Last night Amy Costello of PBS' Frontline presented an update on PlayPumps, the water-pumping device powered by the energy of children as they play on the merry-go-round-like device. The device pumps water to a water tank for later use. The segment was titled Troubled Water (you can watch it on online and read a synopsis).
It's worth noting that Costello's original report in 2005 led to the world's interest in the PlayPump. Her video was actually used in promoting the pump.
So what did Costello learn about the PlayPump after five years of promotion and implementation? Did it work? In a word, 'No,' and that's probably being generous.
PlayPump was touted as a device to alleviate water problems in rural villages, especially in southern Africa - they were manufactured in South Africa by Roundabout Outdoor. To get things moving, PlayPumps International (PPI) was created by Trevor Field, a South African entrepreneur, and the Case Foundation of Steve (co-founder of America Online) and Jean Case.
Interesting to note that Steve Case called the PlayPump idea 'simple.' We'll see about that.
A huge rollout occurred in 2006, with Bill Clinton, Laura Bush, the Cases, and other glitterati combinbing to raise over $16M, $10M of which was from the US government (PPI was even mentioned in the 2007 Water for the Poor Act report on pages 18-19) and $5M from the Case Foundation. This was to be the start of a $60M fundraising effort to be realized by 2010. Rapper Jay-Z was even enlisted.
But things didn't work out as planned. PlayPumps turned out to be overly complicated and difficult/impossible to repair by locals. PPI was not responsive to repair requests. Save the Children in Mozambique did a poor job of implementing pump installation and the governemnt there even commissioned a report (unreleased) detailing the problems. Later, UNICEF also released a critical report and concluded that PlayPumps were not 'sustainable.'
Costello found out what many before her had learned: success has a hundred parents but failure is an orphan. She tried unsuccessfully for six months to get inverviews with PPI and the Case Foundation. Trevor Field was uncharacteristically silent, but after a few months, he granted an interview to Costello. He said about 80-90% of the pumps were still working. It wasn't clear which pumps he meant: all of them, or the 40 or so in Mozambique.
I liked what Costello said during her interview with Field: "Too much, too soon, too fast." That summed it up.
When the children tired of them, adults found out the pumps were tedious to use. They were also expensive - about $14,000 apiece. When the PlayPumps failed, the villagers wanted their hand pumps back.
Here are some PlayPump criticisms:
The charity WaterAid wrote a position paper on why they did not adopt the PlayPumps technology. For one, they said, PlayPumps are too expensive. At $14,000 each, they cost four times as much as traditional pump systems. The mechanism requires specialized skills to repair and so can’t be fixed with local labor, and spare parts are hard to find and expensive to replace. WaterAid also decried the system’s “reliance on child labour.”
The Guardian Newspaper calculated that children would have to “play” for 27 hours every day to meet PlayPumps’ stated targets of providing 2,500 people per pump with their daily water needs.
Owen Scott, a development worker with Engineers Without Borders Canada, reported in anecdotes and pictures that his experience of PlayPumps in Malawi were that they are not being used as the inventors intended: "Each time I’ve visited a Playpump, I’ve always found the same scene: a group of women and children struggling to spin it by hand so they can draw water.... As soon as the foreigner with a camera comes out (aka me), kids get excited. And when they get excited, they start playing. Within 5 minutes, the thing looks like a crazy success…. I’ve always figured that as soon as I leave the excitement wears off and the pump reverts back to its normal state: being spun manually by women and kids."
If you don't like Wikipedia as a source, here is what a colleague emailed to me:
I started my hub concept in 2006. My first goal was to put in a PlayPump. I went to Africa to do research on this invention.
What I found was sad. Most of the playpumps that were sponsored with large amounts of money were purchased with sponsors thinking they would go into the ground. Sponsors were never told that an additional $4,000 to 10,000 would be needed for a borehole to put the pump in the ground.
It was so easy to mislead people because of the charming look of kids spinning and playing. But where I was in Africa, the kids hated the pump and it was chore. As they had to work to get water and still had to walk miles afterwards to carry the water. In the winter in South Africa, it freezes so the kids with no shoes on did not enjoy this task.
Almost every pump was broken that I visited. Many were in far out rural areas with no plan on how to fix or who to call. From this experience, I learned how important a task force was.
I called PlayPump many many times to offer my help in creating community based project to connect to the pump. They had no interest and sales was the name of the game.
I am happy that I chose not to use the PlayPump in any of my projects and am so glad I took the time to find out about that pump.
I have now pulled out old pumps to put in new electric or hand pumps.
Last October, Water For People was selected as the implementing NGO for PlayPumps and received PPI-US's entire inventory. If anyone can make lemonade from lemons, it's WFP. But then I recall the adage about throwing good money after bad. Let's hope WFP can pull it off.
Here is a recent letter from Jean Case acknowledging that the effort came up short.
What's to be learned? For starters:
1) Just because Westerners think something is a neat idea doesn't mean that it is or others willl accept it;
2) appropriate, sustainable technology is critical;
3) locals need to buy in and have ownership;
4) think things through before acting;
5) the hydrogeology may not have been appropriate in some places (southern Africa has lots of 'hard rock' that may not yield much water, and poor well location/construction could have exacerbated the problem);
6) if it ain't broke, don't fix it (hand pumps working well in some places); and
7) beware of do-gooders bearing money and gizmos.
As someone told me years ago, remember VLOM - Village-Level Operation and Maintenance.
Excellent report - give a look and listen.
"We and others in the water sector have become increasingly aware that bringing safe water to those who need it most requires new and innovative approaches to give communities a choice of solutions and to ensure truly sustainable supplies.” -- Jean Case, CEO, Case Foundation, 27 October 2009 press release