Groundwater was defined in Study Session 1 as water that is found underground within rocks. Its presence depends primarily on the type of rock. Permeable rocks have tiny spaces between the solid rock particles that allow water and other fluids to pass through and to be held within the rock structure. The layers of rock that hold groundwater are called aquifers. Figure 3.3 shows how groundwater in an aquifer is replenished by rain and other forms of precipitation (any form of water, such as rain, snow, sleet or hail that falls to the Earth’s surface, shown in the diagram as ‘recharge’) that has percolated (passed through a porous substance, or through small holes) downward into the aquifer. The level of water below ground is called the water table. Groundwater can be extracted from wells or collected from springs.

Figure 3.3 Diagram of groundwater formation with spring and wells.

The depth that groundwater is taken from and the types of permeable rock it has passed through are important factors that affect its quality. Groundwater, particularly from deep sources, may provide water of good microbiological quality. This is because bacteria, protozoa, viruses and helminths are filtered from the water as it passes through the layers of soil and rock. Groundwater sources are therefore preferable to surface water sources. However, groundwater can contain chemical contaminants, as indicated in Table 3.1, which lists the advantages and disadvantages of using groundwater as a water source.

Table 3.1 Advantages and disadvantages of using groundwater as a water source.

Advantages Disadvantages

Likely to be free of pathogenic bacteria

Usually free of turbidity and colour

Can usually be used without further treatment

Can often be found in close vicinity to consumers

Economical to obtain and distribute

The water-bearing soil or rock provides a natural storage point

Often has a high mineral content (i.e. has naturally occurring substances that are not from living organisms) such as calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese

Usually requires pumping for extraction

May have a high level of bicarbonate, carbonate and chloride

Poor in oxygen content

Can contain chemical contaminants such as arsenic, fluorides and nitrates

If it gets polluted, treatment can be difficult to achieve

Several factors influence the likelihood of groundwater becoming contaminated from a polluting source such as a pit latrine. The geology is important because in areas with permeable rocks, or where there are small cracks in the rock formation, fluids can pass through more easily into the aquifer. Other factors include the depth of the pit and its vertical distance from the water table.

Why should a well be located uphill from any possible sources of pollution?

Show answer

The natural flow of the groundwater follows the law of gravity, and will be downhill. The well should be sited so that any pollutants going into the soil that enter the groundwater do not get into the water in the well. So, the best place for a well would be uphill of the pollutant source.

Wells and boreholes

Wells and boreholes can be described by their depth, or by the way they are constructed. They may also use different types of pump at the surface to raise the water.

Shallow wells

Shallow wells and boreholes usually have a depth of less than 30 m, although they can be as much as 60 m deep, especially in very dry areas where the water table is low. Figure 3.4 is a diagram of a protected hand-dug well. Wells can be excavated by hand if the soil is not too hard or the water table is high. Hand-dug wells have a relatively large diameter because they have to be wide enough for a person to be able to stand inside and dig.

Figure 3.4 Diagram of a hand-dug well.

The inside wall of the top 3 m or so of the dug well should be made waterproof by constructing a well casing (lining). In small-diameter wells the casing can be a pipe, but in large wells the casing needs to be constructed in concrete from the top of the well down to a minimum depth of 3 m. The casing of the well should also be extended for a minimum of 60 cm above the surrounding ground level to prevent the entrance of surface run-off – that is, water that runs off the surface of the land, carrying debris, wastes and other pollutants with it as it flows. A concrete cover should be fitted over the well casing, as in Figure 3.5, to prevent dust, insects, small animals and any other contaminants from falling in.

Figure 3.5 Protected well with concrete surround and a lid. Note the black plastic bucket is suspended off the ground to keep it clean.

Depending on the depth of the well, water may be drawn up by a bucket and rope or by using a pump. Hand pumps, such as the one in Figure 3.6, are built over the well and the concrete cover extends to cover the surrounding ground. The immediate area of the well should preferably be fenced to keep animals away. The area surrounding the well should be graded off (i.e. should slope away from the well) in order to prevent the flow of storm water run-off into the well. Any pipework associated with the pump that enters the well needs to have watertight connections so that it operates efficiently. The well, pump, pipework and associated structure should be regularly disinfected using chlorine solution to eliminate pathogens and ensure the water is safe to drink.

Figure 3.6 Hand pump over a protected dug well. Note the concrete surround and the fence to keep out animals.

Water can also be drawn from a well using a rope pump (Figure 3.7). A long continuous loop of rope, with washers at regularly spaced intervals, runs around a wheel at the top of a well and around a smaller roller encased below the water line. The rope runs through a PVC pipe and, as the wheel is turned, water is drawn up the pipe by suction. A rope pump can be made from recycled parts, such as bicycle wheels, scrap metal and plastic, and it can be mended quickly and cheaply.

Figure 3.7 Examples of rope pumps.

Deep wells or boreholes

These are wells that have been sunk with drilling machines designed for constructing water extraction boreholes (Figure 3.8). These machines are able to penetrate through harder material that cannot be tackled by hand digging and can therefore pass through at least one impermeable layer of rock to a productive aquifer underneath. They typically obtain water from depths ranging from 30 to 60 m, but large urban supply boreholes can be much deeper than this. A casing of metal or plastic pipe is usually necessary to line the borehole and prevent the soil and rock from collapsing into it (Figure 3.9). The lower part of the casing must have suitable openings to allow water to enter the borehole from the aquifer, although in hard rocks, the borehole can be left open and will not collapse.

Figure 3.8 Drilling rig for a borehole.

Figure 3.9 A borehole.

At the surface, different types of pump may be used including hand pumps like the one in Figure 3.6. For larger boreholes in urban areas electric or diesel-powered pumps would be used.


Groundwater may emerge above ground as a spring. This happens in locations where the water table reaches the surface, or where the boundary between a permeable layer of underground rock and an impermeable layer reaches the ground surface, as shown in Figure 3.3. Springs are normally found at the foot of mountains and hills, in lower slopes of valleys, and near the banks of major rivers. The water emerging at a spring may vary in volume and contamination levels, in response to the amount of rainfall. Springs are likely to be polluted by direct contamination from run-off seeping through the topsoil unless the surrounding land area is protected. A spring supply issuing from a deep, water-bearing layer, rather than a permeable layer near the surface, can produce both a consistent volume and a better-quality supply.

Spring source protection

Whether the spring originates from shallow or deep rock layers, animals should be excluded from the surrounding area by a stock-proof fence. Springs should be protected from flooding and surface water pollution by constructing a deep diversion ditch above and around the spring. The ditch should be constructed so that it collects surface water running towards the spring and carries or diverts it away. It needs to be deep enough to carry all surface water away, even in a heavy rainstorm.

Small springs are typically protected by a ‘spring box’ (Figure 3.10), which is constructed of brick, masonry or concrete, and is built around the spring so that water flows directly out of the box into a pipe or cistern, without being exposed to outside pollution such as run-off, bird droppings and animals. The spring box should have a watertight cover with a lock. Larger springs serving towns are protected in a similar way (Figure 3.11).

Figure 3.10 A spring box.

Figure 3.11 A protected spring. The concrete slab on the left covers and protects the source of the water.

Last modified: Sunday, 2 October 2016, 5:57 PM