Plural hands to the pump

Lending a hand: an Oxford University-led initiative in Kenya is tackling the chronic scourge of poor hand pump maintenance.

Two award-winning projects in dryland East Africa were based on the premise that taking plural perspectives on natural resources, technology and risk may be the best means of addressing apparently intractable problems relating to water governance. Brendan Bromwich and Johanna Koehler share their experiences.

It appeared to be a straightforward, three-month placement in Darfur to drill boreholes for refugee camps – the bread and butter of humanitarian aid programmes. But with control of water as one dimension of the conflict, Brendan Bromwich found the assignment was far from straightforward. Across Africa, hand pumps fail and are left untouched with pitiful rates of repair. This ubiquitous challenge was exacerbated by conflict where land and water points were appropriated, and government agencies were partisan – the illusion of an uncomplicated well-drilling programme had blown away in the dust.

“The brutality of the war in Darfur didn’t just wreck lives and communities.”

For the humanitarian programme, Brendan’s work now involved negotiation with militia leaders and representatives of displaced groups to try and ascertain which villages were legally or illegally occupied and where the well drilling work could legitimately proceed. One side argued that the nomadic pastoralists were unfairly excluded from the humanitarian assistance compounding their historic marginalisation. The other side pointed to their role in the violence and the water points they had destroyed. Negotiation could address the immediate challenge of providing emergency assistance from a position of political neutrality, but a wider process over a number of years was needed to begin to address the underlying links between water and conflict.


The brutality of the war in Darfur didn’t just wreck lives and communities; it tore apart a core tenet of Darfuri life – that the herders and farmers indigenous to the region were part of the same symbiotic system of natural resource use and management. Each year, when the rains were over and pasture began to dry out, livestock would be taken to the agricultural land to graze on post-harvest crop residues and recycle nutrients to the soil. The system worked on a combination of traditional rules and local agreements. However, the drought in the 1980s caused the system to begin to break down, and new patterns of enclosure and control of access to land and water emerged. The violence of the 2000s resulted in massive displacement, and in much of Darfur, access to land, and therefore water resources, became controlled by the gun.

Recovery from this conflict doesn’t mean reinstating the previous failed system; nor does it mean the imposition of modern husbandry and agriculture that abandons the traditional and cultural dimensions of collaborative natural resource use. To support a process by which Darfuris sought to redesign and re-establish systems of environmental governance, UN Environment runs a programme that cast hybrid and plural approaches to governance as sure features of whatever post-conflict arrangements would emerge. New approaches would have to be mindful of the past, but also draw on fresh thinking from elsewhere.

To learn from developments elsewhere in post-conflict Africa, UN Environment enabled Darfuri natural resource managers to work with Sudanese diaspora in South Africa to learn from the successes and failures of South Africa’s water policy reforms in the aftermath of apartheid. The meetings of Darfuri water managers, who were enthralled by the stories of collaboration among old adversaries in South Africa, were electric.
Drawing on, but not beholden to, the South African experience, Darfuri politicians, engineers and others began to explore how water management was a convening discourse for different groups across society. UN Environment’s next step was to support a major project along a significant ephemeral river, Wadi El Ku, which engaged local entrepreneurs, civil society networks at the village level, government technocrats and political representatives. The plurality of perspectives was an intentional element of the programme design, which was predicated on an organic development of new arrangements rather than prescriptive implementation of a technical solution.

“New approaches would have to be mindful of the past, but also draw on fresh thinking from elsewhere.”

What had begun as a technical dialogue among water managers had morphed, via a political process, into a community-owned programme, enabled and energised by local entrepreneurs. In this way, the project moved beyond the confines of formal development actors, to engage with social dynamics and local peace initiatives in a more organic and far-reaching way. This creativity was recognised when the project was awarded the UNCCD Land for Life award in 2017.

The Environmental Quartet
Bureaucrats broadly align with government and adhere to a hierarchical structure. At the local level, bureaucratic institutions include schools and clinics that commonly manage rural waterpoints. They tend to adopt rule-based approaches to managing risk in the environment.

Egalitarians are well networked and less constrained. As they tend to have a preference for equality of condition, risks are typically borne across the group. They include non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-managed waterpoints in the rural water sector.

Individualists seek to operate independently with minimal constraint via either rules or social relations. They want to crack on and get the job done. At the local level, they tend to own their waterpoint privately and engage in entrepreneurial activities.

Fatalists are constrained by social rules but with little access to debate they have little opportunity to influence the way things are done for the better and adjust to their situation. With regard to the rural water sector, they include groups at waterpoints that have been broken for a long time – and represent a major development challenge.

Schematic from Koehler, J., et al (2018)1

Similarly, in Kenya, Oxford University has been driving an initiative to tackle the chronic scourge of handpump maintenance, with a similar commitment to understanding and reflecting the plurality of perspectives to managing rural water risks. Johanna Koehler and the team from the Water Programme of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment have drawn on insights from anthropology to identify different managerial cultures around maintenance of rural water supplies in Kenya and explore the complementarity of the different styles.

Through a wide-ranging survey of water management approaches, a strong empirical basis for the analysis has informed changes in maintenance programming. The cultural analysis is backed up with innovative technological approaches to collecting data on handpump performance, all of which is used to inform new pluralist institutional arrangements for handpump maintenance that allow the different management cultures to co-exist.
The practical response is a maintenance service provision model for rural water infrastructure, known as FundiFix. Designed and tested in Kenya, the model has been transitioned into a commercial operation. Two locally registered Kenyan maintenance companies have brought down outages of handpumps by addressing inefficiencies faced by the different management cultures and working with the grain of plural rationalities. The rationale is that professionalised services with smart monitoring can increase sustainable finance from users, investors and government. Water Services Maintenance Trust Funds were registered in Kenya to issue and monitor performance contracts to local companies to improve or extend service delivery.

“Access to land, and therefore water resources, is now controlled by the gun.”

Investors and potentially government are able to support the sustainable delivery of services with access to timely and objective financial and operational data. This approach can be described as a pluralist arrangement reallocating responsibility for managing water service risks among state, market and community institutions – which became recognised in national legislation in Kenya. The team from the Smith School Water Programme with colleagues from Engineering Science won Oxford University Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Award for 2018 for the Smart Handpumps work.
Significantly, these projects have both moved beyond the entrenched debate in development circles that often sets technical solutions in opposition to social and political responses to water problems. Engineers and economists are routinely critiqued for failing to address the political complexity of water problems. Allocation and distribution of water services are inherently political questions and therefore viewed as outside the scope of technical analysis. There is little to argue with, so what has gone wrong?

The problem lies in a failure to develop complementarity and breadth in the social science and technical discourses on water. Conceptual frameworks, and the language they are expressed in, often speak to one community rather than the other. The framing works to exclude certain contributors to the debate rather than provide a “big tent” and a common language.

By contrast, both of these award-winning projects were built around analytical frameworks that explicitly recognise and embrace plural perspectives. Cultural theory of risk (CT), as articulated by social anthropologist Mary Douglas, identified a four-fold matrix by which actors are more or less engaged by adherence to rules and social norms and by the network of social relations that they hold. The resulting matrix creates four categories of actors on environmental problems which may be classified as: Bureaucrats, Egalitarians, Individualists and Fatalists. These groupings have proved to be fertile ground for the analysis of plural perspectives on water and the environment (see graphic).

Cultural Theorists have argued that for complex problems, which they dub “wicked problems”, solutions from any one of these perspectives may appear attractive or elegant in the CT terminology. But they fail to provide a solution. It is a creative interplay between these different perspectives that is needed to address wicked problems. The inadequacy of solutions with deceptive simplicity (representing just one of the four CT perspectives) reflects Mencken’s observation that: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

“It is a creative interplay between these different perspectives that is needed to address wicked problems.”

It is the insistence on examining the interplay between plural perspectives that provides a way forward for the polarised debates on international water policy. Professor Tony Allan observed that bureaucratic, egalitarian and individualist perspectives map on to the internet domains of .gov, .org and .com. On that basis he provided, in his acceptance speech for the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize, the pithy definition of good governance being “when .com, .org and .gov work well together”. That they work well together and benefit individuals (perhaps Facebook users in Allan’s analogy), might provide a chance to include fatalists in this framing.

In Darfur, UN Environment found that the livelihood entrepreneurs (Individualists) energised a process of change in natural resource use; the process also drew on the heavy lifting that government agencies (Bureaucrats) could provide, usefully held to account and directed by the NGO community (Egalitarians). Egalitarians had important links with the broader unrepresented communities at the village level (Fatalists).
In Kenya, a pluralist institutional network is developing to recognise cooperative management cultures. Performance-based contracts link communities with a maintenance service provider operating at scale and reduce operational and financial inefficiencies through a private sector (individualist) approach. Cooperative governance, including public sector support, is a critical component of institutional coordination through regulation of water sector activities and sustaining financial flows – leveraging hierarchical and egalitarian ways of organising. So it addresses the challenge of rural water sustainability with a more comprehensive response, where previous approaches have often separated communities from the state and from markets.

By adopting a framework in which technical, social, private sector, government and community voices are all framed as contributing to a plural debate, the siloed thinking of these different perspectives can be avoided. This provides a more realistic way forward for international water and environmental policy discourse.

1. Koehler, J., Rayner, S., Katuva, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2018). A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change. Global Environmental Change 50, 268-277.

Boring ideas: Cultural Theorists categorise the perspectives on environmental issues like borehole maintenance (clockwise from top right) as bureaucratic (.gov), egalitarian (.org), individualist (.com) and fatalist. (Dixit 2002).

Johanna Koehler

Johanna is Researcher and Programme Manager of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, as well as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at …

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Brendan Bromwich

Brendan coordinated the UN’s environmental response in Darfur from 2007 to 2013. He currently works with King’s College London’s food and water group and is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford …

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One Comment on “Plural hands to the pump”

  1. very interesting and useful, really is reflecting the situation on the ground and contributing to find out possible solutions and develop a framework for collective dialogue, which will finally contribute to improve water resources management in current context especially in Sudan.

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