Postgraduate research opportunities

Using Systems Thinking To Capture Community Values Of Water In Malawi

This project develops empirically informed models that represent community values of water in rural Malawi and community influence on the provision of the local water supply. The research project has been designed to integrate the community values of people living in poverty into more inclusive public planning and mult

Number of places



Home fee, Stipend


21 December 2018


28 March 2019


36 months


Candidates are required to have:

  • An excellent undergraduate degree with Honours in a relevant business, scientific/technological or social science subject
  • A Masters degree (or equivalent) will be strongly preferred
  • Students may also have other relevant experience or skills which are relevant to this project
  • Candidates who are not native English speakers will be required to provide evidence for their English skills (such as by IELTS or similar tests that are approved by UKVI, or a degree completed in an English speaking country).

Candidates should be available to commence studies on 1st October 2019

Project Details

Achieving sustainable drinking water supply to the poor represents an on-going challenge in many regions of the world. Part of this challenge relates to the maintenance of water supply at community standpipes accessed by payment of a local tariff to a water seller for a bucket of water. Concerns have been raised about how much to charge the poor and how to maintain access to a reliable water supply with maintenance of piped systems and boreholes recognised as problematic.


The literature on development is dominated by research on Community-Based Management (CBM) and its success or failure. CBM, as a method of disseminating responsibility from the government and funders, places communities at the centre of water supply but historically there has been little community involvement recognised in public water provision. However, a key management reform in water supply witnessed in recent years has been the emergence of Water Users Associations (WUAs), as participatory management groups developed to involve local communities in water supply. WUAs have emerged at, what are termed, water kiosks developed around the distribution and payment for water at standpipes. While research is emerging on WUAs in rural agricultural settings in China and India there is a gap in the literature on community influence on lifeline tariff setting and water supply. The proposed research will begin to fill this gap by applying systems thinking to explore community values of water and the role of WUAs in water supply.



Bringing together the perspectives of different community groups requires a method that enables the views of multiple groups to be elicited, combined and debated. To build a comprehensive constructionist understanding, the method needs to take a holistic perspective of the water supply issue to appreciate how the values of different groups impact each other. Systems thinking is an approach that focusses on how different parts of a system relate to one another.

The research will evaluate the systems thinking methods that should be used to capture the perspective of community groups in Malawi with respect to water supply and develop a process for capturing, mapping and analysing these values. Not only will the output provide insight to inform public planning and decision-making, but also involvement in the process will provide the community groups with deeper understanding of the issues they face with respect to water supply and how their community groups can impact the system.


Research Design

Evidence will be drawn from two comparative case study communities in Chikwawa and Mulanje, rural Malawi. Central to the cases is an exploration of accounting for the transactions undertaken by representatives of WUAs at water kiosks as well as the model underpinning the tariff calculation of water supply up to the water kiosk. Access will be achieved through established contacts made via the Climate Justice Fund (CJF) Water Futures Programme research involving one of the primary supervisor (Andrea Coulson), already networked with local stakeholders in these locations through existing research. 


Relevance to user groups (managers, charities, government)

Modelling community values of water is becoming critical to determining sustainable access. Engineering solutions to water supply have been provided in rural areas but often not sustained due to lack of maintenance. Community influences on use and functionality are relatively unexplored. An integrated, inclusive approach to decision making on water supply is needed to pursue a sustainable solution through national and local governments in Malawi, external funders such as the World Bank and EIB, national and local charities administering funding, and local private sector contractors where these exist.

Each country is required to report its performance to the United Nations on compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Models which help to capture how the community values water and their potential influence on public policy making is critical to achieving the SDGs, in particular SDG 6 to deliver water to the people. The research outcomes will provide a common point of reference for SDG reporting by the range of stakeholders mentioned above.


Funding Details

Fee waiver at Home/EU rate and annual stipend of approx. £14,777*

*Whilst open to International candidates, please note that this scholarship covers Home/EU/RUK Fee rate only

How to apply

All applications should include:

  • a cover letter indicating the candidate's relevant skills/experience and how they can contribute to this research
  • a CV and relevant qualification transcripts
  • two references (please refer to guidance on references) 

When sending the above documents please use the following file-naming convention: fullname_typeofdocument

For example:

  • Johnsmith_coverletter
  • Johnsmith_CV
  • Johnsmith_transcript1
  • Johnsmith_transcript2
  • Johnsmith_reference1
  • Johnsmith_reference2

Apply now by uploading your documents.