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What leads to lengthy commute times to source water?

Josea is a 22-year old man who works on his family’s farm near Msitu wa Tembo, a village in Kilimanjaro Region, Tanzania. For 2-3 days out of the week, Josea’s work includes riding his bike with large plastic canisters, strapped to the bike’s carrier to fetch water for his family.

Josea rents his bicycle from the Kazi na Sala women’s cooperative, a partner of globalbike and The TATU Project. In July 2017, our director and staff met Josea during a site visit. We learned that when he sets off for water, he never knows quite how long it may take.

The nearest water pump is located not far from Kazi na Sala’s bike shop. This is where Josea normally rides to refill his water, as does much of the community due to its convenient location.

But the pump’s convenient in-town location often means a long line of people waiting to collect water. The pump also uses a solar-charged battery to bring underground well water to the surface, and the battery can run low on energy due to high use. Josea frequently arrives at the pump to find the pump not working from over-use or the wait too long.

When this and the other nearby solar-powered pump become inaccessible, Josea moves on, riding 30 minutes farther to the next closest water source on a sugar cane plantation. The bicycle gives him the flexibility to make this choice, which would be at least twice as long on foot.

Josea's story is not unique, nor are the challenges of solar powered pumps and long lines unique to Msitu was Tembo. In Tanzania, in the first five years of operation, all categories of pumps become nonfunctioning at the rate of 30% [1]. The Tanzanian Demographic and Health survey in 2016 found that 54% of households using piped or well water reported not having water for at least one day in the preceding two weeks [2]. In fact, despite significant investments in Tanzanian water infrastructure since 2006, increases in water access have only kept pace with population growth [3].

What leads to this situation? Researchers point to the fact that well-meaning organizations donate wells and pumps, but not the training and resources required for maintenance and management. Community-owned water supply organizations charged with managing the pumps often struggle to collect fees to pay for repairs. In addition to a lack of management training, these village-level organizations haven’t been given the technical training and spare parts needed to maintain water systems [4]. In sum, while many efforts have been made to increase the number of water sources, little progress has been made to make them sustainable over time, an outcome that impacts long-term access.

Due to these challenges, investments have shifted recently towards solar-powered pump options which are more cost effective and easier to maintain, but with the high demands of water in densely populated communities, energy for these pumps can quickly run low.

An equally frustrating unintended outcome of investments in well and pump construction that forces villagers to source water outside their villages is that pumps do not always provide “safe” water. Pumps may provide “clean” water that appears clear but does not test as healthy for human consumption. In a recent study in Msitu wa Tembo, The TATU Project found that not all of the wells provide safe water. They found that some wells had water with unsafe levels of fluoride, a problem common in Northern Tanzania [5].

Many efforts are underway to increase the water supply. The TATU Project is working hard to address these challenges by working to restore the health of the water being provided by local pumps and by leveraging resources to create additional safe water access points in the village. Solutions to these challenges need to be multi-faceted. Investing in better maintenance and management practices, higher quality wells and pumps, and water treatment resources are key. In the meantime, for Josea and many others, a bicycle provides options that save time, and on some days, bring water when there is none.

[1] 2011. Jimenez, A. and Perez-Foquet A. “The relationship between technology and functionality of rural water points: evidence from Tanzania.” in Water, Science, and Technology. 63(5): p948-55.

[2] 2015-2016. Tanzanian Demographic and Health Survey.

[3] 2011. “Water Supply and Sanitation in Tanzania: Turning Finance into Services for 2015 and Beyond.” African Ministers’ Council on Water.

[4] 2016. Water Sector Status Report. United Republic of Tanzania Ministry of Water and Irrigation Water Sector Development Programme. Oct.

[5] 2017. “Survey about Water Access, Supply, and Sanitation in Msitu wa Tembo & Londoto: Preliminary results, conclusions, and recommendations.” The TATU Project.


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