Self Supply

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Photo: RSWN
Self Supply in Ethiopia
recognised in policy

Self supply works well in scattered or remote rural communities and where water sources are easily available. Self supply is the development or improvement of water supplies by households largely or wholly at their own cost, and an approach that can help increase coverage in areas where it is not feasible or cost-effective to develop communal supplies. Self supply is not easily recognized or measured, and usually does not qualify as a management option with formal benchmarks, as it is a departure from the dominant community-based model.

Although self supply has great potential, it remains largely invisible and its relative importance to the sector is neither fully understood nor appreciated. However, the trend appears to be changing. Eight out of 13 countries recognise self supply in sector policy (including Ethiopia, India, Thailand, Uganda and the USA). In the USA, where self supply is more strictly regulated, some 14.5 million people are using privately financed and operated systems.

Why invest in accelerating self supply?

The household-driven nature of self supply begs the question: Why should government get involved? The main reason is that the full potential of self supply is not being reached. This model can help bridge the funding gap for rural water supply (few countries have reached 100% coverage without it), and it can leverage private investment to boost service levels. Countries that have encouraged self supply, such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Thailand, are increasing coverage and levels of service in rural areas where conventional service is inadequate or difficult to provide sustainably.

In addition, government support can improve the quality of self-supply options and their sustainability, which is already high compared with communal services.

A role for government and NGOs

Government agencies and NGOs have an important role to play in promoting self supply. Promotion can take many forms, from awareness raising and technical assis­tance on practical ways of installing household systems, to providing subsidies for installation.

In Zimbabwe, government and donor pro­grammes have supported shallow well protection and upgrading. By 2006, over 120,000 family wells had been up-graded, serving more than 1.5 million people with minimal subsidies from donors and government (US$3-5 per capita). Ethiopia has launched a similar programme, illustrating how government support can leverage householders’ investments.

Where can self supply help?

Self supply is prevalent where people have no public service at all, or wish to improve on existing services that do not satisfy their needs in terms of quality, quantity, reliability, or access. Three types of context can be distinguished. In rural areas where community water supply coverage is low, shallow wells and rainwater harvesting can improve access for many millions of people. In general, the supplies are of low quality and the technologies are basic, but wellhead protection and installation of lifting devices are simple, low-cost improvements. The water is almost always shared with neighbours.


  • In Nicaragua, rural water supply coverage rose by 24% in seven years as a result of families’ investment in rope pumps (Alberts and van der Zee, 2003).
  • In large areas of Mali, about 20% of households have excavated their own unlined wells. This is equivalent to an investment of more than $10 million, undertaken by some of the poorest people in Africa (WSP, 2009; Sutton, 2010c).
  • In Ghana, an estimated 14% of rural supply coverage is from private or self-supply services (IRC and Aguaconsult, 2011).

What limitations does self supply have?

The self-supply model comes with some challenges:

  • Government and NGO workers may need training because self supply is fundamentally different from the community-based model: instead of developing and financing supplies, government agencies offer advice and support so that users can develop their own service.
  • It can be difficult to determine whether and where self supply can be supported. Not all forms of self supply are feasible everywhere, and in some cases self supply may not succeed.
  • Accelerating self supply requires up-front public investment—for promoting the idea, identifying appropriate technologies, establishing supply chains, and possibly providing incentives and subsidies—yet the benefits are initially unpredictable and may not appear in the short term if early uptake is slow.

Self supply also raises concerns about quality, equity, and environmental sustainability:

  • Low-cost technologies and private supplies are usually associated with lower levels of water quality than community supplies, although the extent to which this is true has not been well studied.
  • Although in general they have proved more sustainable than communal systems, household systems can also fail from lack of money, parts, or skill in maintenance or repair.
  • Self supply may not address the needs of the very poor, since households need initiative and some start-up capital or access to loans to develop their own water supply. However, options such as rainwater harvesting are within reach of most. And often self-supply households provide water for free or for a small charge to those who cannot afford their own supply.
  • Widespread uptake of self-financed wells may draw down groundwater levels if they are also used for productive activities, such as irrigation and cottage industries.

In addition, public planners need to coordinate self supply with public systems. One mistake to avoid is duplication of public and household efforts. The limitations can be addressed only if self supply is treated as a formal service delivery model, alongside community-based management, with private and public support services and information.

Self supply links