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How are Excellent Development's sand dams saving lives in rural Africa?

Jonathan Drew By Jonathan Drew
13 Dec 2018
Excellent Dev Sand Dams - aerial of sand dam s.jpg

Lack of accessible water is a major problem for much of the developing world. Excellent Development support rural dryland communities to build sand dams, with long-term positive effects for communities - and wildlife.

Excellent Development is a wonderful charity that exists to give practical, direct, effective, help. The Explorations Company have supported Excellent for many years as they put simple concepts to far reaching positive effect for both humanity and wildlife. 



Who are Excellent Development?

Sand dams are an affordable way to enable rural dry-land communities to address hunger, poverty, conflict, climate change and land degradation and create green, sustainable, economic growth – all at the same time. Excellent is possibly the world’s leading model of first-class, long term, sustainable, low cost, high value community help.

The core of Excellent’s model is the creation of sand dams. These are an embodiment of ancient technology that is as relevant to dry-land areas now as they were thousands of years ago and provide very long-term ongoing benefit based on an utterly basic concept with little or no ongoing maintenance or running costs.

What are sand dams and how do they work?

A properly designed and built sand dam ensures a virtually constant water supply for villages, domestic stock, micro-agriculture and wildlife. Sand dams are suited to many parts of the world’s dry-lands which represent 44% of the earth’s surface, produce roughly the same percentage of the world’s food and yet are home to 80% of the world’s poorest inhabitants.



A sand dam is a truly wonderful example of simple technology, providing low cost, minimal maintenance and very long term sustainable benefit. 

A sand dam is a low reinforced-block wall that is built, using basic and locally-available materials, across a seasonal river bed; usually to the height of the river bank. Appropriate locations are selected where water has channelled through rocky substrata, a familiar dry-land scenario where water briefly flows and, hitherto, runs away to be lost. 

The rainy season brings a flash-flood of water that includes vast quantities of sand in suspension. This sand is deposited, due to flow interruption, behind the new sand dam wall. Completion of the sand build up can be virtually immediate in heavy rains or may take place more gradually over the course of a few rainy seasons.



Once the deposited sand reaches the top of the dam wall the resulting sand “reservoir” can stretch several kilometres upstream, safely and sustainably trapping millions of litres of water in a sand “sponge” that is naturally refilled every time it rains.

Crucially, during the dry season the water is protected from evaporation, contamination and runoff so that year-round fresh water is available to the local communities for evermore. Extraction is simple: by the simple expedient of digging a shallow well or, sometimes, including a pipe or tap in the dam wall itself.



It is worth noting that dams can be constructed in series on a dry riverbed, each individual sand dam capturing only a minute proportion of the overall flow during the rainy season, thus downstream communities are not at all deprived of “their” water.

How do Excellent Development support rural dryland communities to build sand dams? 

Excellent are the starting point. Following community consultation they provide the skills and training for the proposed Sand Dam as well as any resources that are not available locally.

The communities then input locally-sourced materials and labour to create what is, in effect, a professionally guided, self-help, sustainable investment in that most basic of commodities: water.



The resulting Sand Dam, once “filled”, supports livestock and basic cropping as well as providing potable water. Following dam completion further input to the communities, including advice and help with sustainable agriculture, creation of seed banks, terracing technology and other appropriate methodology, is then made available through a local partner such as, in East Africa, ASDF – the Africa Sand Dam Foundation.

There are no hand-outs with this intensely practical solution; it is all about long term, practical, sustainable benefit.


So what are the long term benefits?

Once the basic need of water is addressed, so many other positive outcomes result. Some of these include:

  •  An average dam can support over 1200 people with a local water source for tens of years without maintenance.
  •  With the time saved from collecting water, people can invest in farming and micro-agricultural endeavours to grow more food for their families and to sell at market.
  • Women and children save literally hours of time each day - time they can invest in their education and small business enterprises.
  • Sand dams raise the water table enabling communities to grow a greater variety of crops to eat, store and sell.
  • There is a powerfully positive effect on the surrounding environment, reversing the damaging effects of climate change and drought.
  • Whilst sand dams make a serious difference to dryland communities, they also have a focused wildlife potential.


How have the Explorations Company contributed?

We always look for the best way to maximise funding, whether in its effect or scope. In December 2017 we agreed to stand as initial pledge match donors (for total £5,000) for Excellent’s funding push during The Big Give.

Our original £5,000 pledge guarantee helped Excellent to raise another £17,500 in match funding which in turn raised, with Gift Aid, a total of over £80,000 including individual donations.

That’s not bad for a £5,000 “seed” and is enabling several dryland communities to build their own sand dams giving them access to clean water as well as future micro-agricultural spinoffs - at almost nil onward cost. This is serious, practical, leverage!


Latest News:

We have once again supported Excellent by guaranteeing a relatively small amount of “seed” funding for the 2019 Big Give. Results are on target to be highly encouraging, exceeding the 2018 results and enabling further support for more communities, as well as wildlife projects. On which note……..

…..Excellent have also just completed a ground-breaking Sand Dams for Wildlife feasibility study. We mentioned the possibility of this in our last update and the first of two initial sand dams is scheduled to shortly begin construction in Tsavo East, Kenya.

One exciting side to this model is that the impact on the local habitat during construction is very low indeed and, of course, as the dams are so simple and become, in effect, a part of the local geology they are not affected by the depredations of larger animals!

Crucially these dams will provide long term water for wildlife in dry-land situations thus reducing, amongst many other benefits, occurrences of human/wildlife conflict when animals range outside reserve boundaries simply to find water.

How can our clients help?

We hope that long term, private donors will consider taking ownership of building of one or more specific sand dams.

Each dam costs an average of $15-20k, which is a minimal investment for such a long term, highly sustainable benefit. We can facilitate donations to this incredibly worthwhile charity, please call us on +44 1367 850 566 to discuss this further.


Images kindly supplied courtesy of Excellent Development. Image of two children standing on sand dam courtesy of Polly Braden

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