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Borehole Banks for Improved Sustainability

By Brian Mulenga, Sanitation Officer, Water For People Malawi

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Take a walk around rural communities of Malawi, and you will come across at least one borehole that’s either broken down or completely abandoned. Numerous village meetings I have attended end with the usual request by local traditional leaders for more boreholes…even in communities that technically have an adequate number of boreholes as stipulated by government policies. Worse still, users do not know what to do next!

With the recent elections in 2019, we are yet to see more boreholes being sunk in villages that were promised as a strategy by politicians to get more votes. But one could ask: "Should we continue sinking more boreholes while the numbers of non-functional ones continue rising?"

Keeping water systems in rural areas functioning forever, without communities ever again depending on material support from any outside organization, has proved to be elusive. Yet this represents one of the top sustainability accomplishments that most organizations in the water sector aim to achieve.

While many organizations and governments have heavily invested in designing sustainable models which empower communities to own and manage rural water supply systems, some organizations want to be seen ‘working’ and thereby ‘baby-sitting’ communities. Such organizations always want to be there to rehabilitate any small borehole fault or even offer to drill more newboreholes without regard to government policies or sustainable models. With noble intentions, some charity organizations or generous individuals have not only destroyed the very communities they aim to help but have also strained their limited resources which could have been more wisely used to support other communities in dire need of safe and adequate water.

For decades, experts in the water sector have argued, and come up with diverse theories, on why rural water supply infrastructure, especially boreholes, fail quickly or become non-functional before their prescribed life span, leading to stretched periods of downtime or even abandonment. Some experts believe that the ability of a community to effectively conduct planned borehole maintenance and collect properly-calculated tariffs from users to buy and replace worn-out borehole parts provides a glimpse of a sustained water system…but this does not fully articulate what will motivate and equip a community to keep a borehole functioning at all times, forever.

So how can we improve community ownership and sustainability of rural water supply systems? One simple intervention practiced by rural communities in Chikwawa District in Malawi seems to be providing a solution to this age-old question. Borehole banks use a simple yet effective business model that allows water users to borrow part of the borehole maintenance fund, use it for their own various economic activities, and later pay it back at an agreed upon interest rate. This not only multiplies funds for borehole operation and maintenance, but also enhances economic livelihoods of water users in the community. It eliminates the challenges encountered by poor rural women related to securing a small loan at a commercial bank, such as travelling long distances, tedious paperwork, and interviews. While technical considerations in borehole drilling and installation remain vital, transforming a borehole into an economic epicenter in the community has motivated users to secure their boreholes and ensure they are fully functional at all times.

The success of borehole banks in rural communities of Chikwawa District represent a huge milestone toward sustainability of rural water supply infrastructure. They say, "water is life." Deep in the rural communities of Chikwawa District, this idiom is not only synonymous with healthy living, but also the economic benefits that water now possesses.

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