Does Distance Matter? Rethinking Africa's Water Crisis

Frida Ericsson and Sebastian Nickel

June 29, 2018

Villagers collecting water from borehole, Mvunguti, Lilongwe.

Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights the importance of distance in improving a person's access to water. More generally, distance to services is often assumed to be one of the most important factors affecting service provision. However, analyses of GLD’s 2016 Local Governance Performance Index (LGPI) in Malawi finds that wealth – not distance – is closely related to water access.


Combining landmark data on boreholes with LGPI data on respondents’ assets and whether they have had enough drinking water in the past week, GLD found that Malawians with limited assets are more likely to report going without water. Distance to the borehole was not significantly related to water access.

Figure 1: Distribution of Distance to Boreholes.


Figure 2: Combined coefficient plot of 14 models. Bars show the 90% confidence interval. The darker the bar, the more confidence intervals of models overlap.

These findings are in line with recent literature on the relationship between income and water access. Studies in Ghana and Niger suggest that household income is a significant predictor of residential piped water, and in Zambia access to improved water sources (as well as sanitation) is more concentrated among rich households than poorer ones. 

Poverty appears to impact households’ access to water in two ways. First, poverty, and a community’s access to financial resources, is likely to impact borehole maintenance. Evidence from Tanzania reminds us that the distance to a well or borehole is meaningless if the water source does not actually have water, if the water is only present at inconvenient times, or if it is impossible to know when water might be present. Community maintenance is particularly important in Malawi, where reports suggest that limited resources at the District Water Offices (DWO) have led to poor state management and maintenance of boreholes. Second, an individual’s inability to pay may affect their access to water, even when it is present. As GLD researchers found in Zambia, communities often levy fees for construction and maintenance of boreholes, restricting access of those unable to pay.

Such barriers to water access are particularly important in Malawi, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Limited access to water can negatively impact all aspects of life including food security, livelihood choices, and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, Malawians suffer from disparities in access to safe drinking water, despite high national-level access (87%), and approximately one-third of people without access to safe drinking water reside in rural sub-Saharan Africa.  Further work is needed to understand and address the difficulties people in Sub-Saharan Africa face in accessing water, and as this research proceeds, it should continue to take into account the role of poverty.

N.B. All models in Figure 2 were computed using survey weights. In addition to the distance to the borehole and the wealth of the household, three types of individual-level control variables were used: education, age, and gender. The wealth index is significant at 10% for all models (10) and significant at 5% in a subset of 8 models. The distance to the closest borehole is not significant at 10% in any model.