Descending towards the aquifer – Four well-diggers about their experience and encounters with groundwater in an area of smallholder irrigation in northern Tanzania

By Chris de Bont [1], Lowe Börjeson [2], Ebrania Mlimbila [3], Kerstin Joseph [4], Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum [5], Frances Cleaver [6], Hans Komakech [7]


In the face of climate change, growing economies and high pressure on surface water resources, groundwater is increasingly heralded as the game changer for the African continent in terms of domestic water supply and irrigation. Many studies have argued the plentiful nature of groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa, and groundwater has been identified as the driver of a “revolution” (Cobbing and Hiller, 2019) and as capable of facilitating an agricultural “transformation” (Amjath-Babu et al., 2016). While Wijnen et al (2012) acknowledge that the default option in most places is already for local communities to manage and control groundwater resources, there are very few studies on local water users’ groundwater practices and governance arrangements.

In Tanzania, groundwater development for irrigation is on the rise in many parts of the country. This is a process driven by farmers themselves. Farmers intentionally but also opportunistically invest in groundwater wells to make profit. The emerging groundwater economy is partly the result of river water shortage as well as rising markets for vegetables and staple crops in the urban areas. Groundwater exploitation, however, requires access to technology, knowledge, and financial capital. Although professional borehole drillers are active in the country, their costs are beyond the reach of most smallholder farmers. To be able to access the underground aquifer smallholder farmers rely on well diggers using local technology and knowledge to prospect and dig wells. We present the narratives of four well-diggers (Mr. Musa Rajabu, Ally Mbaga, Richard Kitomari and Edward Dotto) from Mbuguni and Shambarai Burka wards. For privacy reasons, all the four names are fictitious.

The research location lies on the plain streching out south from Mount Meru, into Meru District, Arusha region. The main economic activities for people here includes agriculture and petty business, but there are also people who engage in artisanal Tanzanite mining activities at nearby Mererani. With the increased interest in irrigation wells, men skilled in digging have found a new source of income. Here we present the edited narratives of four well-diggers based on interviews made in February 2020.


New encounters with groundwater

Groundwater exploration and development is often argued to require seasoned hydrogeologists and engineers with strong formal education. Hydrogeologist use their knowledge of geological formation and resistivity to decide on the best location to drill productive boreholes. However, where smallholders are involved they rely on available local expertise to prospect for shallow groundwater resources and construct wells. And as the narratives below show, skilled diggers with experience from mining, but also from digging pit latrines and graves, are available to meet the demand of farmers for accessing groundwater. 

Mr. Musa Rajabu – who told us that if we were looking for well diggers he was the right person to meet – described  the history of groundwater development in the area and how he got involved. His narrative illustrates how knowledge of groundwater irrigation can travel with relocation of people as migrants bring their experience from other places to new areas. It also illuminates how experimentation with irrigation may indeed bring considerable profits, but also involves risks.

"There was a Chagga man from Kilimanjaro region called Swalehe. He is the one who started first. I don’t know where he got the idea. He dug a well, with its stairs, and installed it with a water pump for irrigating his vegetable fields. He earned a lot of money! He even bought his own car. And he decided to stop using canal water. His focus was on groundwater only. After seeing how Mr. Swalehe was benefiting, other people quickely followed. His desire of getting more money from horticulture increased, so he decided to make a very big investment in horticulture by installing drip irrigation. He failed to manage it and then he abandoned and left, but his family (children and his wife) stayed".

The success of Swalehe’s initiative to irrigate with groundwater came as a surpirse to the farmers in the area, who had been sceptical towards using groundwater for irrigation because of concerns that high salinity would make the crop fail. But, Swalehe’s initial success started off the demand for well diggers in the area.

Before starting to dig irrigation wells, Mr. Musa Rajabu already had some experience of digging wells for domestic use. He was also selected and facilitated by the NGO World Vision to attend training on how to dig wells, perform pump maintenance, doing groundwater surveys and sanitation issues. Drawing on his own experience from digging and his training, Mr. Musa describes the local practice and challenges of well digging and groundwater prospecting.

"We have two styles of wells; the first is the one with stairs which cost around 1.8 million Tshs to dig. The second type is a well with no stairs (well only) that costs roughly between 800,000 and 1 million Tshs. The second style is not good because water is pumped vertically and this costs a lot because a lot of energy and fuel is needed to pump water from the well. Also, due to the big load, a pump don’t last long with this type of well. Less energy and fuel is consumed if a well has a stair because the water is pumped along a gentle slope".

"We dig wells by using handtools like hammer, tindo and sururu. The depth of the wells are not uniform. Some are deeper than others. It is like digging for minerals, someone can mine and find them just close to the surface, but sometime he/she can go very deep and find them. Also it [the groundwater] is like contours, there is high and low. I have a well at my home which is 36 feet deep, while most wells for irrigation here have the depth of 40 to 45 feet. But, in other places you can find water at even less than 10 feet. At the upland areas water is not found close to the surface because when it rains water flows down to low land areas and settle there, so we easily dig and reach water just close to the surface at low land areas. Soon after reaching water we carry on digging and when we reach a depth enough to sink a bucket while its mouth is facing up, the well is complete and the contract of digging it ends there. There are always between two and four diggers per well and it takes around 1 months and 2 weeks to complete digging a well. But it may take longer if the place has hard rock".

Two types of irrigation well.

(Photo by Kerstin 13th February, 2020 and Hans, June 2019).

Photo showing stairs under construction in Mutakuja Village Moshi District

(Credit: Hans Komakech, June 14 2019)

Mr Ally Mbaga, another well digger with many years experience from mining and digging other types of structures than irrigation wells, explained how his previous digging experince was useful also for well digging. Like Mr Musa, his narrative also shows how the practice of digging wells has come with new challenges and risks, and how well diggers, besides digging, also gain experience in assessing where to locate wells, depending on its type and function.

"For many years I was working as a miner, mining minerals at a place called Komolo. But I was also digging toilet pits and graves sometimes, so it was not difficult for me to start digging wells because it was just like the digging I used to do. I have been digging wells for both irrigation and home use for ten years now. For irrigation wells, we advise farmers to locate a well at a place which is elevated so the water can easily flow from the well to the farm fields. Before we start digging we also advice the well owner to dig a well at a place which is having green vegetation or is more vegetated than other places of the farm, because that tells us that groundwater is not far from the surface, so we will easily reach it".

"While digging, we sometimes come across a very hard rock which may be up to 5 feet thick, so it takes time to dig a well. For instance it may take 10 days to break a 5 feet hard rock. Also we do come across very soft rock (sand) where some parts of the walls of the well are too loose so they tend to cut off and fall inside, so we use a lot of time to remove the falling sand instead of deepening the well. When deepening the well after reaching water we use to put a machine for pumping water out, to enable us to keep digging. The fumes from the machine are very dangerous. Sometimes we do suffocate and get outside quickly to get oxygen and go back inside again. The machine has no capacity to pull a large load of water – it only has the capacity to push. It only works when you put it close to water, so we need to deepen the well with the machine inside it when pumping water. The fumes sometimes cause well diggers to faint".

Mr Richard Kitomari, yet another experienced digger, related a similar description of shifting from mining to well digging, while also pointing at how well digging emerged as a new business opportunity for those with digging skills. 

"I started mining minerals first in the Mererani and Arusha mines many years ago, when I was still at primary school. So I got the experience from mining because all are the same rocks, there is no difference. Also I was having no job for me to earn money for living so I decided to employ myself. We dig wells by hand, with tools like hammer, tindo, sururu, spade and a bucket with a rope for removing sand outside. When we reach a very hard rock, that tells us that we are about to reach water. After reaching water we put a water pump to pump water outside to enable us to carry on deepening the well. When the water reaches the waist and the water pump is not able to pump all water out of the well, that tells us that there is enough water for irrigation. That is the measure that the well is completed".

As the narratives above illustrate, the work of digging to access groundwater involves a new set of challenges and risks, and it is also evident how the diggers through this new experience have aquired new knowledge, practices and skills that are specific to well digging. While the diggers emphasise the usefulness of their general digging skills, the importance of new learning is also clear in the narratives. The next narrative by Mr. Edward Dotto, clearly illustrates this.

"I am so experienced with this work. If you know how to dig pit latrines, you will obviously know how to dig a well. I have dug a lot of wells here. This well here (Mr Dotto points at the unfinished well on the compound) is the 15th well I dug, but with this one I have dug five times the depth of previous wells. At this place, water is not near as it is in Mikungani. One challenge we encounter when digging is soft sand. If you are not careful, the sand may fall on you. You need to remove it carefully so that you can reach the water. The other problem is the hard rocks. You need a lot of energy for the hard rocks. Also when you reach the water, you need to have a rope so that it is easy to come out of the well when water explodes. When the water comes out, it explodes. It can kill you. When you are digging, you first encounter mud then springs of water. They are moving water. They are moving water just like river water. There is usually a large stream down there with a lot of water when you reach it. This is why you need a rope that you can tie yourself to, and then tie it to the nearest tree. You don’t need to depend on anyone to pull you up. They will not know that water has exploded. When it explodes, you just climb out with the rope".


The benefits of owning a well and of digging wells

The benefit of owning a well is not just about the prospect of getting rich, as in the pioneering success of Mr. Swalehe’s groundwater irrigation, but also about escaping the scarcity of canal water and collective action problems associated with commonly owned irrigation canals. This was described by Mr Ally Mbaga in the following way.

"Having your own well for irrigation is like having your own vehicle for transport, anytime when you want to travel you can travel, day or night. It is the same with having your own well. You have freedom to irrigate your crops whenever it is needed, which is not the case with irrigation canals supplied by river water. With groundwater, a farmer can decide to grow crops more than once within a year in the same farm, but canal water crops are only grown seasonably. Using canal water is also more problematic because it is used by many people, sometimes we pay to get water but other people steal it, so we have to pay people to guard it to reach our farms. In groundwater irrigation, only the owner of the well decides everything about the use of water".

But, as noted already it is not only farmers who benefit from irrigation wells. The well diggers themselves are also benefiting from the increased interest in groundwater irrigation. Here, Ally narrates the economic and livelihoods benefits to his family.

"Although I do this work occasionally, it has helped me a lot. I have bought cows, but also I have managed to cover the daily expenses like buying food and clothes. I remember one day my child was seriously sick and I was having no money to send him to the hospital, I was discussing with my friend on what to do, then suddenly someone came and informed me that there was a deal of digging a well. I instantly went to work and the money I got as advance I used to pay the medical bills of my child. Sometimes I do think if I couldn’t be a well digger, what would have happened that day, maybe I have saved the life of my child".


Reflection on an emerging local groundwater economy

Based on the narratives of four well diggers we have provided some initial insights about the critical role of well diggers in kick-starting a local groundwater economy in Tanzania. Using local tools, expertise and knowledge gained from elsewhere (from mining and digging pit latrines, mainly) and through new encounters with groundwater, the well diggers connect farmers with the underground aquifers. We have shown how the well diggers further improve their skills through interactions with the specific behavior and materiality of groundwater, for instance on how to manage the digging when they reach the water table, and how to understand and assess the presence of groundwater in the landscape and while digging.  By researching the early phases of what – seems now – an expanding profit driven exploitation of groundwater to extend irrigation we hope to gain and share insights about both unsustainable and sustainable groundwater practices in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our focus on new locally emerging practices also provide a contrast to the more familiar examples of entrenched unsustainable groundwater exploitation across the globe. How this currently individualistically driven process may transform when, or if, the groundwater table begin to decline is not known. But, by investigating the possible emergence, or absence, of collective action we hope to learn more about it.  



Amjath-Babu, T.S.; Krupnik, T.J.; Kaechele, H.; Aravindakshan, S. and Sietz, D. 2016. Transitioning to groundwater irrigated intensified agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa: An indicator based assessment. Agricultural Water Management 168: 125–135,

Cobbing, J. and Hiller, B. 2019. Waking a sleeping giant: Realizing the potential of groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa. World Development 122: 597–613,

Wijnen, M.; Augeard, B.; Hiller, B.; Ward, C. and Huntjens, P. 2012. Managing the invisible: Understanding and improving groundwater governance - Draft report. June. Washington, DC.

[1] Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

[2] Associate Professor, Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University

[3] WISE – Futures, Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Arusha, Tanzania

[4] WISE – Futures, Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Arusha, Tanzania

[5] IHE Delft, Department of Water Governance. University of Amsterdam, Governance and Inclusive Development

[6] Chair in Political Ecology, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University

[7] WISE – Futures, Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Arusha, Tanzania


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