Underground Water in Africa

As you know, I tend to blather on a little about water. Especially drinking water.  Clean, fresh drinking water in Africa, where millions of people don’t have access to the life giving stuff as we do. It all seems a bit negative, but that isn’t really the case.

I came across these two articles recently.

The first, from The Daily Mail, said:

Huge reserves of underground water in some of the driest parts of Africa could provide a buffer against the effects of climate change for years to come, scientists said.

Researchers from the British Geological Survey and University College London have for the first time mapped the aquifers, or groundwater, across the continent and the amount they hold.

‘The largest groundwater volumes are found in the large sedimentary aquifers in the North African countries Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan,’ the scientists said in their paper.’

The other, from The Telegraph, said:

‘Scientists using technology developed to search for oil have discovered a vast underground water reservoir in one of Kenya’s driest regions that if properly managed could supply the country’s needs for close to 70 years.

Researchers from a French-American firm, Radar Technologies International, worked with the Kenyan government and UNESCO to layer satellite, radar and geological maps on top of each other, and then used seismic techniques developed to find oil to identify the reservoir.

It lies in Kenya’s extreme northwest, close to its borders with South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. The area is sparsely populated and prone to conflict over existing scarce resources.’

See, now, this is actually marvellous news, but with this, a word of caution:

“But knowing there’s water there, and then getting it to the surface, are two different things …” Brian McSorley, a water expert at Oxfam in Nairobi, said.

And therein lies the rub. Deep down underground there is potable water – even in the Sahara Desert – but reaching it can be problematic.

That’s why sustainable, practical and cost effective solutions are important. One such solution that has been in operation for a number of years now, addressing this exact problem, can be found through The Africa Trust. A charity started by AquAid and Ian Thorpe. One of the many solutions that The Africa Trust provides is the building of Elephant Pumps throughout disadvantaged communities throughout Africa.

No, they don’t use real elephants. The Elephant Pump is a well based on an ancient Chinese design. The pump has been adapted to make it stronger, more durable and made and maintained using materials that are locally available in remote rural sub-Saharan African communities.

The Africa Trust – Update May 2014

The Africa Trust – Update May 2014

Country Programmes

The bananas for fees project has nearly doubled in size this year with almost one thousand children now benefitting. This was due to a good harvest and the reduced need for inputs compared to the previous two seasons. It is anticipated that further significant growth will be possible next year as school plantations are extended and new sites are identified. This business is clearly profitable although all the profits are being reinvested to achieve impressive growth. There will be very little investment needed for this project now that it has gained momentum.

The dairy programme in Zimbabwe continues to expand with a total of 37 cows. It was established through purchase and distribution of serviced cattle on the understanding that farmers pay back the loans for their cows over a period of 18 months. A dairy association in the Honde Valley manages loan repayment independently. Whenever loan repayments allow for another cow to be bought, this is done on a similar basis so that the dairy herd is continuously expanding. Some additional investment was made to allow for the establishment of a second dairy herd and association in Watsomba. There is a long waiting period for delivery of cattle after payment is made, but the milking shed structures are now in place and a crop of silage has already been grown.

The pump building programme in Zimbabwe is currently operating at full capacity with 10-15 pumps being installed every week. 478 pumps were installed in the last year in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Liberia, including AquAid pumps and also pumps built with funding from other partners such as Christian Aid and Dorcas Aid. There was a particularly long and heavy rainy season in Zimbabwe, which disturbed construction activities, but such heavy rains mean that aquifers are now fully recharged.


In Liberia, we have established a small operation of trained former child soldiers who are building Elephant Pumps and Elephant Toilets. Trials of the new household water filters are proving most encouraging and this could end up being a major programme. Input from micro-biologists and others is helping with modification of the design and water testing protocols. 2014 is the year for the filter to be piloted with roll out from 2015 onwards.

Liberia has been through local disturbances and deadly outbreaks of disease including cholera and the horrifying disease Ebola. It is a country of enormous need, desperate poverty and poor security. Violent crime, especially robbery is commonplace and corruption is the norm. The Africa Trust is planting a seed of hope in that troubled country and gradually the various initiatives are taking root. I am keen on the recycling of plastic waste in Liberia and already we are using waste bottles to make pipes and guttering. There is potential for this to be extended further. A brick-making project was recently funded.


In Kenya the 35 business skills trainees who received loans are all doing well, except for one.  The motorbike taxi business is slowly growing with no major problems reported on collection of rental fees. We have funded a maize-grinding mill for a group of women living with AIDS. The pioneer group who were so successful in paying back all their loans in full have set up a savings and loans association with some matched loan funding from The Africa Trust.


In Malawi, we have a man working full time on business skills training, mentoring and loan collection. There is a growing footprint from this programme as a many businesses succeed and start to provide local employment. An orphanage and home for elderly care has been built near Lilongwe.  Some funding has been provided to pay for solar lighting and geysers for the extension to the Dawn Centre for severely disabled children.


In Uganda the number of Africa Trust business skills trainees will soon reach 10,000 with a large number of new businesses successfully established as a result. Others have used the skills they learnt to expand and improve existing businesses.


The programme in Tanzania continues to go well with steady growth of the motorbike taxi business and no major management problems with the three water pipelines. One small pipeline problem was resolved in which villagers had blocked an outlet to a cattle trough in order to conserve drinking water. I instructed them to take a separate pipe from source so that the two needs were no longer competing. I again did some survey work with a view to the introduction of the Elephant Pump in the Mara region in the next year or two. A small grocery shop has been established to raise funds for monitoring.


The Mozambique programme is in a holding pattern since the government is insisting on data from an extended pilot period for the Elephant Pump, before expansion can be authorised. We feel that it is worth some patience to keep the authorities on side.



The Elephant vs. The Water Cooler

A few moons ago, I was invited to travel with a friend to an exclusive lodge in The Kruger Park. I was to be the site inspection photographer. Bliss.  The lodge had 10 suites (yes that type of exclusive) and was run by a lovely husband and wife team.  Sadly, a few weeks before, there had been a serious bush fire in the region, so a lot of the greenery – trees especially – were now just stunted, blackened twigs. In the arrival / parking area of the lodge, there was, however, a beautiful thriving green tree. The reason that this tree made it was because it ‘belonged’ to the lodge and was kept watered and was protected during the fire.

Anyhow, we returned from a game drive and retired to our suite to prepare for dinner.   At about 7ish, we all sit down for dinner with the husband and wife team who are our hosts.  We chat about our day, what we’ve seen as we enjoy the delicious food that has been specially prepared for us. Just before main course, an askari* approaches the husband and he steps away from the table – something requires his attention.

Now, the lodge is set up on a hillside, the magnificent veld** falling away beneath us and with the glassed-in dining room, we have an almost 180° view of the land surrounding us. Now, understandably, it’s pitch dark as it’s night time. Except for, all of a sardine, I can see headlights from a Landrover (one of the game drive vehicles) advancing, then stopping, then reversing, then stopping, then advancing again (you get the picture) … this carries on with much hooting and some choice language from the occupants of the Landy for a good 30 minutes or so.

The rather charming lady of the lodge then explained that her husband, who was a qualified game ranger, amongst other things, was rather passionate about this single tree in the entrance. He had apparently planted it and kept it watered from a sapling. In his opinion this tree was in the lodge ‘garden’ (although there are no fences at all at the lodge) and therefore belonged to the lodge. He had saved said tree from the fire. The problem was that there was a young bull elephant that was hungry and in his opinion, this tree was the only one that had edible bits on it, especially as the other trees were all burnt. So, after dark, the young elephant came for dinner. The husband wasn’t having this, so he and the askari were playing ‘chicken’ with an 8,000+ pound elephant as to who ‘got’ the tree.

What we were all seeing was the mechanics of this ‘chicken’ dare. The young elephant would advance. The Landrover would reverse. They would hoot at the elephant and throw a brick at the elephant. The elephant would retreat. The Landrover would advance. And on it went. If memory serves, the ‘teenage’ elephant eventually gave ground and loped off into the reserve to see if he could find fresh pickings elsewhere – the husband returned to dinner looking triumphant.

All I remember is it was one of the funniest (if not rather scary!) stand offs I’ve ever seen and something truly never to be forgotten.

What does this have to do with water coolers you may ask? Well, truthfully, not much, but it does mention an elephant and the story is set in southern Africa.  It just so happens that The Africa Trust, to who AquAid donate a sizeable portion of their revenue to, builds Elephant Pumps that bring clean drinking water to communities throughout southern Africa. Have a look see. (No, the mammalian ‘hero’ of this story isn’t how The Elephant Pump got its name.)

*An askari is a trusted scout; usually at a lodge, they are responsible for escorting guests between their rooms and the main areas as well as a having a number of other responsibilities.

**Veld is open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa. It is conventionally divided by altitude into highveld, middleveld, and lowveld.

The Africa Trust – Summer’s Coming!

The Africa Trust – Summer’s Coming!

Remember the heat wave? You must – it was only a month or so ago. Now, take those temperatures and turn up the heat, so to speak, by a good 8 °C. Or for that matter, another 10°C.

Now, take a good 38°C and couple it with scant shade … and … no water.

Then, to this rather sweltering image, add this: If you want drinking water, you need to walk to go and find it. And not just down to the corner caf, but a few miles. When you get there, you can’t just buy a bottle of water (or any liquid for that matter); you have to fill the bucket that you brought with you and walk back home, carrying the now full bucket.

Not enough Bear Grylls for you? The water that you’ve just fetched is most likely, not fresh, and not clean and may be so full of bacteria, that even while trying to hydrate yourself, you may very well be making yourself ill without even realising it.

Remember, this is just water for you (and possibly, members of your family) to drink. This is not water that is needed to wash your clothes or your dishes or to water your meagre food crop with. This is just water to drink to keep you going. This is basic human survival type of stuff.

This is the day to day existence for many communities throughout the Third World and in the summer months, lack of potable water is amplified by the heat.

That’s just one of the reasons that AquAid chose to work with sustainable charities like The Africa Trust.

Because although we’re always tooting our horn about being one of the top water cooler providers in the U.K. we also (truly) believe in helping others less fortunate to help themselves. So, while we have you to thank, most valued customer, for your support and through your purchases making it possible for others to help themselves; isn’t it rather nice to know that when you’re sipping cool spring water from one of our water coolers, there’s another Elephant Pump being built in Africa, bringing fresh, clean drinking water to yet another community in need?

I think so. Good on yer. Toot toot!

The Elephant Pump

The Elephant Pump

The Elephant Pump is based on a 2000 year-old Chinese design that the CEO of The Africa Trust, Ian Thorpe, adapted to make it stronger, more durable and made and maintained using materials that are locally available in remote rural sub-Saharan African communities.

The core program of pump building in Zimbabwe has grown with 432 Elephant Pumps installed in 2012 compared to 367 in 2011.  This is now a massive program with the Elephant Pumps, managed by The Africa Trust, providing clean water for over 10% of the entire population of Zimbabwe. In addition to the core staff, it has been possible to provide contract work to over 40 other individuals during the course of the year.

The Elephant Pump was awarded the St Andrews Medal for the Environment in 2005, competing against 250 other applicants. Prince Charles, a patron for the St Andrews Medal, gave a personal recommendation towards this option of water extraction:

“Each project has had a direct and positive impact on people’s lives. While it is perhaps invidious to highlight just one of them, I believe a good example is the success of The Elephant Pump project. Based on a 2000-year-old Chinese technique for lifting water, The Elephant Pump is inexpensive, simple to make and repair and made from locally available materials which give users a greater sense of ownership. When more than a billion people live without access to clean drinking water in the world today, it is hard to imagine a better cause than this”.

Diagram of The Elephant Pump

Ian Thorpe then became the first person to win The St Andrews Medal for the Environment on two separate occasions when his design for the Elephant Toilet was awarded in 2008. Since winning the medal, this toilet has been introduced throughout northern and central Malawi.

Pump Minders – Key to Sustainability

It has been seen that the pumps which have been well maintained over the years are at sites where at least one key person has been trained on how to maintain the pump. Instead of simply providing general training for the whole community, The Africa Trust has recognised that it is vital to train at least two people who are likely to remain in the community. Many young men leave the rural areas in search of work. Older women are often the best people to train, as they are less likely to move away.

Once identified, 2-3 pump minders per pump receive initial training when the pump is installed with further training after 3 months, 6 months and one year. By this time, it is expected that the pump minders will be able to do all minor repairs with informal payment in kind (often in the form or food) from the others who use the pump. Spare parts for the pumps (such as washers and rope) are made from waste products and the pumps contribute to increased agricultural production, so this approach to maintenance is sustainable.

Pump minders collect a low level of community contributions once the pump is productive to pay their wages and a small part returns to The Africa Trust. This helps pay back the capital cost over five years. Millions of people in over seven thousand communities use Elephant Pumps.