Malawi Doesn’t Have a Water Problem, It Has a Hydro-Geologist Problem

Another fantastic blog post I stumbled across from a friend of mine, Owen Scott, working in Malawi in water and sanitation. Read more from his blog, Barefoot Economics:

Yesterday I was reading a report about water access in one of Malawi’s lakeside districts. The district has a major hydreogeological split – close to the lake it has a shallow water table, further from the lake it has a deeper water table. This means that close to the lake you can use hand-drilled boreholes and shallow wells, while further from the lake you need to drill boreholes with a rig.


The report examined a GPS survey of waterpoints in the district, and found that despite the shallow aquifer close to the lake, many organizations were still using drilling rigs to drill boreholes, each at over twice the cost of hand-drilled boreholes, and over six times the cost of hand-dug shallow wells. Talk about an inefficient use of money.

An extrapolation found that if appropriate technologies were used for each section of the water table, than the cost of bringing water access in the district up to government standards could be halved – a savings of over four hundred thousand dollars.

In my opinion, a big part of the reason is the dearth of educated professionals in the country – especially in technical sectors. Go to an NGO or government office focusing on water access (other than the national ministry), and you will find few, if any, engineers, hydrologists, or hydrogeologists. Same thing for the private sector – the last guy I met doing borehole siting was an accountant. Without these educated professionals, endogenous discourse on hydreogeological-based efficiency of technology choice is unlikely to emerge. Without this discourse, better decisions will not emerge either.

I believe it’s because of a massive bias development partners have towards funding “basic needs”. A program drilling wells is easy to sell. A program providing university scholarships for hydrogeology…less so.

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2 Responses to “Malawi Doesn’t Have a Water Problem, It Has a Hydro-Geologist Problem”

  1. Elysa

    Basic needs development- one of my favorite issues, mostly because I’ve dealt with it in the past.
    It seems like a lot of the discussions we’ve previously had on development (re:pictures of poverty post) have related back to the age old question “how do we change the image of poverty and development?” and “how do we prove the validity of solutions from the poor for the poor?” While Owen’s post is more specific, and deals directly with knowledge and expertise, I feel it still relates back to this issue- Jacqueline Novogratz’s TED talk elaborates on the success of aid from the bottom up, as opposed to what aid agencies (at the top) feels would work best.

  2. Andre

    This just further supports my belief that there really isn’t a quick fix to the issue of poverty and development. The ‘one-size fits all’ approach to solving world hunger, homelessness, and inequality just won’t work. Even something as seemingly straight-forward as drilling for water really requires thorough understanding that only time can uncover.

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