The Playpump

The first in a series of posts on the playpump. (Post 2, Post 3, Post 4)

For whatever reason, this morning I got thinking about one of the things I loathe the most in the African rural water supply sector: the Playpump.

What is the Playpump? Well, check it out for yourself. Easily accessible online is a schematic diagram, and a short video. Either one should explain the concept well enough.

Judging by the attention and support it’s getting, apparently this thing seems like a good idea to a lot of people. However, I would disagree.

Why? Well, a few reasons. It’s probably hard – if not impossible – for local mechanics to repair. (Where would you even get spare parts?) It’s also probably kinda awkward to spin that giant wheel if you need water and there’s no kids around to play. Further, as far as financing, advertising revenue is not widely available in rural areas (who would pay for a billboard?). And the list could go on and on.

Critiquing the Playpump on the above grounds, however, is not what I want to do. My problem with the Playpump starts well before the challenges listed above. It starts from the idea itself – or rather the problem that the idea seems to be tacitly trying to solve. I call that idea “the motion”, and I’ve outlined it in the following figure?

The MotionFigure 1: The Motion

I mean, come on, is this really what the bottleneck in water supply is: moving a pump handle up and down? Is harnessing the active energy of kids really a meaningful solution?

The problems in rural water supply in Africa are many, but the up-and-down arm motion required to operate a standard pump is not one of them. Some of the real problems are around financing (e.g. getting more $ to install water supply infrastructure), routine repairs, monitoring of water supplies, planning of water supply projects – to name only a few.

The Playpump, in my opinion, does nothing to address these problems (and is in fact regressive on some of them). In a competitive market place, with real incentives and accountability, the idea would probably be thrown to the curb in a heartbeat. Instead, in the development sector it’s gaining traction (10 getting installed in Thyolo apparently – replacing existing functional pumps) and winning awards. Go figure.

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7 comments:

  1. One day you too will win awards...for your abilty to draw in paint...I hope.

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  2. That being said I think you've presented a pretty compelling argument. Good on ya.

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  3. I was agreeing with all your critiques and making some of my own as I watched the video about it. (It's so anoying when people dress up a bad idea and try to make it sounds good.)
    And then you pointed out what problem the pump was actually addressing, and everything became so much more clear! Thanks Owen.

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  4. I find it very strange that EWB can support an "unofficial" critical blog of the PlayPump System http://thoughtsfrommalawi.blogspot.com/2009/11/playpump-iii-challenge-of-taking-photos.html
    And ignore an official EWB advocacy of the same system??? http://www.kettering.edu/visitors/storydetail.jsp?storynum=2958

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  5. Hi Anonymous,

    The advocacy article you mentioned is from EWB-USA, which is completely unrelated to EWB Canada.

    Check out http://www.kuewb.com/ and http://www.ewb-usa.org/

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  6. I agree with your critique, but would like to point out that not all roundabout pumps are PlayPumps. There are other groups installing seesaw and roundabout pumps that are completely different from PlayPumps.

    I found one group (Drop in the Bucket) that use a hand pump to pull water from the water table to the surface and a roundabout pump to move the water over to a reservoir tank, a kitchen, a house, a medical clinic and a school at a site in Uganda.

    If no children are playing on the roundabout the hand pump still delivers water. This avoids women who need water having to play on a piece of playground equipment. The roundabout pump is used simply as a method to get away from children carrying heavy jerry cans of water on their heads.

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