Sustainability of Rural Water Services in Low-Income Countries: Case studies in sub-Saharan Africa

  • Peter Harvey

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Access to adequate water and sanitation is fundamental to enhancing the quality of life for rural populations. Over the past few decades substantial amounts of money have been spent and efforts made to provide rural water supply services in various developing countries. However, the provision of such services to date is largely unsustainable and it is unlikely that the Millennium Development Goal target for safe drinking water in rural areas will be met. This is particularly so in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the lowest coverage of water services in the world. The question, therefore, is why, despite all the monies spent and efforts made, is the sustainability of rural water services in low-income countries currently poor, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and what can be done to improve this situation? The papers on which this research submission is based used selected case studies of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to critically evaluate and assess the key factors contributing to this state of rural water supply services. This was achieved through (i) content analysis of rural water supply policy documents from a range of sub-Saharan African countries; (ii) community sampling, focus group discussions and key informant interviews in several countries;(iii) comprehensive review of management models implemented across the subcontinent; (iv) detailed financial analysis of long-term operational costs for rural water supply systems; (v) assessment of the performance of different rural water supply technologies; (vi) technical analysis of drilling data and water source sustainability; and (vii) analysis of supply chain viability.

    The policy analysis revealed a range of common themes that may impact on the sustainability of rural water provision, including decentralisation, privatisation and community management. The community sampling, focus group discussions and key informant interviews in several countries showed that communities require more information from implementing agencies, greater choice in relation to technology and management options, and sustained institutional support. A review of management models implemented across the sub-continent identified the need for greater flexibility in management approaches, and the need to explore alternatives based on sustainable incentives, such as indigenous private sector service delivery. Detailed financial analysis of long-term operational costs for rural water supply systems revealed that costings are generally insufficient and communities are not provided with sufficient information on financial implications to make informed decisions. Technology performance assessments demonstrated that the rope-pump outperforms the conventional handpump as an appropriate water supply technology for hand-dug wells. It was also demonstrated that the initial measured yield of a borehole is the single largest factor that influences subsequent borehole failure, and that the likelihood of borehole failure increases by a factor of six when drilling occurs during the wet season.

    Supply chain analysis revealed that stand-alone supply chains for handpump spare parts are commercially unviable in rural sub-Saharan Africa. From the critical evaluation of the outcomes of these studies, it is concluded that in order to achieve truly sustainable rural water supply services greater interconnectedness between technology, environment, supply chains, financing and management is needed within co-ordinated programmes, supported by enabling policies.
    Date of AwardSept 2008
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorJohn Kinuthia (Supervisor)


    • Water-supply, Rural
    • Africa, sub-Saharan

    Cite this