Abstract Community water supply programmes are seen as instrumental in achieving the goal of ‘safe’ water for all. Women, a principal target group of these programmes, are to be benefited with greater convenience, enhanced socio-cultural opportunities and better health for themselves and their families, provided through improved water facilities. Water supply programmes largely consist of three essential components, namely: technology, people and institutions. Although such programmes are intended to benefit women members of local communities, scant attention is paid to the impacts of the socio-cultural context of the community on these programmes. This article explores the influence of social and cultural intricacies on the implementation of community water supply programmes, and assesses their effectiveness. The article offers important lessons for the design and implementation of this type of programme. It concludes that the local socio-cultural context sets the stage for programme implementation, being a dynamic factor that determines actual access to water sources, more so than mere physical availability, which is often used as a criterion for programme performance. The article stresses the urgent need to integrate socio-cultural factors as a fourth dimension in designing community water supply programmes, and suggests practical measures for enhancing the effectiveness of such programmes.