The highs and lows of drilling in Bokola

No matter what happened today, it was always going to be a big moment in Bokola’s history. To start with it was raining in the dry season, and today was also the day we were hoping to bring clean safe water. At 7.15 three huge trucks containing the drill, a fearsome looking generator and lots of pipes. The WaterAid team was joined by an additional 8 borehole engineers. It really struck me just how many strange vehicles and people were descending on Bokola on this rainy morning and how out of place the huge trucks looked against the neat immaculate village. Everybody in the community had turned out to welcome the team, and there was dancing as we arrived in the village.

Machinery sets up in Bokola

Setting up the drilling equipment took twenty minutes and the team worked efficiently. The atmosphere in the village was one of celebration with the women leading the dancing while the men looked on taking an interest in the equipment and hive of activity around them.

Drilling soon got underway to great fanfare and in just a few minutes first five meter drilling rod had been sunk. Every few minutes the engineers took a soil sample which is laid in neat rows for analysis. Rod after rod was sunk into the ground and every so often a burst of water or quarry stone would come from the hole which would scatter the children who crept ever closer to the drilling team.

Drilling in progress

After around 30 meters the soil suddenly darkened in colour and thickened. The community got to its feet and we all thought water had arrived. After four hours and a few false starts muddy water started flow. The team continued to drill until they had used all 60 meters worth of drilling rods. It was clear that while water was flowing it was far too slow; the whole community seemed to know that this borehole wasn’t working out. The local government engineer then had a pipe installed which drained into a bucket. He started his stopwatch and the ‘yield test’ was underway. The bucket needed to fill up in under 8 seconds. We couldn’t see the bucket, but it was clear from the body language of the engineers and WaterAid staff that things weren’t going well.

At this point the whole atmosphere in the community changed. For the first time since arriving in Bokola there was quietness, evenually, the rig fell silent. Howard, whose calm confidence has been a striking feature of our trip looked dejected and didn’t want to talk to us. While it’s common in Malawi not to hit water on the first, or even second attempt, the community were visibly subdued.

Children look on in disappointment

The community had two options. The first was to ‘develop’ the borehole, which involves repeatedly flushing it out to dislodge any clay which is preventing water flow. The second option was to move on to the second site. The Waterpoint committee, WaterAid, the government engineer and the engineering contractor all huddled together for a private meeting. Before we knew its outcome the rigs had started up and had begun to move – we were going for option 2.

Christina, Howard’s mother told us she was disappointed but hopeful; her body language spoke of pure dejection.

The second site for drilling was actually the village chief, Rolena’s vegetable garden which is located slightly more towards the road and at one end of the village. Although not as perfect a location as the first source, this one was a close second. Rolena, the village chief gladly gave up her garden so that the community could have a chance of clean water. Rolena has always been a staunch supporter of the village and fully engaged in the hygiene education work but has never been totally convinced that water could be found in Bokola in her lifetime, so giving up her garden was a huge sacrifice and a real example of the impact Nathan and Micheal have in the community.

In what felt like just a few seconds the dried maize leaves were cleared and the vehicles rolled in. This time there was no dancing. Many of the community dispersed, returning home, going to the water scoop or preparing food. The few that did remain sat quietly under a tree to avoid the midday sun. We started digging with a sense of foreboding everyone hoping for success this time.

Howard seemed visibly upset by the failure of the first borehole, and after some kind words from Boyce went back home to work.

Drilling continued quickly, but even at 45 meters the soil hadn’t really changed colour, the dry, grey earth only occasionally changed when a piece of quarry rock shot out of the rig showering us all in tiny pieces of rubble and dust.

Drilling of the second hole

The instant that the 45 meter rod disappeared into the ground water something changed. Water had finally come to Bokola. Unlike the first borehole which seeped mud for a long time, this time the mud thinned out very quickly. By the time the 50 meter rod was being added to the drilling rig a steady flow of water was coming. The community saw this and were straight on their feet. The men crowding around the drill and the women dancing. As she rushed to join the dancing Christina ran past me shouting ‘this it, this is the one’. Before we could ask her anything else she was in the middle of the crowd leading the songs and celebrations.

Michael dances in celebration

By this time there was a huge amount of water and the whole area was becoming muddy and slippery. The Malawian Government’s Water Inspector announced it was time for the second ‘yield test’ of the day.   The yield test would run for several hours but the strong flow of water was enough to convince everybody that this borehole was better, and the celebrations turned up a notch.


Howard beats celebration drum

No time was wasted and the engineering team swung into action once again, this time laying plastic pipe into the well. As the drill moved away the village cheered once more as the next machine moved forwards to start developing the well, which is a process of blasting air down the borehole to clear away any debris and measure how quickly water flows.

By this time the drilling team had been in Bokola for over 12 hours and were starting to leave when a huge scream came from the area near the borehold, everybody ran towards the noise. Jets of water were shooting 15 meters into the air from the borehole. To start with the water was muddy and heavy, but as the water continued to flow it was becoming clearer. The scream had come from the 50 children who had paniced when they saw the water ject but quickly started to spontaneously sing and dance as their mothers had earlier in the day, all the time getting soaked by the jets of water shooting from the borehole.

Children celebrate round the borehole

As we packed up to leave Boyce tapped me on the shoulder and said. ‘I don’t care how badly a story starts, I care about how well it ends’. For us the day ended with children playing in a fountain of water. That’s a good end to any day.

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  1. Erik Harvey

    Great story and very inspiring. As a the Head of WaterAid’s technical support function in the UK office, I would like to highlight some key important point:
    1. How important is is to have the technical supervision on site, in this case the local goverment engineer who works with the driller to ensure that the work is done well with high quality
    2. How important it is that decisions are made jointly with the community as noted in this blog, it’s all about ownership

    But the real work actually only starts now. The borehole will be properly sealed around it’s lining to prevent contamination, the water quality will be tested, the drainage slab constructed, the pump installed, the committee trained in its maintenance, helped to devise a tariff system and supported in the early stages to ensure they are able to undertake the day-to-day maintenance. There is also work we need to do with the local authority to ensure they have the skills and resources to be able to provide back-stopping support should anything go seriously wrong in the future.

    These are all very important processes and steps aimed at ensuring that we do not just provide a pump, but a pump that provides water for a long time to come.

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