UNICEF water pumps: a source of life, health and resilience

UNICEF works to improve safe water access for communities around the world by delivering human-powered and motor-powered water supply systems.

Students drink water and wash their hands at Serkema Primary School, in Kombolcha Woreda, Oromia Region, Ethiopia, in March 2022.
24 August 2022

Drinking a glass of water is a trivial routine for many, but for millions of people worldwide  accessing safe water still requires long journeys or strenuous work. In 2020, 1 in 4 people lacked access to water that was free from contamination and available when needed, and 1 in 10 people still needed to walk more than 30 minutes to collect safe water, according to a report by UNICEF and WHO.

UNICEF works to ensure that more people gain access to drinking water through the delivery of supply systems. Groundwater exploitation remains one of the most efficient way to guarantee a continuous supply of safe water. Between 2018 and 2021, UNICEF Supply Division procured almost 20,000 handpumps and motorized pumps used to construct various safe water systems for communities, schools and health facilities in 33 countries, most of them in Africa.

UNICEF mainly procures and works in the installation of two kinds of water pumps: motor-powered and human-powered. The decision on which system to use depends mainly on:

  • how many people will benefit,
  • how close they live to each other,
  • the groundwater conditions such as the quantity of water that can be pumped and the quality of the ground water.
With the support of UKAid, UNICEF has constructed boreholes equipped with solar pumps to supply water to standpipes in six health facilities in Kinshasa, DR Congo.
With the support of UKAid, UNICEF has constructed boreholes equipped with solar pumps to supply water to standpipes in six health facilities in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

From diesel to solar power

Motor-powered pumps can serve big communities and extract large volumes of water, eliminating or reducing the time people spend queuing or walking to collect it. In Nigeria, for example, two health facilities were desperately in need of a safe supply.

At Dogon Kuka Primary Health Centre in Yobe State, a shallow well marked by a tyre and stones was the only source of water for patients and staff for more than 10 years. In Borno State, the single source of water of the Family Support Program, chosen as an isolation center for COVID-19 patients, was a hand pump broken down beyond repair.

In 2020, with support from The Netherlands, UNICEF procured and constructed solar water supply systems that guaranteed access to safe water for both health facilities. The two systems are among 4,641 that UNICEF, in collaboration with the Government of Nigeria and local and international partners, have installed or repaired in the country over the last five years. Most of the equipment for the construction or repair of these systems was bought locally with technical guidance from UNICEF Supply Division.

Eight-year-old Abdul Mohammed washes his hands and face at a borehole constructed by UNICEF at Dongonkuka Primary Healthcare Centre.
Eight-year-old Abdul Mohammed washes his hands at a borehole constructed by UNICEF at Dongonkuka Primary Healthcare Centre. The borehole serves the health centre, Dongonkuka Primary School and the entire community.

Sustainable sources of water

UNICEF Nigeria’s Water and Sanitation Manager, Michael Forson, explains that the installation of solar-powered systems in the country was the result of a decision taken years ago to move away from water pumps driven by diesel generators.

“The cost to operate a supply system for a community is vital. The price of a litre of diesel can increase so much that many communities may not be able to afford fuel to access water. With solar energy, communities have a power supply system that virtually operates at zero cost,” says Forson.  

In fact, for more than 30 years UNICEF has been prioritizing the procurement of solar-powered water pump systems over those run on diesel. Solar-powered solutions are also a cleaner alternative as they do not emit greenhouse gases and are cheaper to operate.

A UNICEF supported solar powered borehole in Nigeria.
UNICEF/UNICEF Nigeria-2020
Thanks to a project funded by The Netherlands, safe water has reached schools, health centres and communities in conflict-affected Borno and Yobe states, in Nigeria.
Water storage at a UNICEF supported solar powered borehole in a camp of internally displaced persons in Nigeria.
A solar powered borehole installed with UNICEF’s support in Teachers Village, a camp of internally displaced persons in northeast Nigeria.

Another advantage is that communities become free from the financial and time burden to transport diesel. The residents of the small village of Serkema, in the Oroma region of Ethiopia, had to travel 60 km to get the fuel needed to keep their old water pump system running. The long journeys ended when UNICEF, alongside its partner CARE, installed a solar-powered water system that serves over 6,500 people.

Water pump systems run by diesel generators are noisier, more fragile and more expensive to repair than systems driven by solar energy. “Fully solarized systems give communities more autonomy and are more sustainable and cheaper in the long term. In fact, 2–5 years after they start operating, their construction costs are already covered,” explains Franklin Golay, Technical Officer at UNICEF Supply Division’s Water, Sanitation and Education Centre.

With her baby on her back, Edna Njambe collects water from a handpump while other women wait for their turn.
“We used to have to walk 6 km to collect water before we had this borehole," says Edna Njambe at a water handpump installed by UNICEF in her community, in Kaoma, Western Zambia.

For small communities, human-powered pumps

For small communities with up to 200 people who live no more than 200 metres from a water source, human-operated pumps, especially handpumps, may be a better solution than electric pumps. UNICEF, in collaboration with partners, drills boreholes, installs handpumps, provides spare parts and trains people in the community on how to operate and maintain the system.

Once installed, the water pumps are relatively easy to repair. “They are just a bit more difficult to fix than a   bicycle, so it is always possible to train one or two people from the community to maintain them,” says Golay. But he highlights that it is important that spare parts are available in the local market and that one or two people in the community are trained on how to fix the pump and have the right tools to do that.   

“The community must feel ownership of the product and be prepared to spend money to keep it running."

Golay stresses that keeping water pumps operational for many years requires communities’ involvement to repair and pay for their maintenance. “The community must feel ownership of the product and be prepared to spend money to keep it running. It is crucial that they understand the health risks and costs associated with the use of untreated water. Looking for health care treatment is usually more costly than, for example, creating a small local fund to pay for the pump’s spare parts, if needed,” he says. 

Early development

For almost 50 years, UNICEF has been working to promote the use of water pumps that meet the needs of local communities. In 1974, UNICEF and the Government of India recognized the need for a better hand pump than those available on the market. They were looking for an inexpensive new pump that had a simple design and was easy to use and maintain.

A partnership with the Indian government and the private sector led to development of a pump that was more suitable to the situation in rural India. UNICEF played a key role in the programme and acted as a coordinator and facilitator in the development work. By 1984, 36 companies were producing 100,000 new pumps every year. Since then, the pump has been improved and different versions launched to become the most widely used in the world.


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