Within rural Africa, communal boreholes fitted with handpumps (HPBs) are likely to remain the main source of improved water supplies for decades to come. Understanding how the performance of these supplies can be improved will be central to achieving improved water security. The functionality of community HPBs relies on a range of elements which include not only groundwater resource availability, correct siting and construction of the borehole and handpump mechanism, but also equitable and enabling management arrangements.
Since the 1980s – the first UN ‘Water Decade’ – Community Based Management (CBM) has been the policy prescription par excellence for operationalising participatory development in the rural water supply sector. The cornerstone of the CBM model is the creation of a local water point committee or similar community organisation, which is charged with the operation and maintenance of the borehole. Despite its popularity and endurance, there is a relative lack of evidence on how the management capacity of communities relates to the functionality of their boreholes, and a growing recognition among development practitioners and academics that CBM of rural water supply has struggled to deliver on many of its promises.
Here we present the findings from a survey of six hundred communities across rural Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi to examine the extent to which community water management capacity is related to borehole functionality. The capacity of water management arrangements (WMA) was assessed according to four dimensions: finance system; affordable maintenance and repair; decision making, rules, and leadership; and external support. HPB performance was assessed using on a nuanced definition of borehole functionality, which captures different tiers of functionality from a simple binary ‘yes/no’ working, to capturing the level of functionality performance and reliability.
The findings reveal that whilst over two thirds of WMA are of medium to high capacity in communities, there is no strong relationship between the WMA capacity and the functionality of the borehole. Of the four management dimensions, affordable maintenance and repair was the best predictor of borehole functionality. However, the capacity of this dimension was seen to be lowest overall, with nearly two thirds of sites having weak or non-existent capacity in this respect. These findings provide evidence to support the growing claim that, in many instances, CBM by itself does not ensure improved functionality performance.