In 2004, as a young professional living in Uganda, and working as a freelance consultant, I was delighted to take on the role of leading a ‘flagship’ for the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) on ‘low cost drilling’, which we renamed ‘cost-effective boreholes’. Back then I could never have imagined that this decision would enable me to engage with dozens of organisations, hundreds of people, work in some 15 African countries and, some 16 years later, end up championing the subject of drilling professionalism at global level. That decision helped propelled me to Switzerland four years later, to become an employee of Skat Consulting AG and lead the flagship from there, until this year, when I decided to establish my own little company, Ask for Water GmbH.
Research into developing and introducing manual drilling equipment, a project funded by the then UK Government Department for International Development (DFID) was what took me to Uganda in 1998. What I anticipated to be a technical design project, became an exploration of how innovations are adopted (or not). I was thus considerably stretched from my mechanical engineering background, into something much broader. It became clear that technology – in this case drilling technology – does not succeed or fail by the strength of technical aspects alone, but also by the people, society, economy and institutions that surround it.
The professional drilling topic of RWSN has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 2004, where we set out to understand why boreholes in Africa tended to be so expensive. We learned that this was not just a technical issue. The risks associated with drilling, irregular work, challenges of getting credit, corruption, late payment by clients, contract terms and conditions all play a part in determining the cost, and ultimately the price of a borehole.
As drilling markets across the African continent have opened up over the past decade and a half, competition has grown, and in many cases, prices seem to have come down. Alas this has come at another cost – with concerns being repeatedly raised about construction quality, and rural, as well as urban dwellers in Africa left with infrastructure that they simply cannot maintain. ‘No water no pay’ clauses, where all of the responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the driller drive up prices for successful wells, or lead to corners being cut as drillers struggle to recover their financial losses on drilling efforts that are not paid for.
Over the past decade and a half, I have engaged with drillers in Africa and their clients, trying to understand their strengths, alongside the opportunities and challenges of the contexts in which they both operate work. Together with UNICEF, WaterAid, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and others RWSN has developed guidance materials, run short courses to train supervisors, managers and groundwater consultants. We have developed and launched short films that explain siting, supervision, drilling and its management in five minutes each.
And so, what next for me with my start-up? Well, as I move into this new venture, I gladly remain with the role of leading the RWSN topic of professional drilling. By taking on its responsibilities and risks directly, as well as searching for funding, I also grant myself some more freedom. It is time for a pit stop! I want to take stock of what we have achieved to date, reflect on what others are already doing to engage with others to drive forwards a global effort to raise the capacity of drillers, supervisors, consultants, managers, and those that take decisions which affect borehole drilling quality. The foundation is set for improving drilling professionalism – for finding way to ensure that rural and urban dwellers have a borehole that they can maintain. Who would like to join the effort?
This article first appeared in GeoDrilling International (September 2020).