Case Study Zimbabwe Family Well Upgrading

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Zimbabwe Programme for Family Well Upgrading


Zimbabwe’s National Upgraded Well Programme ran from 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 – the 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 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.

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:

- 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, 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.

Families had to fund the digging and lining of the well shaft themselves, but they were supported by a subsidy from the government to cover the costs of cement, a well cover, and windlass materials.

District Environmental Health Officers 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, families with their own well may be less likely to contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of a communal resource. On the other hand, family scale pumps may reduce pressure on communal pumps, reducing the likelihood of breakdowns.

Factors contributing to the success of the Programme

One of the reasons for the success of this Programme was that it facilitated families to do something – improve and manage their own private well – that they were already motivated to do, because of the benefits, including convenience and self sufficiency, of well ownership. The well upgrading methods are also based on relatively simple, locally tried and tested techniques, which promoted their uptake.

The long term involvement of the Ministry of Health was a factor in the success of the project. The Ministry of Health had the manpower to provide supervisory and training staff at local level, which other ministries would not have been able to do. Inclusion of aspects of the Programme in school curricula also strengthened it.

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

A serious constraint to shallow family 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 a well in dry periods, so that 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 – possibly related to local hydrogeological conditions – and these 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. Family wells are also not generally appropriate for larger supplies, such as for schools or community centres. From 2000, Zimbabwe’s economic decline was one of the factors leading to a slowdown in well upgrading. But some families self-upgraded in this period as other supplies of water, such as bush pumps, became defunct. The skills learned by many during the official programme may have helped to support self-upgrading.

There has been a lack of monitoring of the successes and weaknesses of the Programme and the technologies used. Limited evaluations have suggested mixed fortunes of upgraded wells, depending on things like the quality of original construction.

A New Family Well Upgrading Programme

A new programme of family well upgrading was begun in 2010, promoted by Aquamor, a private research and development company. Aquamor established Awesome Life Trust, with the aim of bringing upgrading within the reach of poor rural families. Focussed in Epworth, the suburb where some of the first family wells had been upgraded in the 1980s, they trained local artisans and encouraged people to pay for their own well upgrading. They also trained those artisans to advertise the program within their communities. The program was still subsidised, although to a lesser extent than the programs of the 1990s: families who wanted to upgrade received a bag of cement and two gummed poles with which to make a windlass. An adaptation of the original program was that upgrades could be made incrementally and with fewer resources: for example, it was not seen as compulsory to begin with a windlass, as it could be added later. The apron used less cement, and the walls did too, being stouter and higher than in the original 1990s design. Each well provided water to between 8 and 64 people.


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.

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

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