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The invisible work of a clean water project | WaterAid

The invisible work
of a clean water project

Beyond the tap

The moment when the water runs from a newly-installed tap is a happy one. There is a sense of completion and relief for the community, however, the running water doesn't tell the entire story. Before that tap was installed, there was a huge amount of work to get there.

Once the tap is running, there is still a lot of work going forwards. It's invisible work, harder to quantify and less tangible but critical for a project's success and to encourage future investment in neighboring communities.

Long before the first strike of the shovel, WaterAid staff will be researching proposed projects to ensure we will be truly serving the community in the best possible way.

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How we turn on the taps

After 40 years at work, we have a good sense of the best ways to set up a water project for long-term success. So the services are used long after our engineers have finished the job.

Walk through this project roadmap and you will see, much like an iceberg, the vast majority of the work is beneath the surface.

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Needs assessment

Before any work can take place, WaterAid staff have to understand the community's challenges. This involves going into the community and finding out how or where they currently source water and asking key questions, such as, is this water source clean? is it sustainable? is it accessible for everyone?

An image listing some commonly-occurring water contanimating elements, such as nitrates, iron, arsenic, chloride etc.

Sample of some commonly screened components in water testing.

Sample of some commonly screened components in water testing.

Water testing

As part of our project preparation, we test the existing water sources that are currently in use. Visibly dirty water is unappealing but it is important to establish the specific elements in the water. Once we understand that, we can think about the necessary sterilizing elements that will make the water safe to drink.

At this stage, it is important to consider the appropriate metrics to use to report back to our donors. Metrics, of which there are over 500 possibilities, often involve the health of the community and school attendance.

Feasibility study

We then try to ascertain what sort of water solution would best serve the needs of the community.
It's also important to acknowledge the strength of our relationships in the community. Have we completed any projects nearby? Are we known? Have we worked in the area for a long time or are we just getting started?

Similar questions are asked about the specific water project type. Is it something we've done before or is this an innovative solution?

Project expansion

Are there any institutions nearby that also need water services? For example, a local school or healthcare center. When we include community institutions in our projects, the impact multiplies as we will reach so many more people, from medical staff to their patients, as well as students and their teachers.


Our engineers factor in the local topography and weather patterns when designing a water project. They look at potential flooding spots and also how the area is affected by droughts, if applicable.

If you wish to learn more about how we manage climate challenges, take a look at our Blueprint for a Climate Resilient Water Project.

Accessibility and inclusion

Our water projects take into account the needs of those with physical impairments, to ensure they are not left behind. For example, building wide ramps instead of steps to water points allow people in wheelchairs to use the water system independently.

Creating lasting change through community

This is the most important step in establishing a water project. It takes time and is hard to measure but it is vital.

At this stage in project scoping, we look into existing people already engaged with the community and the community members themselves. Common examples are local NGOs, local government officials and utility companies.

Most importantly, our team invests a lot of time into the community members themselves. To find out what life is like for them. Women are key in this part of the project specifically, because women and their children are usually responsible for water collection. They have the most relevant knowledge on the subject and the most to gain from an improved water system.

Community involvement is vital for the ongoing ownership, management and maintenance of the water supply. Each partner involved in the project brings their unique knowledge, experience and skills. By bringing people together, and strengthening communication and cooperation, we can ensure every member of the community has a voice at each stage of the project. Working in partnership to bring clean water, acts as a catalyst for deep and lasting change.

Once we have a sense of the community's challenges, we try to map out all that we learned, to capture the feedback and therefore come up with a solution that will work.

Community mapping

Man examining a map during Community Mapping, an essential part of the pre-work in a WaterAid clean water project.

By hearing from citizens first-hand, we can understand each community’s goals and the water, sanitation and hygiene challenges they face so that we can identify solutions.

Mapping helps both WaterAid and the community understand what gaps need to be addressed and can also lead to prioritized government funding for water and sanitation services.

Community mapping also helps ensure the long-term success of a project, as we can then use the information we have gathered to map out a maintenance plan. What sort of skills will be needed? Will the ongoing costs of maintenance and training (itself a form of job creation) be covered by the government?

A note on income generation and gender

Engaging existing women’s groups and enabling women to earn their own income are key. By working with women’s groups that exist and are established in their communities, we can ensure that the community water points are built in the best positions to serve households most in need of clean water.

Design and engineering:

Technical design: Develop detailed engineering plans for the water system, considering factors such as water source, treatment methods, distribution network, and infrastructure requirements. From drilling to installing pipes, our engineers map out the implementation plan as precisely as possible, to pre-empt problems.


Working with the community, we source locally-available materials that can be maintained. The focus on locally-available equipment is key, as it makes sourcing faster, cheaper and less exposed to fluctuating prices.

Construction: This is the bit you see

Build and install water infrastructure, including boreholes, wells, pipelines, treatment plants, storage tanks and distribution networks.

Testing the quality of the water

Once the system has been built, the team continues water testing and further quality assurance checks to ensure that the water is safe to drink and that the system is functional.

Post Project

The hard work begins

At this stage, upon completion of the build phase, it's been about 18 months since our engineers first set foot in the area.

But the work is far from over. Now, the project is handed over to the community, where, in conjunction with the WaterAid team, ongoing hygiene awareness maintenance sessions take place.

Training and capacity building

Together with the community, we train local people on how to maintain and repair their water systems. This creates jobs. We provide training sessions to local community members and operators on system operation, maintenance and repairs.

Hygiene and sanitation education

Good hygiene is one of the simplest, most cost-effective ways to promote health and bring about lasting change. It reduces stigma, prevents disease, reduces malnutrition and enhances dignity and well-being.

WaterAid’s hygiene behavior change model is a systematic approach to encourage the widespread adoption of safe hygiene practices. This approach keeps people healthy and productive.

For communities to thrive, practices like handwashing with soap and menstrual hygiene management should be integrated into all parts of society—at school, in healthcare facilities and at home. When WaterAid includes educational and social activities that promote hygiene, water systems are more likely to be used and maintained by the community for generations.

Hygiene activities focus on:

  • Handwashing with soap and water
  • Food hygiene
  • Menstrual hygiene management
  • Safe and hygienic management of waste (why it's important)
  • Cleanliness of toilet facilities

Long-term education and support

Within a school setting, we frequently work with students and teachers to set up "WASH clubs." The children teach each other the basics of good hygiene and those messages are then taken home to their families.

Income generation

Women see their influence increase when they are also able to bring an income in to their home. One important way in which women can earn money is to train as a water vendor. The training enables women to be paid as monitors and recorders of water usage and as managers of the communities’ water points. Other jobs include water system manager, rainwater tracking and maintenance.

It's important to note that these stages are iterative and interconnected. Successful water projects involve a holistic approach, considering technical, social, economic and environmental factors to ensure sustainable access to safe water in the long run.