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When a Water Point Breaks: Why and How We Decommission a Water Source

Wednesday, June 5th, 2024

Article summary: While we don’t often decommission projects, it’s usually due to unpredictable rainfall. Whenever we decommission a water source, our commitment is always to install a replacement, as the community members’ needs are our top priority.

As with all plumbing, water source parts sometimes need to be replaced. The same can be true with whole water points — sometimes they break so irreparably that they can’t be fixed, or the circumstances and surrounding environment change. 

When we replace parts, they’re part of a larger construct, like a pump or a tank. And when we replace a whole water point, it’s part of a larger whole, too. Each water source contributes to our growing network of sources, carefully placed and planned to serve a whole community, school, or health center.

Today, we wanted to share our decommissioning process — why it happens, how we respond, and how we work with the people we serve to ensure that their water needs will still be met even when we remove a water point from the equation.

How often are projects decommissioned? 

We have decommissioned an average of eight projects a year over the last five years. To put this in perspective, in 2023, we decommissioned only 0.5% of our projects. We’re happy to say this isn’t a process we employ often!

Why would a project be decommissioned? 

Projects can be decommissioned due to:

  • Contamination of the water source, resulting in irreparable poor water quality.
    • We work with local landowners when constructing each water point. However, we can’t control their actions after a water point is constructed. For example, someone might install a latrine upstream of the water source and unknowingly contaminate the water supply.
  • Silting of the water source that permanently obstructs water access.
    • Silt is a granular sediment made up of tiny particles of rock and minerals, which can seep into wells and clog them enough that they break. We clean and flush wells hoping to prevent this problem, but it can’t always be solved.
  • A lack of water; a “dry” status that extends for 12 consecutive months (with the possible exception of maturing sand dams).
    • Environmental circumstances change. However, technology is improving constantly, and as of 2022, we have an expert hydrologist on staff who performs hydrogeological surveys to determine a well’s viability before it’s built.
    • Sand dams, which we construct in our Southeast Kenya work area, require at least one rainy season to store water. Because of this, we won’t start monitoring water availability at a sand dam/well site until a rainy season has come and gone.
  • Abandoned for the majority of a full year.
    • Even with quarterly monitoring, community members who visit a water source every day will know before we do whether a water source is no longer working.
    • For just one example, this may happen if the water from a well has become contaminated with saltwater. Even if the well provides water, it isn’t drinkable or usable for most purposes. 
  • All possible interventions for repair and sustained maintenance of the specific water point have been exhausted.
An abandoned well in Uganda. In this example, the water had become salty and unusable.

With each decommissioning, we learn lessons that inform our future work.

“Because our first commitment is to people, our first question is always about how to improve the reliability of every water point we develop,” said Spencer Bogle, Director of Program at The Water Project (TWP). 

“We only decommission a project after we have tried everything possible to keep the water running. Over 90% of the projects that we have decommissioned in the last five years are rainwater-dependent (gravity springs, rain tanks, and shallow wells).” 

Part of the cause is climate change, which has been making precipitation less predictable. In these instances, when we construct a water point based on past rainfall indicators, we aren’t always correct.

“We have learned to improve our vetting processes to identify projects that will be more reliable,” Spencer said. “One way we can do this is by looking at the yield of a spring during the driest parts of the year. We have also learned to ask more questions about climate and groundwater sustainability. Each time we encounter a project that we cannot repair or restore, we learn something new about how to make the next project more reliable.”

The Decommissioning Process

We monitor water projects on a quarterly basis to identify issues. Any potential issues are documented, triggering follow-ups from our Operations and Maintenance team. When a water project has multiple issues, it will prompt our local teams to work together with our Program staff to start the decommissioning process.

“Our decommissioning process begins with communication with the community when a water point is not providing reliable water for them,” said Spencer.

“Each water point has a management committee (either a water user committee, self-help group, or the administration of a school or health care facility). Our teams in the field consult with the management committees (and with our mapping resources) so that together they can best discern alternative sources of reliable water. The community provides consent to changes to the water point and agrees to measures that will ensure safety after the water point has been removed — this may include sealing or backfilling an open well.”

A decommissioned water point, freshly cemented over.

As Spencer said, our commitment is to the people we serve — so we consider their needs first when decommissioning a project. We always offer community members the option to construct a new water source whenever we decommission an old one.

“Whenever a water point goes down, several things can happen,” Spencer said. 

“Sometimes, people do not have access to another safe water point, and they are forced to rely on open sources that are often contaminated. In other situations, when a water point is irreparable, they are forced to walk longer distances (sometimes miles) to get safe water. This means less time for work, school, or recreation, and it also means a heavier burden on people. This is why, once a TWP water point is decommissioned, the community can request a new water point if they do not have a backup safe water source.”

As you may know, TWP is working toward achieving 100% water coverage in all of our work areas. This means that we’re striving to ensure that every person has access to more than one water source. Consequently, even if one water source is in need of repair, people will still have several safe water sources available, and they won’t have to return to potentially unsafe options.

So, you might think that decommissioning a water source would affect this goal, taking away a potentially useful water source. But, as Spencer explained, this isn’t the case.

“In the long run, decommissioning a project does not impact our goal to provide complete coverage to people in our focus areas,” Spencer said. “Every TWP project comes with a promise that we are committed to long-term safe water access for that community. When we decommission a project, if the community does not already have a reliable, safe water alternative in place, they can request a replacement project for the water point that was decommissioned.”

As we continue to learn lessons and build water access, decommissioned water points are inevitable. But if we learn valuable lessons with each one, we will grow stronger and better able to provide water to the people we serve.

If you would like to help us ensure that all of our water sources remain safe and reliable, consider donating to The Water Promise, our monthly giving program. Our Water Promise ensures that when water points go down, we can respond and fix issues rapidly, lessening the amount of time when community members might need to resort to their old, unprotected water sources. 

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Jamie Heminway

Jamie is a storyteller by nature. In joining the Water Project, she’s finally found a workplace where that pesky bleeding heart of hers can be put to use (and, less importantly, that BA in English Language & Literature from New England College).