable quality changes. What are the extra costs of upgrading the handpump to a limited mechanized scheme, as compared to what they would have been if a limited mechanized scheme would have been constructed from the outset?

Maybe it is time to dig up the handbooks on the demand-responsive approach, and ask ourselves if we are really responding to demand if we give people the choice between an Afridev and an Afridev? We need to go beyond responding to just a “demand for water”, but providing a response to a “demand for a specific level of water service for a specific price” – something that I always thought the demand-responsive was all about. In that way, we can meet the aspirations of people like Elder Joe and Mrs Susana to have a higher level of service, even if that carries the constrained-sounding name of a limited mechanized borehole.



The limited mechanised borehole in Odumase


3 comments on “Not-so-limited mechanised boreholes

  1. And in that list of choices are we going to include 24-hour/day piped-water service to their homes, perhaps at several taps, like I have in my house? Because I’m pretty sure that’s the level of service poor people are going to pick. Why do we think the values and preferences of poor people are any different than ours when it comes to water service?

    Part of our problem is that we haven’t defined what “access” to water really is. So that allows us most governments and NGOs to define their solution by how much money they have in their budget (enough for a shallow well and Afridev pump) rather than defining it by standards of access and figuring out how to pay for and sustain the level of service that people want to be healthy and productive.

  2. Dear Marla,
    Indeed, one should also include that option. But it should then of course also include an overview of the implications of costs and the financing of those. In my view, access is defined by minimum service level standards (like the famous 25 lpcd within 500 meter of safe water). But that is a minimum standard. If communities want a higher level of service, that is closer by, more water), we should at least offer communities that choice, with a clear insight into the implications of that choice. In that way, we can better respond to demands.


  3. […] pumps to lift the water and distribute it to people’s houses. We see this already happening. In Ghana, boreholes are equipped with motorized pumps and small distribution schemes. India wants to make […]

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