Improving water security for the poor

Building water secure institutions

The challenge

Kenya embarked on a process of devolution in 2013, establishing 47 new county governments with wide-ranging responsibilities, including the provision of drinking water services. County governments have inherited a legacy of past policies and failing infrastructure investments, including community-based management as the dominant institutional model for rural water supplies.

Kitui County is tasked with delivering universal and safe water services in a challenging environment. The climate is semi-arid, rainfall extremes are common, and populations are scattered with high levels of poverty. The population is almost entirely rural with two out of three households classified as ‘poor’. Revenue collection for water is low and financial sustainability remains an elusive goal in Kitui, and across Kenya.

The observatory

Supported by the Kitui County Government, we have developed the FundiFix model to address the gap in maintaining rural water services. Results have seen broken handpumps fixed in under three days compared to a month under previous arrangements. Local communities are now paying a local maintenance services company to continue and expand the model to piped water infrastructure. A Trust Fund has been established which blends finance from government, investors and water users for a performance-based, sustainable and scalable model.

The Kitui Observatory will explore the potential and limitations of the FundiFix model to achieve universal drinking water security. Our research will help design more effective institutions to address rural water security risks from rainfall variability, unreliable infrastructure and unsustainable finance.

Research questions

  1. Can improved institutional design improve drinking water security for the poor?
  2. Do geophysical parameters control groundwater quantity and quality more than rainfall variability?
  3. What influences water use behaviour and affordability of water services?
  4. What type and nature of rainfall events leads to different water use behaviours?

Research team

UNICEF: Mahboob Ahmed Bajwa

University of Nairobi: Professor Albert Mumma, Dr Daniel Olago, Dr Maggie Opondo, Dr Gilbert Ouma

University of Oxford: Dr Simon Dadson, Dr Ellen Dyer, Dr Rob Hope, Dr Sonia Ferdous Hoque, Dr Johanna Koehler, Saskia Nowicki, Cliff Nyaga, Dr Patrick Thomson, Professor Richard Washington,

News and blog

What does it cost to provide safe water to rural health care facilities? April 2022
Professionalized maintenance of rural water services: Four findings from Kitui County, Kenya, March 2022
Can rural people pay for water in a crisis?, June 2020
Water security in times of crisis: how COVID-19 is impacting the rural poor in Bangladesh and Kenya, May 2020
Uncertainty and optimism: the impact of COVID-19 on the REACH community in Ethiopia, Kenya and the UK, May 2020
Rural water quality monitoring within reach: moving beyond the quantity vs. quality mindset, April 2020
REACH Early-Career Researcher Feature: Improving water security for the rural poor in fragile environments, January 2019
‘Smart Handpumps’ research is the overall winner of the Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Award, July 2018
Why getting ‘water affordability’ right matters – and how water diaries can be of help, June 2018
Handpump vibrations could help secure water for millions of people in Africa, February 2017
Why there’s a handpump in an Oxford car park, October 2016
Quenching thirst for data in rural Kenya, September 2016
A vision for drinking water security in Kitui County, Kenya, February 2016


Katuva, J., Hope, R., McBurney, E., Gladstone, N., Koehler, J., Nyaga, C., Njung’e, D. (2022). Improving water and hand-washing services in rural health care facilities in Kitui County, Kenya REACH Policy Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Foster, T., Hope, R., Nyaga, C., Koehler, J., Katuva, J., Thomson, P., & Gladstone, N. (2022). Investing in professionalized maintenance to increase social and economic returns from drinking water infrastructure in rural Kenya REACH Policy Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Nowicki, S., Bukachi, S.A., Hoque, S.F., Katuva, J., Musyoka, M.M., Sammy, M.M., Mwaniki, M., Omia, D.O., Wambua, F., & Charles, K.J. (2022). Fear, Efficacy, and Environmental Health Risk Reporting: Complex Responses to Water Quality Test Results in Low-Income Communities International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Hope, R., Foster, T., Koehler, J. and Thomson, P. (2020). “Rural Water Policy in Africa and Asia” Water Science, Policy and Management: A Global Challenge edited by Dadson, S.J., Garrick, D.E., Penning-Rowsell, E.C., Hall, J.W., Hughes, J., Wiley.

Nowicki, S., Koehler, J., and Charles, K. (2020). Including water quality monitoring in rural water services: why safe water requires challenging the quantity versus quality dichotomy. NPJ Clean Water, 3(14).

Hope, R., Thomson, P., Koehler, J. and Foster, T. (2020). Rethinking the economics of rural water in Africa. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 36, 1.

Korzenevica, M. (2019). Emerging themes on considering water equity. REACH Research Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Nyaga, C. (2018). Understanding factors and actors to achieve sustainable drinking water systems in Kitui County, Kenya. Research brief.

REACH (2018)  A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change. REACH Policy Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Koehler, K., Rayner, S., Katuva, J., Thomson, P, Hope, R. (2018). A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change. Global Environmental Change, 50, 268-277.

Hoque, S., Hope, R. (2018). The water diary method – proof-of-concept and policy implications for monitoring water use behaviour in rural Kenya. Water Policy, 20, 4.

The Fundifix model: maintaining rural water services, University of Oxford and UNICEF, November 2016.

REACH (2016) Maintaining Africa’s water infrastructure: findings from a Water Audit in Kitui County, Kenya. REACH Policy Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

REACH (2015) Country Diagnostic Report, Kenya. REACH Working Paper 3, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

‘We’re working closely with UNICEF in Kenya to build water secure institutions in rural areas to potentially benefit millions of Africans.’

Dr Daniel Olago, University of Nairobi

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