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Six ways to fix up a well and get clean water

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A woman operates a bore hole water pump, which the women of the Fala village Saving for Change group helped repair by contributing money its members had saved, Wednesday, March 11, 2009. (Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America)

Here’s how a hand-dug well becomes a source of clean water for a community.

This post was originally published August 20, 2013, and updated on May 20, 2016

Oxfam helps communities around the world fix up their wells and learn how to treat their drinking water to avoid water-borne diseases. It was part of a program to help farmers recover from a drought and bad harvest in 2011. Oxfam delivered some cash to help farmers buy food, but we also helped them to address water and sanitation and hygiene, all closely linked to malnutrition.

I spoke with my colleague Kenny Rae, an engineer who works in our humanitarian response department, and he gave me a quick lesson on a of the few ways that Oxfam helps communities improve water quality in the hand-dug wells (usually less than one meter in diameter) commonly found in rural Senegal.

1: Protect the top

This hand dug well offers little protection from surface water run-off and contamination. Photo by Kenny Rae/Oxfam America.

Build a wall around the top of the well, with a reinforced concrete drainage apron around it. This will prevent surface water running into the well; particularly important where there are animal droppings around.

2: Reduce turbidity

A well near Ayetoro-Ijesa village, Nigeria. Photo by George Osodi/Panos.

If a well is serving up cloudy, muddy water, it may have too much silt at the bottom. Send an intrepid digger down there with a shovel to dig out the silt and debris, then put a layer of gravel at the bottom of the well. The gravel will keep the silt down, and when someone drops a bucket on a rope down to the bottom of the well it will be less likely to scoop up silt as well as water.

3: Disinfect

Local health promoters maintained and replenished the chlorine solution in the dispensers. They also trained people how to use the dispensers and promoted good hygiene. Jean Bassette / Oxfam America

Scrub down the sides of the well with a chlorine solution to kill microbes that can make people sick. Disinfect the well water by temporarily adding a strong chlorine solution (removed before the well goes back into operation).

4: Cover it

Staff from Oxfam’s partner FODDE in Kolda, Senegal, looking at a well in need of rehabilitation. Photo by Holly Pickett/Oxfam America

Install a reinforced concrete cover over the top of the well to keep anything from falling in and polluting the water.

5: Install a pump

Village residents fetch water from a communal pump in Faloumbou, Senegal. (Photo: Rebecca Blackwell)

This will make it easier to draw water, if a community can afford to maintain a pump (not always the case—pumps break down and take money, time, and spare parts to repair). Oxfam is introducing a variety of pumps, including locally manufactured and easily maintained rope pumps.  A pump piping water up from the bottom of the well takes away the possibility of infecting water with a dirty bucket or rope.

6: Treat the water

Treating water with bleach in the village of Yongoya in eastern Senegal. Photo by Holly Pickett/Oxfam America.

In eastern Senegal, Oxfam distributed hygiene kits that included bleach – just a capful in a 10-liter container will kill bugs that make people sick.  In the southern region near Kolda, Oxfam also installed special dispensers near the wells that dole out a pre-measured portion of a chlorine solution that will safely treat a container of well water.

Oxfam works with communities to solve drinking water problems in emergencies because water-borne diseases can be devastating especially for malnourished children. But we also work on water and sanitation and irrigation in our long-term programs.

Clean water can mean the difference between health and sickness, or even life and death. Help provide a community with buckets, chlorine dispensers, and other essentials. 

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  1.'Nash Rich

    My cousins had a pump well like in picture number 5. They had it in case of emergency, which I think is a good idea. I think it’s great that we’re getting fresh water, or just water in general to places that don’t have it, like we do.

  2.'Patrick Beaudry

    Everyone should have access to clean drinking water. No one should be deathly ill or dying simply because they cannot get access to clean water!

  3.'Zequek Estrada

    This was really intriguing to read. Sometimes learning about the effort people go to get water reminds me not to take what I have for granted. I feel so lucky for the water services that exist to help people with their needs.

  4.'Jenna Hunter

    The well at my parent’s farm used to give us great tasting water, but that was 28 years ago. It was helpful to know that if a well is serving up cloudy, muddy water, it may have too much silt at the bottom. I am no expert, but I would imagine if my parents want to keep that well in good shape they should get an expert’s help!


    I like that you suggest to build a wall or other structure that will help protect the well from outside fluids getting in it. I can see why this would help ensure that you don’t drink things that are harmful to your body. It might even be good idea to keep the area around it as clean as possible. Perhaps you could sweep away any loose dirt or plants that could fall in it.

  6.'Chris Winters

    Chris, I can see why you would need to disinfect your well to prevent any illness or disease. I always worry about the people who struggle to find fresh water. I think that more water wells need to be installed throughout the world.


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