Retrofitting boreholes contaminated with iron in rural Uganda

Caleb T. Fader



During my Peace Corps service as a community health liaison in rural Uganda I noticed that many improved water wells in our area had been abandoned. The communities described the water in these wells as being reddish in color, having a foul taste and odor, discoloring clothes and food, and not able to produce lather for washing.

Personal investigations and an initial literature search suggested that the primary contaminant was iron. The water in these wells had a low pH and a rusty metallic smell. The water produced early in the morning appeared very red but the water became more transparent as pumping continued. The iron components of many of these wells experienced accelerated corrosion resulting in frequent pump failure. This rapid corrosion coupled with the timing of the onset of iron contamination (months to years after these wells were completed) suggests that the most likely cause of the poor quality water was iron related bacteria and/or sulphate reducing bacteria.

This report describes a remedy for iron contamination employed at 5 wells. The remedy involved disinfecting the wells with chlorine and replacing iron pump components with plastic and stainless steel. Iron concentrations in the wells were less than 1 mg/L when the wells were drilled but ranged from 2.5 to 40 mg/L prior to the remedy. After the remedy was applied, the total iron concentrations returned to levels below 1 mg/L. The presence of iron related bacteria was measured in all of these wells using Biological Activity Reaction Tests. Although IRB are still present in all the wells, the dissolved iron concentrations remain less than 1 mg/L. This remedy is practical for rural areas because the work can be performed with only hand tools and costs less than US $850. Because the source of iron contamination is removed in this approach, substantial follow-up maintenance is not necessary.