Water being transported in Wajir town, northern Kenya Water being transported in Wajir town, northern Kenya Photo credit: ILRI/Riccardo Gangale
Rethinking emergency water provision: can we stop direct water trucking in the same places every year?
by Thomas Wildman, Carol Brady and Emily Henderson May 2014

In eight out of the past ten years, there has been drought somewhere in the Horn of Africa, affecting nearly 70 million people. Indeed, the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia suffer from water scarcity on an almost annual basis. In this context, water trucking has played a pivotal role in addressing basic water needs. It is a coping mechanism during ‘typical’ dry seasons, based on existing private sector water trucks and vendors who sell water to those who are able to pay for it. In times of drought, direct water trucking is a common relief intervention, with water being transported over long distances to people in areas with no permanent water points.

In 2011, the ASAL region experienced two consecutive failed rainy seasons, resulting in some areas in one of the worst droughts since 1950/51, with over 12m people affected. As part of its emergency drought response activities in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, Oxfam supported the provision of water to people getting less than five litres per person per day (the minimum needed for survival and basic hygiene). A significant proportion of this water was provided by water trucking operations, with water transported via large tanker trucks from permanent water sources (boreholes accessing deep groundwater) to areas with no permanent water points between 20 and 120 kilometres away. These interventions lasted for 2–3 months until the rains arrived.

The need for an alternative approach

Although direct water trucking is a common emergency intervention in times of drought and water scarcity in the Horn of Africa, it is also expensive, unsustainable and difficult to manage, implement and monitor. As water is typically delivered to communities at a central distribution point, it is frequently distributed on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, with people living closer to the distribution point receiving more water than those who live further away. There has been great uncertainty over the quantity of water actually delivered by trucks to these distribution points, as well as over the quantity accessed per target household. Without an independent monitor present for each delivery, it is nearly impossible to ascertain delivery quantities. There is anecdotal evidence that better-off households regularly contract water trucks to transport water to drought-stricken areas, for their use and sometimes for resale to other members of their community. By contracting external trucks and establishing competitive conditions NGO water trucking sufficient quantities in nearby areas increases truck hire costs, and NGOs also tend to pay a higher price for water at the water points. In any water trucking intervention, Oxfam becomes an actor in the water trucking market and in the supply chain – paying for truck rental, purchasing the water to be transported and the fuel for the trucks, as well as covering the costs of delays and vehicle breakdowns. Oxfam carries all the risks of the operation, bearing responsibility for ensuring that each link in the market chain functions effectively.

To understand how the market functions, what constraints people face in accessing water and whether the market had the capacity to deliver adequate amounts of water, Oxfam undertook several market assessments in the ASALs, based on the Emergency Market Mapping & Analysis (EMMA) approach. Assessments were carried out in Jijiga Zone, Ethiopia (February 2012), and in Wajir County, Kenya (September 2012). Further market surveys and assessments were carried out in Moyale and Marsabit in 2012.

Market analysis in Jijiga Zone, Ethiopia

This analysis was based in Harshin, a particularly drought-prone woreda of Jijiga Zone. Harshin supports a population of over 100,000 people, yet has no permanent water points. The only sources of water are structures which harvest rainfall runoff during the two yearly rainy seasons. In the event of a failed rainy season, nearly all water points in the entire woreda are dry. Water trucks in the area are contracted by members of the population to import water into the woreda during these periods of water scarcity. Emergency water trucking activities by NGOs and government agencies are commonplace.

Contrary to prior assumptions, the market analysis established that, during extended dry seasons, water security is not limited by water availability (water is available in sufficient quantities in nearby areas). Rather, the primary obstacle is a lack of purchasing power. As (free access) rainwater-fed water points dry up, the only option is to purchase water from vendors. As such, the situation is not purely a water crisis, but rather a crisis of livelihoods.

The existing water market of boreholes and trucks has the capacity to meet water needs during times of drought. During severe droughts, truck owners act as retailers, which better-off and middling households contract to deliver water. This water is either for use by a collective group, or is sometimes resold to other residents of the community. Poorer and more distant communities find it difficult to access, and negotiate within, this market, in part because of the attractive contractual conditions NGOs (the main customers) offer and because of lack of purchasing power to pay for a truckload.

The market analysis pointed to a range of response options, including a voucher system to improve beneficiary targeting and monitoring of water deliveries, limit market disruption through the creation of a parallel branch in the supply chain and reduce the logistical burden on Oxfam; increasing the capacity of community market actors to undertake water transportation and delivery as a business, reinforcing the link between market actors and customers; and cash transfers to enable beneficiaries to buy water from these local vendors. Longer-term recommendations highlighted the need to identify triggers for future emergency water provision, including water availability, livelihood conditions and community redistribution systems.

Emergency activities implemented in the drought response in March 2012 were based on the provision of water vouchers, linking beneficiaries to the market system, as opposed to Oxfam directly trucking water. Beneficiaries were given vouchers for a two-week supply of water. As water was only given in return for a voucher, beneficiaries could more easily collect their fair share of water, and focus groups confirmed that this led to more equitable distribution of water as beneficiaries who lived far from water distribution points had equal access. It also improved beneficiary targeting (82% as opposed to a previously unknown percentage). Water truckers were responsible for the entire delivery chain, from purchase at the borehole to delivery to targeted households, shifting a significant portion of the risk and the logistical load away from Oxfam. Suppliers were paid based on the number of vouchers they submitted to Oxfam.

Although the voucher system was officially adopted by the Water Bureau in Somali Region and by the WASH cluster, water truckers resisted it because it implied more work and less profit for them, as well as increased accountability and reduced opportunities for fraud. There was also resistance from some local authorities, as the new approach would affect the existing system whereby their officers were paid to monitor trucks. Approaches between different agencies in the region were inconsistent and there was tension between existing logistical procedures and alternative means of contracting local trucks in terms of splitting the award of contracts between multiple vendors. Nonetheless, it is clear that there are feasible alternatives and that direct water trucking is by no means the only response option. The market analysis in Jijiga opened the way for subsequent assessments in Kenya and beyond. There is now substantial learning from across the ASALs that can help agencies to refine their approaches.

Learning from the ASALs

The market analyses to date (Jijiga, Dire Dawa, Wajir, Marsabit and Moyale) have highlighted a number of shared characteristics and issues. During dry seasons, people rely on commercial water providers and markets to meet their needs; as water scarcity worsens, better-off households also purchase water for resale within their communities. These markets have the capacity to meet water needs during these periods: across the ASALs, it is a lack of purchasing power rather than water availability that is the primary constraint to accessing water. In this context, NGO contractual arrangements with truck owners push up the costs of truck hire, disrupting the market and further reducing the opportunities for communities to access water directly. This highlights the need for a better understanding and analysis of people’s access to water, including an understanding of community-based social support structures. This analysis could also be linked to a wider understanding of household and community water management, in terms of how emergency responses could contribute to people’s strategies and community plans to address water scarcity.

Significant areas of debate and progress remain: The market analysis raised the issue that, although water is a basic right, it is also, in many cases, a monetised commodity: in other words, it has costs associated with it. In an emergency response, when is it appropriate to partially subsidise water (i.e. to bring costs down), and when is it appropriate to ‘donate’ water by fully subsidising it? Should agencies support the monetisation of water during an emergency? These questions need to be thought through in depth. The issue of how to work with the private sector in water delivery, operation and maintenance needs to be addressed. More consideration is needed about the levels of risk transferred and the conditions under which NGOs should engage with the private sector. There is also an opportunity to learn from private operations, in terms of understanding consumer behaviour and managing trader information. As suggested above, the market analysis can be linked to wider community-based resilience approaches or longer-term livelihood programming. The Hunger Safety Net Programme in Kenya is a good example of how emergency responses can evolve into longer-term programmes that seek to reinforce access to essential goods and services and strengthen livelihoods. In Wajir, there is an opportunity to create a WASH and food security package combining water and commodity vouchers (or grants or combined vouchers/ grants) that reflect different seasonal needs. In emergency periods, these vouchers/grants could be used to access additional assistance. Finally, in areas of chronic water constraints, does the distribution of vouchers or direct water provision year after year actually keep people vulnerable by giving them just enough to survive in these arid areas?


In addition to the ASALs, market assessments have also been carried out in WASH programmes in other contexts, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Jordan and Nairobi. These assessments have generated a broader understanding of response options and response design. These response options are potentially more cost-effective and efficient, link more closely with early recovery and are less likely to undermine existing markets. The assessments have also demonstrated the relevance of cash and market based programming in WASH and the potential role of the private sector. Market analysis and market based programming also opens up opportunities to link with longer-term development programming and connect water and sanitation issues with food security issues. Market analysis could also play a role in preparedness and contingency planning, helping to develop better and timelier responses and more realistic response triggers, potentially mitigating the impacts of a crisis.

The market assessments undertaken in WASH programmes have underlined the need to embed response design in a sound market understanding, as well as highlighting the benefits of doing so. Yet these assessments are not undertaken routinely. It is essential, both for WASH programming and for the wider humanitarian community, that WASH staff are present in technical discussions, and the WASH sector needs to establish a place for itself in the cash and markets communities of practice. This would enable the sector to capture and share learning, have more influence in the development and refinement of tools and guidance and be involved in discussions around outstanding issues.

As a broader humanitarian community there is a need to widen the skill set of our members, not only to enlarge the pool of people who can understand and apply market analysis, but also to enable practitioners to see the possibilities that market-based programming could open up. It is important that new ideas are tested and that learning is harnessed. Despite the setbacks that are bound to happen in any radical change to programming, markets work has the potential to open up responses anchored in longer-term development or resilience-building, challenging traditional, and potentially inefficient and harmful, methods.

Thomas Wildman is WASH Advisor, Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Carol Brady is Market Communications, Learning and Advocacy Officer at Oxfam GB. Emily Henderson is Emergency Food Security and Vulnerable Livelihoods (EFSVL Advisor) – Market Lead at Oxfam GB.