Groundwater accounts for over 97 per cent of the world's freshwater with over two million people depending on it for their survival.
In Africa, it is estimated that groundwater provides over 75 per cent of the population with a drinking water supply and has been said to be essential in securing equitable water access for rural and urban poor around the world.
It has been established that groundwater has a major role to play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for drinking water. Though very important, groundwater is not properly captured in national or international monitoring. As an unseen resource, it is easily forgotten, making it undervalued and not properly managed.
As an entry point towards the progressive and effective management of groundwater, I undertook a study on the challenges of water well drillers and drillers association in six countries - Angola, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda and the United State of America. I tried to understand groundwater issues within these countries from the perspective of the drillers themselves. Drillers are in direct contact with the resource, and some have recognised the importance of having a drillers association.
As at the time of the study (2019), only three water well drillers association exist and were active only in Nigeria, Uganda and the USA. In the case of the others (inactive), there is an informal working group in Angola, an organised body in Burkina-Faso and Mozambique. Where they exist, drillers associations were an entry point to support national, international and local partners in groundwater management, were able to advocate and lobby for sustainable policies and realistic contracts. They also sensitised the public on the resource and helped reduce the presence of unqualified drillers in the sector.
In the study, I identified eight main challenges for water well drillers, namely - capacity, contracts and standards, procurement, finance and payment, corruption, data, logistics, and the availability of spare parts. I also learned about the advantages and disadvantages of having an association, as well as what makes them successful or not.
A lack of clarity with respect to groundwater policies, and a lack of capacity by national institutions to implement policies or engage in groundwater monitoring was apparent in four (Angola, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Nigeria) of the six countries.
So, what did the study reveal?
- With the exception of the USA, there is a lack of capacity of drillers and national institutions in the countries studied. Drillers often lack the capacity to drill water wells in a sustainable way. In most of the cases, this is due to the absence of dedicated training institutions on groundwater issues or the inability of organised drillers association to engage in the development of its members.
- Poor contract management, lack of transparency and corruption in procurement processes were mentioned. These have adversely affected the quality of drilled wells leading to a short lifespan of these wells. "Turn- key contracts" (Burkina Faso and Uganda), "No water no pay principle" (Mozambique and Nigeria) and "the gentleman's agreement" (Angola) are some forms of poor contract identified. The client passes all or most of the risk of finding water to the drillers - even in places where good groundwater resources are not easy to find.
- Delayed payments by clients poses a danger to the long-term viability of drillers' businesses. This is a particular challenge in countries where the government is the major client (Angola, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Uganda).
- The absence or lack of groundwater data means an underestimation of prices of drilling in certain terrains as well as drilling with uncertainty. The USA and Uganda are the only two countries with some form of groundwater data.
- Drillers associations struggle to sustain themselves in the long-term due to lack of finance resulting from a low membership. In Mozambique and Burkina Faso, for example, some drillers still do not see the need for an association while there is no dedicated member to run the informal working group in Angola.
- It was noted that there is a lack of transparency in existing associations except the in the USA. Leadership find it difficult and costly to be accountable to members and non-members alike.
- Except for the USA, and more recently Uganda, the associations have not been able to engage in continuous capacity building or training programmes for their members. This has been identified as mainly being a result of a lack of funds.
A major concern observed is the future of groundwater. In all six countries studied, it was found that there are very few or no young professionals in the field. This, indeed, puts the future of groundwater development at very high risk. In addition, very few women were observed to be in the profession.
From my work, I have two sets of recommendations:
- In the short term, it is imperative that drillers associations in other countries be investigated. Prioritise the establishment of drillers associations in countries where there are none and support the rekindling of inactive ones. The capacity of drillers and national institutions should be strengthened - advocate for compulsory internship programmes on a continuous basis. Also, develop a school curriculum on water with emphasis on groundwater. Create a global platform for young professionals dedicated to training, learning, including internships with local firms.
- In the long term, there is a need to create a global platform for drillers, experts and institutions working on groundwater issues in collaboration with existing institutions to learn and share best practices. Develop in study and exchange programmes, including creating mechanisms for international internships and volunteering.
I hope that my study will help to inspire developmental organisation, funders, national institutions and above all drillers themselves to recognise the importance of using professional drillers and to support, and collaborate with water well drillers associations.
The full study can be downloaded at www.rural-water-supply.net.
Uyoyoghene U. Traoré is a geologist and freelance consultant in water and environment. The study was carried out as a volunteer for the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) under its 2018-2023 young professional engagement strategy