What is the big deal about manual drilling anyway?

Let me tell you a not-very-well-kept secret. My PhD research some 15 years ago was on manual drilling. That was what took me to Uganda in the first place and taught me how to link social science, business development and technology. For those of you who don’t know what it is, manual drilling refers to several drilling methods that rely on human energy to construct a borehole and complete a water supply. These methods can be used in areas where formations are quite soft and groundwater is relatively shallow. And by the way, the “Pounder rig” as we called it worked, but it never took off in Uganda (the details are in my thesis).

My interest in manual drilling never went away, and I carried it into the Rural Water Supply Network when I started to lead the cost-effective boreholes topic in 2005. Within RWSN, we have been looking at both mechanised and manual drilling ever since. So when UNICEF decided to document the experiences of professionalising manual drilling two years ago I jumped at the opportunity. How often is one given a chance to return to one’s field of original study?

Some of you may be asking what makes manual drilling so interesting. Well, it can provide safe drinking water. The equipment can easily be transported to remote, or difficult to serve populations which would otherwise be left behind. The lower costs compared to machine drilling are appreciated by households, businesses and governments: Manual drilling also provides local employment. I have just come to the end of two years of work to document manual drilling experiences from around the world. It has been a very rewarding experience. And I have to say I am both impressed and grateful by the number of dedicated people that are trying to harness the potential of this technology in many parts of the world. When I started my PhD back in 1998, the only other manual drilling promoter in Africa that I knew about was Jon Naugle who was working in Niger. But slowly I have learned more about the history of manual drilling – the World Bank funded work in Nigeria in the 1980s promoting agricultural wells. More recently the UNICEF/Practica Foundation/Enterprise Works Toolkit for the Professionalisation of Manual Drilling has helped to spur others to take this technology seriously, and to think about quality work and a professional drilling sector.

Today, manual drilling methods are being used to provide water for drinking and other domestic needs in at least 36 countries. In some places, manual drilling methods are well established. Millions of people in rural and urban areas use “tubewells” that were drilled manually in India and Bangladesh.

In several African countries, manual drilling is also on the increase. In 2005 I visited Niger to learn about manual drilling (and massively improve my French). In 2013 and 2014 I visited Chad and Nigeria, where there has been a tremendous upsurge in use of the technology. In others countries, such as Malawi, manual drilling has been recently introduced.

Jetting in Nigeria

Jetting in Nigeria/Countries where manual drilling is being used to provide drinking water supplies

In February 2015, RWSN has just published a Compendium of Manual Drilling. It provides an overview for those wishing to further examine the impacts and challenges of the methods. I hope that it will inspire agencies and individuals to seek ways of improving practices on the ground. Many of the promoters of manual drilling are isolated from each other, but they are certainly not alone in their endeavours!

There are examples of drilling techniques being adapted by private enterprises as well as development organisations to suit the local context within Africa. Once manual drilling takes off, most boreholes are constructed for households and businesses as self-supply sources. There is a wide spectrum of borehole designs alongside concerns about contamination. Unfortunately, this is not backed up or refuted by synthesised information and analysis of water quality.

In many countries, lack of national guidelines and regulations (or poor enforcement) exacerbates concerns. Not all organisations that are promoting manual drilling consult or liaise with government, and there is a tendency (perhaps with the exception of Kenya) of promoting manual drilling in a vacuum rather than related to conventional drilling. Some organisations are promoting very low cost designs which may compromise the safety of a drinking water supply. Take note – manual drilling is here to stay, and it is growing! The profile of manual drilling among wider development and research communities should be higher than it currently is.

We shall present the compendium on the webinar on Tue 10th Feb 2015.  If you are intersted, please register here.

Promotion of Manual Drilling by a Private Enterprise in Chad

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