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Surface water drainage —

How evaluation can improve
This Technical Brief outlines ways in which, by carrying out a simple evaluation, engineers
and technicians can make improvements in the performance of drainage systems.
Urban drainage is the removal of unwanted water from cities and large towns. When it rains,
part of the rainwater, called runoff, runs off the surface and flows along the ground. Surface-
water drainage removes this runoff.

Why evaluate drainage?

Without surface-water
drainage, frequent flooding
creates many problems:
Evaluations can answer such questions as:

Is flooding a problem in this area?
Are drains blocked? With what?
How does the drainage system work in practice?
■ floods damage roads,
■ Is maintenance a problem? Can it, realistically, be improved?
houses, and goods at
major cost;
Drainage evaluation methods
■ during floods, runoff mixes
with the human wastes Is flooding a problem in this catchment?
inside latrines, septic tanks
and sewers, and spreads There are two useful approaches: asking residents (resident surveys), and
them wherever the runoff seeing for yourself (direct observation).
flows; and
Resident surveys Try to be specific
■ mosquitoes breed in ponds It is probably better to ask first
People who have lived in one area
(even small ones!) that are about last year’s flooding, rather
for several years know a lot about
not drained within a week, than ‘how high does water rise?’ It
flooding – they remember when
so contributing to malaria is also best if residents find a
water flooded their homes. You can
and other diseases. specific place to show the high
get an idea of which areas are
worst affected by simply talking to water mark, rather than stating that
Flooding can occur where ‘water was knee-deep.’
people. There are simple rules:
drains are:
■ poorly designed; Avoid ‘leading’ questions Direct observation
People’s answers reflect what and Walking around in a storm can be a
■ poorly built; or how they are asked. Questions good way to see what happens
■ blocked with solids such as must be open and neutral, allowing when it floods. It is a fairly limited
rubbish, or broken brick, each person to express him or exercise, however, because:
bits of concrete, soil, and herself freely; ‘What happens when
human wastes. it rains?’ is better than ‘Does it flood ■ you can only do in the rain;
a lot here?’ ■ you cannot be everywhere all
NO drainage system can the time; and
Ask more than one person ■ you can easily miss the most
protect residents from all
If just one or two people are asked, important part of the storm.
storms. In many cases,
they will know some parts of the
however, drainage does not
area better than others. If men Direct observation during floods is
work as well as it could, so
work outside the area, and women more helpful in getting a feel for
there is unnecessary flooding.
spend more time in the home, how the system works as a whole,
women will know more about minor than for gauging severity
flooding. accurately.

Surface water drainage
Are the drains blocked? depth to the bottom. Forcing a steel and a mirror down another can be
The best way of finding this out rod through deposits until you ‘hit helpful (Figure 3). If the pipe is
depends on the type of drain — bottom’ will not work, as the rod clear, the light can be seen clearly
open drains are much easier to may lodge itself on top of a rock or in the mirror; if the pipe is blocked
check than closed ones. brick, rather than at the true bottom with solids, or is not straight, then
of the channel. the light will be partly or completely
Open drains blocked. Success depends on
Closed drains having a powerful lamp, which you
If open drains are used only for
Finding blockages in closed drains must keep dry or the batteries will
runoff, they are dry in dry weather.
is more difficult, especially if they run down too quickly.
A quick walk along the drain can
also carry sewage. Here are two
give you a good idea of the extent
of the blockage. Frequently,
quick checks: How does the drainage
however, open drains carry sewage Standing-water checks in system behave in
as well as runoff. While a quick manholes practice?
look can find a complete blockage, When water is found standing in a
it cannot tell you much about the manhole above the bottom (‘invert’) To get the clearest idea, look at
solids below the surface. A survey, of the outgoing pipe, then how the system works in a storm.
using simple equipment to gauge something is holding up the flow
the amount of blockage, can be (see Figure 2 on page 99). Problem areas for flooding
helpful (see Figure 1 below).
Lamp-and-mirror checks Systematic observation is difficult
In any drain where there are Where manholes are spaced less unless problem areas have been
substantial solids, parts of the drain than 30m apart, lowering a identified before the storm. Define
must be cleaned out to find the true powerful lamp down one manhole, these using resident surveys before

Figure 1. A scale for measuring the depth of solids in an open drain

Surface water drainage
The drainage ‘network’ is more than
just the drain; it includes surface
and gutter flow, inlet flow, and
whatever is going on downstream,

The surface flow routes

followed by runoff during
Runoff follows surface routes
during floods. Study these routes
during storms to find out both the
impacts on residents, and ways to
reduce problems. In some cases,
flow leaves one drain and re-enters
another with no problem; in other
cases, whole areas become

Figure 2: Standing water at manholes — a sign of downstream blockage Sometimes, small changes in such
routes, for example, by raising a
dyke or removing some soil, can
improve the situation significantly.
But someone must step back and
look around to ensure that the
problem of five houses is not being
solved at the expense of 20 others!

Working in wet weather

Organizing a team to study

drainage during storms
Storms are unscheduled, chaotic,
and unpleasant; staff must be
organized to work well in bad
weather. The manager should
assign tasks and responsibilities for
the ‘next storm’ during dry weather
– team members then know where
they have to go and what they have
to do at the start of the next storm
without having to assemble as a
Figure 3: Use of a lamp and a mirror for checking drain clearance group.

the storm, and assign specific itself during storms. Such a survey Checking catchment and
team members to observe them can find: sub-catchment boundaries
during rain. This can often clarify Good maps make this job much
the cause of the flooding, such as ■ overflow locations; easier. Each team member should
inflows from other areas, or be allocated a ‘beat’, and should
■ bottlenecks and high head
blocked inlets. note on a map the direction of flow
losses, eg culverts; and
along the surface early in the
The hydraulic performance ■ obstructed entry to the drain, storm. This should be completed
of the total drainage system (inlet blockage, poor inlet within the first storm or two of the
The only way to observe hydraulic design, or poor surface season, to define the catchment as
performance is to study the drain grading). early as possible.

Surface water drainage

Summary Table 1. Wet weather observations and timing

Table 1 (right) shows how different
Beginning Middle End
data can be gathered at different (or small storms) (flood) (flood-water drainage)
stages of a storm. In practice, no
Catchment Directions of flow in Catchment boundaries Catchment boundaries
team can count on a flood boundaries streets
occurring, but its members can be
ready when a flood takes place. Flood-prone Bottlenecks, causes of
areas flooding

Improving Hydraulic
Inlet performance,
blockages, high head
Outflows from drains Problems of grading,
slow drainage, high head

performance from losses losses

evaluations Surface
Location, direction,
and magnitude of
Location, direction and
magnitude of surface
surface routes routes
Here are a few examples from
experience in the Madhya Pradesh Nuisance and Observe, discuss with Observe, discuss with
hazards residents residents
city of Indore:

Understanding the Blockages

catchment better A lamp-and-mirror survey can be a Acknowledgements
The designer may have missed quick and efficient way to get an These findings grew out of Research
some of the area that contributes idea of the condition of old drains. Project R5477, Performance-Based
One of the Indore surveys identified Evaluation of Surface Water Drainage
runoff. Field evaluations can
in Low-Income Communities, of the
establish this quickly, and suitable several problems within a few Engineering Division of the Department
diversion strategies can then be hours. for International Development (DFID).
developed. DFID, however, does not accept any
Surface routes of flow responsibility for any of the information
provided, or views expressed.
Solids-depth monitoring Drainage designers usually focus
on the routes of the pipes and The author acknowledges the help of
The initial survey of solids depths
Dr David Butler, Mr Jon Parkinson,
can identify the first priorities for channels, and not on the way water Professor T.A. Sihorwala and the staff
cleaning. Follow-up surveys can flows over the ground during a of the Indore Drainage Evaluation
monitor how quickly solids build up flood. Minor changes in some street Project in the development and testing
after cleaning, and whether levels can make a big difference to of these approaches.
cleaning needs to be more how quickly they drain after a
frequent. storm.

Further reading
Cairncross, S. and Ouano, E.A.R., Surface Water Drainage for Low-Income Communities, WHO, Geneva, 1991.
Cairncross, S. and Ouano, E.A.R., ‘Surface water drainage in urban areas’, in The Poor Die Young, edited by
J.E. Hardoy, S. Cairncross, and D. Satterthwaite, Earthscan, London, 1990.
Cotton, A. P. and Tayler, K., Urban Upgrading: Options and procedures for Pakistan, WEDC, Loughborough, 1993.
Kolsky, P., Storm Drainage: An engineering guide to the low-cost evaluation of system performance, IT Publications,
London, 1998.

Prepared by Pete Kolsky and Rod Shaw

by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) to promote environmental health and well-
being in developing and transitional countries. It is managed by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
(LSHTM) and the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), Loughborough University.
Phone: +44 1509 222885 Fax: +44 1509 211079 E-mail: