Case Study Zimbabwe Family Well Upgrading

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Africa Groundwater Atlas >> Additional resources >> Case studies >> Zimbabwe Family Well Upgrading Programme

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Thankyou to Peter Morgan of Aquamor, Zimbabwe for assistance with this page.

Zimbabwe Programme for Family Well Upgrading


Zimbabwe’s National Upgraded Well Programme ran from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s, aimed at improving the tens of thousands of privately owned ‘family wells’ across the country. This case study gives an overview of the programme, the problems that it addressed, and how it worked to improve Zimbabwe’s water supply situation.

Family wells in Zimbabwe

Family wells is a name given to water wells created by families for their own use – a concept called ‘self supply’. Because they are usually constructed using low technology at low cost, they are generally hand dug and shallow, and tend to be found where water tables are shallow. This has been a traditional way of accessing water across Zimbabwe, and Africa, throughout history. In Zimbabwe in the 1980s, it was estimated that at least 1 million people drew their water from shallow, family or community-dug wells, with over 30% of the population in some areas using such wells daily. The problem was that most of these wells were either unprotected or poorly protected, and often became contaminated – either because of the runoff of rainwater that was contaminated by waste, or because the buckets and ropes used to draw water became contaminated from unhygienic conditions at the wellhead. Because many of the wells were open at the top, they also posed a risk of falling in – especially for children.

But despite family wells being so widely used, they were generally not recorded in official inventories of water sources, and not regarded seriously by government or other agencies involved in water supply. The emphasis of official water supply programmes was on installing communal community boreholes or wells with hand pumps, mostly fitted with the Zimbabwe Bush Pump.

The Blair Research Institute – evidence for why upgrading family wells improves their safety

Official attitudes to family wells started to change in the late 1980s, when researchers at the Ministry of Health’s Blair Research Institute (now known as the National Institute for Health Research) recognised both the extent and popularity of family well use across Zimbabwe – family wells were often preferred to communal hand pumps, in part because they were more convenient and promoted self sufficiency – and the fact that many family wells had been privately improved in a way that addressed some of the problems with them. For example, some families constructed lined wells, or added well covers, or a surrounding wall to protect the well from contamination, or windlasses that kept buckets and ropes off the ground when not in use. The Environmental Health Department of the Ministry of Health had also been promoting shallow well use for decades.

A well independently upgraded by a family. Image credit: Morgan (2006)

The Blair Institute carried out research showing that improving family wells could indeed reduce the risk of well water contamination. They showed that bacterial load in well water could be reduced if the following changes were made compared to traditional hand dug wells:

- brick-lined wells
- narrower wells
- the use of covers
- raising buckets and ropes off the ground
- guiding rainfall runoff away from the well opening.
- installing robust sanitary aprons around the wells to prevent any seepage of contaminated water through cracks into the well

In 1988 the Blair Institute started a demonstration scheme for the rigorous upgrading of existing family wells, with the backing of the Environmental Health Department, and showed that not only did these improvements increase the safety of well water, but that improving existing wells was cheaper than constructing new ones.

A family well upgraded by the Programme. Image credit: Morgan (2015)
A family well upgraded by the Programme, without a windlass. The banana tree is planted in such a position as to absorb runoff. Image credit: Morgan (2006)

The National Upgraded Well Programme in the 1990s

By 1990 the Ministry of Health officially endorsed the Blair Institute’s demonstration scheme, followed by the National Action Committee of Government in 1991, and the National Upgraded Well Programme was expanded across Zimbabwe. Throughout the 1990s, donors, including Water Aid, subsidised family well upgrading programmes, alongside a programme of upgrading family-based toilet facilities.

For the wells, families had to fund the digging and lining of the well shaft themselves, but they were supported by a subsidy from the government (with donor support) to cover the costs of cement, a tin well cover, and a windlass (commercially made at the time).

District Environmental Health Officers and their staff supervised upgrading according to the procedures recommended by the Programme. District teams were supported by the Blair Research Institute (which in 1993 became an NGO, the Mvuramanzi Trust). Government-employed trainers provided local builders and artisans with skills.

The Blair Institute/Mvuramanzi Trust alone upgraded over 38,000 family wells in the first part of the 1990s, and the efforts of other agencies may have brought the total to nearly 50,000. Morgan et al. (1996) estimated that the cost to government of providing water to a family had been cheaper using this method than any other.

Additional benefits of the Programme were also seen. The increased number of operational wells in led to an expansion in vegetable gardening, irrigated with well water, which further supported local economic development. Some commentators also reflected on the relative advantages of organising water supply at the family and the community level. On one hand, family-based water supplies reduce pressure on communal pumps, reducing the likelihood of breakdowns. On the other hand, families with their own well were thought to be less likely to contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of a communal resource.

Factors contributing to the success of the programme

One of the reasons for the success of the family well upgrading programme was that it built upon a traditional practice that had been already been established for generations. It facilitated families to do something for themselves with something they could build and manage for themselves. The well upgrading methods are based on relatively simple, locally tried and tested techniques, which promoted their uptake. Private ownership was also an important factor and the convenience of having a private water supply close to home was seen as very important.

The long term involvement of the Ministry of Health was also a factor in the success of the project. The Ministry of Health had the manpower to provide supervisory and training staff at many levels, including those that operated in the village. Other ministries would not have been able to do this.

Factors contributing to the decline of the Programme after the 1990s

Hydrogeological factors

A simple map produced in 1992 indicating areas where there may be suitable groundwater conditions for shallow, hand dug family wells. Black areas = potentially suitable groundwater conditions for shallow wells; hatched areas = unlikely to be suitable groundwater conditions; white areas = state or commercial land. Image credit: Morgan (2015)

A serious constraint to all shallow wells is fluctuations in groundwater levels (the water table), which can cause shallow wells to decline in yield or even dry up. Families often continue to deepen their wells in dry periods, so that the wells still tap some groundwater, but in severe droughts – such as in 1991/2 – many wells dry up. Studies in Zimbabwe have shown that in any one area, some wells are more reliable than others in drought periods – sometimes related to local hydrogeological conditions, or sometimes to the efforts of the owners who continue deepening wells as water tables fall. Such functional wells are often shared when water tables are at their lowest.

Hand dug family wells are not appropriate or possible in areas where there are no shallow aquifers, and/or the rock is too hard to dig through. In some parts of the country, therefore, there is little scope for expanding family wells. A simple map indicating where there may be hydrogeological potential for shallow family wells was produced in 1992 based on information collected by Ministry of Health staff. This map could be updated based on new groundwater information available since 1992. Family wells are also not generally appropriate for larger supplies, such as for schools or community centres.

Socio-economic, political and management factors

From the year 2000, Zimbabwe entered a very troubled political period, resulting in economic and infrastructure decline, and a huge reduction in donor support, which affected many developmental programs including the water supply program. Many community hand pump supplies failed and were not revived. Currently, only about 50% of hand pumps are thought to be functional. There was also a slowdown in the construction of new family wells. But the many existing family wells that continued to operate successfully in the worsened economic conditions proved that family-owned water supplies had great merit. Many families constructed their own wells when other community water supplies became defunct. The skills and experience gained by many during the official programme may have helped to demonstrate the value and reliability of family-owned supplies, and to support self-upgrading.

Additionally, the willingness of donors to providing generous subsidies to families for improving family based wells and toilets, which was done in the years after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, has also declined significantly. As a result, the design of the Upgraded Family Well unit was restyled so it could be built in a series of step by step stages at lower cost, where families could perform construction work with minimal or no support from outside - see 'Further developments of the programme', below.

There has been a lack of accurate monitoring of the successes and weaknesses of the former Programme and of the technologies and funding methods used. Limited evaluations have suggested mixed fortunes of upgraded wells, depending on things like the quality of original construction, and the amount of government and financial support.

Further developments of the programme

In a later research programme based in Epworth, close to Harare - the suburb where some of the first family wells had been upgraded in the 1980s - local artisans were trained, and encouraged to train others, to upgrade their own wells. This programme was also subsidised, although to a much lesser extent than the programmes of the 1990s: families who wanted to upgrade their well received a bag of cement and two well treated gum poles with which to support a locally made windlass. An adaptation of the original programme was that upgrades could be made incrementally and with fewer resources: for example, it was not compulsory to begin with a windlass and the supporting poles, as these could be added later. The sanitary apron design was smaller and stouter and used less cement. Each well in this trial programme was designed to provide water to between 8 and 64 people. Many of the wells are shared between different families.

Surprisingly, initial results of this programme showed that water quality was no worse or better if the wells did not have a windlass (which keeps the bucket and rope off the ground), but further tests are needed to confirm this. A strong concrete well cover serving as an apron, with raised external and internal rims supporting a lid together, with a water run-off channel were seen as essential components. User feedback indicated that this simple and upgradeable system was seen as affordable at a family level. Further well upgrades were viewed as optional and as the responsibility of the family alone. Guidance on new well siting was also seen as important. However, this alternative incremental method has not yet been trialled in Zimbabwe beyond this initial research programme.


It is clear that the concept of self-supply is very much alive in Zimbabwe, and if anything has only strengthened in recent years when official water supply programmes have declined in the difficult political and economic circumstances. Where community supplies do not function effectively, family-owned water sources have become the only means of survival for many.

The formal Family Well Upgrading Programme of the 1990s helped to expand improved water supplies to many more people across the country, and led to additional benefits beyond immediate domestic water supply. Informal development and upgrading of family wells is not currently monitored in Zimbabwe but is likely to be continuing across the country. The exact number of privately owned wells today is not known, but may be in excess of 200,000, serving over 1 million people in total. The development of private groundwater supplies is happening not only in rural areas but also in cities, where huge numbers of privately owned boreholes have been drilled in response to the failure of municipal water supplies to deliver water at all, or to deliver water that meets international standards. The unregulated expansion of private groundwater abstraction in densely populated urban areas may face its own problems relating to water quality and sustainability of supply. It remains to be seen how family self-supply of water will continue developing across Zimbabwe in future.

Note: for an example of issues relating to expanding private borehole development in the major city of Lagos, Nigeria, see the Atlas case study on Use and Perceptions of groundwater in an urban area - Lagos, Nigeria.


Morgan P. 2006. Zimbabwe's upgraded family well programme.

Morgan P, Chimbunde E, Mtakwa N and Waterkeyn A. 1996. Now in my backyard - Zimbabwe's upgraded family well programme. Waterlines 14(4)

Morgan P and Kanyemba A. 2012. A preliminary study of training artisans in upgradeable techniques for family owned wells. Aquamor Report.

Morgan P. 2015. Self-Supply as a means of bringing water to the people of Zimbabwe and its relation to the hand pump program.

Many more resources on upgrading family wells and self supply are available on the Aquamor and RWSN websites.

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