Stupid Problems (That Shouldn’t Exist)

***This is not an official EWB Publication***

Ok, nothing on this blog is an official publication. Especially this though. This is just my idiosyncratic way of trying to explain our team’s strategic focus.

What team, you might ask? Well, I’m part of EWB’s Malawi Water Supply Team. We have two major focuses. Their common theme, in my opinion, is that each focus is addressing a “stupid problem that shouldn’t exist”. Not coincidentally, these stupid problems relate to the provision of rural water supply in Malawi.

Water Supply: The Current Situation

As of 2005, safe water supply in Malawi could have looked something like this:


Pretty good hey? Actually, very very good. 84%…almost there. However, the problem is this graph is real. Why? The stupid problems.

Stupid Problem 1: Breakdowns

At any given time, a large fraction of water infrastructure in Malawi is non-functional. What fraction? Over 30%. Breakdowns make the situation look like this:


Not as good. Now, I know what you’re thinking: of course infrastructure is going to break down. This is true. However, what makes this a “stupid problem” is that there’s almost no one even working to make sure that these breakdowns are prevented or repaired. The policy in Malawi is Community Based Management. Or, put otherwise, “install it, forget about it…the community will take care of it”. And, about 31% of the time, it doesn’t work out. Kind of a waste. Breakdowns lead to the following equation:

imageEquation 1: The Effect of Breakdowns on Functionality

Stupid Problem 2: Inequitable Siting

This next problem is even simpler than that of breakdowns. Inequitable siting means that some communities get more water infrastructure than they need, while others remained underserved. It means that sometimes you can find two boreholes within 100m of each other, and other times you can travel kilometers without finding anything. It’s simply an inefficient use of resources. Inequitable siting makes the situation look like this:


Leading to the following equation:

imageEquation 2: The Effect of Inequitable Siting on Functionality

Summary – Why The Problems are “Stupid”

So, there it is. If only these two stupid problems could be addressed, then we could see a 39% increase in the impact of new water infrastructure in Malawi.

Now, why have I been calling these “stupid problems”? Well, because they’re eminently addressable. Some organizations are making good progress in supporting maintenance of water infrastructure. There have also been successful case studies in data management for more equitable siting. In fact, EWB is working hard on the latter, and exploring the former. These things can be done.

It’s not just that they “can” be done, though. It’s that they’re high leverage. I mean HIGH LEVERAGE. See the diagram:

image   Seriously High Leverage

By my estimates (note that actually every single number in this post has been “by my estimate”), we can say the following:

  • Installing a New Borehole w/ Pump: $10,000
  • Supporting the Repair of a Broken Waterpoint: $19
  • Improving the Siting of a New Waterpoint: $7

Wow. And yet, people are installing new boreholes like it’s going out of style, and few people are looking at improving siting or maintenance. Meanwhile, many of the new boreholes will go the same way of the old ones: either be sited where they’re not needed, or break down and not get repaired. Either way, potentially another $10,000 wasted.

It’s like: one step forward, 39% of a step back. All because of two stupid problems that shouldn’t exist. That’s why we’re working on these issues.



  1. Nice post, Owen. I love the way you explain development in a way that's easy to grasp, AND still complex. Cartoons rock (although the high leverage one kinda looks like someone is being hung...or tortured... :P)

  2. Hey Owen,

    Great post, as Laura said, very quick and easy to follow summary of the situation !

    A qiuck question, how did you calculate the average cost for the « Improving the siting of a New Waterpoint » part ?

  3. Owen,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this! I think it's a really well articulated way to share the problem.

    I also have the same question as Maxim with regards to the siting cost. Where did that figure come from?



  4. Hey Owen,

    How possible is it for organizations/groups to be created to maintain these broken down boreholes? Is that even something being considered or is that being blocked by the root "stupid problems"?

    Enjoyed the diagrams! High leverage was a particularly good one. Also, the "wtf" one...Hope your keeping well.

  5. Hey Maxim, Patrick, et. al.

    I thought there might be some curiosity about where the numbers come from. I’m glad to be able to fill you in.

    This year EWB, in partnership with WaterAid Malawi, helped set up a waterpoint monitoring system in Machinga district in Malawi. The system gives the district government a drastically improved ability to site new water infrastructure where it’s needed most. The recurring costs for the system are about K24,000, or around $185, per quarter, which means $740 per year (mostly for photocopying forms). Those recurring costs would probably be about the same no matter which district in Malawi the system was implemented in.

    Next I went through a large database of water information and found the average number of waterpoints that were implemented per district, per year, in Malawi. That number, calculated for the period of 1994-2004 (the most recent 10 year period for which I could find good data), turned out to be about 108 waterpoints/district/year.

    Finally I took the recurring costs of improving siting, $740/district/year and divided it by the number of new waterpoints being installed, 108 waterpoints/district/year, which gives $6.85, or roughly $7/waterpoint to improve siting.

    Not perfect, but a decent estimate I think, especially given how hard something like this can be to quantify.