Envisioning Service-Led WASH Resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa

Monday, April 22nd, 2024

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the global regions most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Less predictable weather patterns, extreme weather events, elongated periods of drought, and other symptoms are already being felt in this region and are predicted to worsen in the future. All of these effects of climate change exacerbate the existing water crisis, affecting the health and well-being of millions of rural households.

Many of us who work or invest in expanding rural water access in Sub-Saharan Africa have encountered conversations around climate resilience. Resilience is the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to the impacts of a hazard – in this case, the effects of climate change. In order to protect rural communities against the worsening threat, we must ensure that both water infrastructure and water services are resilient. In this article, we will discuss the importance of resilient monitoring and repair services in the face of climate change.

Resilient Water Infrastructure 

To date, the water sector has focused largely on the resilience of drinking water hardware or infrastructure – and for good reason. In 2010, the World Health Organization published a report that indicated climate change would significantly undermine the water infrastructure investments made in approaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for improving water and sanitation access. Upon assessing the climate resilience of various point source technologies, they found that only borehole wells met their standards of “high resilience,” with protected springs rated in the “medium resilience” category and all others (dug wells, rainwater harvesting, and small piped systems) rated with “low resilience” (Bartram and Howard, 2010).

Since entering the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) era, discussions around how to increase the resilience of water infrastructure have expanded as the impacts of climate change have worsened. Expanding access to groundwater, employing nature-based solutions, increasing storage capacity, and diversifying multiple source use portfolios are all well-acknowledged ways to increase the climate resilience of water systems. Furthermore, the conversation has evolved from solely focusing on the resilience of water infrastructure to also considering the resilience of water services

Resilient Water Services 

All water infrastructure is guaranteed to break down eventually, no matter the climate scenario. Natural wear, rugged use, and sometimes even intentional vandalism all contribute to mechanical failures regardless of the weather. And unfortunately, many predicted climate scenarios will increase the frequency and complexity of rural water system breakdown or failure. 

Already, we are seeing the impacts of higher temperatures, unpredictable precipitation, floods, and droughts on rural water systems. One study describes a commonly experienced “spiral of water insecurity” in which increased temperatures and reduced rainfall lead to a drying-up of surface water sources, increasing demand on groundwater sources, and eventually causing extra wear and more frequent breakdowns at systems like boreholes with handpumps (Calow, et al. 2010).

And while it is inevitable that water infrastructure breaks, it is not inevitable that it will be repaired. In fact, various estimates of breakdown rates in Sub-Saharan Africa show that anywhere from 10-65% of rural handpumps with boreholes are broken at any given time (REAL-Water, 2023). 

In order to ensure that communities maintain access regardless of the climate scenario, we must turn our attention toward providing resilient water services – including monitoring and repair services that will bring broken infrastructure back online quickly and reliably. The resilience of these services is even more important than the resilience of the infrastructure itself, as strong management can “overcome the inherent technological weaknesses” of low- and medium-resilient system types (Bartram & Howard, 2010). 

The few studies that have examined the climate resilience of water source management models indicate that more centralized management (like those models found at medium or large water utilities) are more resilient to climate change than decentralized models such as community management (Howard et al, 2016). More centralized management tends to have greater technical, human, and financial resources to plan for climate change scenarios and upgrade or reinforce infrastructure where necessary. 

However, decentralized community management is still the predominant form of rural water source management in Sub-Saharan Africa, and unfortunately, is not considered climate resilient on its own (Howard et al., 2016). Unsupported community management teams often lack the technical or financial resources to plan for future climate scenarios or respond to extreme events that might affect the water system. Without the skills or resources to effectively plan for and adapt to climate change, these rural community-managed water systems are left vulnerable.

Improving Resilience in Rural Water Services

But we shouldn’t lose hope yet. There are still many ways we can improve the climate resilience of community-managed rural water systems. A recent framework for rural WASH resilience showed how generally adaptive water committees – those that are representative of their communities; include meaningful participation of women; and have sustainable finances, skilled operators, and transparent decision-making – are more resilient and able to respond to climate events (Howard et al, 2021). Programs aimed at improving the adaptability and resilience of the water committees themselves may be a cost-effective way to prepare community-managed systems for the effects of climate change. 

Simple tools such as sanitary inspections (which require no specialized knowledge) have shown success in assessing vulnerability to climate-related events like floods, which can wash ground-level contaminants into rural water systems. New, community-based frameworks have been designed to identify vulnerabilities in rural water systems and guide improvements to improve resilience (Howard et al, 2021). Training water committees to use such tools could also increase their understanding of the threats of climate change and the vulnerabilities of their system.

Along with preparing the committees themselves, supporting community management models through centralized, sustainable service provision can enhance resilience (Howard & Bartram, 2010). One of the main barriers to providing sustainable water services in a community management model is a lack of technical skills and resources. 

While many water user committees go through some level of water system management training, very few committees include members who are knowledgeable in varying climate predictions, understand climate risk assessment, and/or carry out major repairs when climate-related breakdowns or failures occur. External support from centralized service providers allows community management models to continue operating, while providing access to professionalized, highly-skilled services for monitoring and repair. 

A review of external support programs serving rural water systems showed that functionality, financial stability and user satisfaction all improved when community-managed systems were supported by external professionals (Miller at el, 2019). Many types of support were described in the review and all will likely be needed to eliminate or reduce the vulnerabilities of rural water systems. However, with the anticipated increase in water system breakdowns, professionalized monitoring and repair services will likely play an especially important role in providing resilient water services to rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

Resilient Services at The Water Project

At The Water Project (TWP), we see the benefits of providing climate resilient water services in practice. TWP supports programs that recharge shallow groundwater reserves in arid counties of Southeast Kenya through the construction of sand dams, strengthen the financial stability and resilience of water user committees in Uganda, and coordinate with the government to provide groundwater monitoring data in Sierra Leone.

In our Western Kenya region, resilient monitoring and repair services are provided directly by the TWP Regional Service Hub, a local branch of our organization staffed with highly trained monitoring and evaluation specialists, mechanics, hydrogeologists and environmental scientists. Though each water project is managed by the community and has a trained water user committee, this centralized team supports the community management model with professional monitoring and repair services.

The Water Project’s monitoring and repair services begin as soon as water system construction is complete. Water systems are monitored quarterly by TWP and partner staff to assess the state of the hardware, conduct sanitary inspections, and check in with water user committees. If any repair is needed, professionally trained mechanics are deployed from the Regional Service Hub, which aims to address all mechanical issues within 72 hours. Because of their diligent work, we estimate a 96% functionality rate among our boreholes with handpumps. These monitoring and repair services drastically reduce downtime in the region, ensuring that no one is forced to return to unprotected sources. 

Beyond the regular services provided to each individual water system, TWP’s Regional Service Hub team also works to anticipate challenges that will affect water service provision into the future. Through a recent collaboration with Groundwater Relief, the staff was trained to install monitoring ports and measure static water levels at strategic well locations in their operating area. Through regular monitoring of groundwater information, they provided information needed to model current and future groundwater resource availability. Enhanced understanding of the groundwater situation in the region further improves their ability to provide resilient services over time.


Sub-Saharan Africa is already experiencing the effects of global climate change, which is predicted to exacerbate the ongoing water crisis. Very little work has been done to assess the resilience of rural water system infrastructure in the region, and even less to assess the resilience of the services available. 

In the coming years, the resilience of the water services provided to rural communities will be even more important than building resilient infrastructure, as climate change will likely increase breakdown and failure frequency for a variety of technologies. 

The Water Project prides itself on providing climate resilient water services across its focus regions through programs that consider groundwater reserves, strengthen the adaptability and resilience of water user committees, and provide professionalized direct repair support. Through our Western Kenya Regional Service Hub, we have demonstrated how professionalized external support can improve functionality and shorten repair times, which will be a vital water service as Sub-Saharan Africa continues to face the effects of climate change.


Calow, R. C., MacDonald, A. M., Nicol, A. L., & Robins, N. S. (2010). Ground Water Security and Drought in Africa: Linking Availability, Access, and Demand. Groundwater, 48(2), 246–256. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6584.2009.00558.x 

Howard, G., & Bartram, J. (2010). Vision 2030: The resilience of water supply and sanitation in the face of climate change Technical report. In Public Health and Environment Water.

Howard, G., Calow, R., Macdonald, A., & Bartram, J. (2016). Climate Change and Water and Sanitation: Likely Impacts and Emerging Trends for Action. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 41, 253–276. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-110615-085856 

Howard, G., Nijhawan, A., Flint, A., Baidya, M., Pregnolato, M., Ghimire, A., Poudel, M., Lo, E., Sharma, S., Mengustu, B., Ayele, D. M., Geremew, A., & Wondim, T. (2021). The how tough is WASH framework for assessing the climate resilience of water and sanitation. Npj Clean Water, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41545-021-00130-5

Miller, M., Cronk, R., Klug, T., Kelly, E. R., Behnke, N., & Bartram, J. (2019). External support programs to improve rural drinking water service sustainability: A systematic review. Science of the Total Environment, 670. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.03.069 

REAL-Water. 2023. Desk Study: Professionalizing Rural Water. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Rural Evidence and Learning for Water Project.

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Emma Kelly

Throughout her career, Emma has been committed to improving the sustainability of water and sanitation services in all contexts. She is especially passionate about evidence-based decision making, and uses data to explore topics such as the long-term management of rural water systems, effective pathways for repair and rehabilitation, and financing for reliable operation and maintenance. Emma has a Master of Science in Environmental Sciences and Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her spare time, she loves to experiment with a new recipe, go to the theater, and spend time with her family.