Update on PlayPumps Technology
In March 2010, PlayPumps International closed its doors and gifted its inventory to Water For People to be utilized when appropriate. As we know, successful drinking water delivery must be consistent with community preferences and must be easy and affordable to maintain; these are lessons Water For People has learned over years of monitoring and program evaluation. When it comes to technology, we have a core policy of putting people first, encouraging communities to make their own choices about the systems they want and are prepared to support for the long term. Additionally, our organizational goal of achieving sustainable water coverage for every person in every community means being realistic about the capacity of any single water point to deliver quantities of water over time. We know that a school water point must always be complemented by other community water points to fully meet the needs of households.
Within this framework, Play Pumps came to us as an option for schools planning drinking water, hand washing and feeding programs for their students. The special appeal of Play Pumps lay in their turning what had been drudgery into play, while contributing the first and only playground equipment to schools struggling to supply even desks and benches for their students. For Water For People, there was a further bonus in being able to offer communities one more option to consider in their infrastructure plans.
A year of Play Pumps in the field
By the time of Water For People’s roll-out in 2010, concerns about Play Pumps had been documented across the development sector in Africa. Water For People welcomed the chance to address these challenges with innovations in functionality and safety, and in approaches to management and maintenance. All of these have been pursued in good faith over the past year.
Following are the highlights of that effort:
- A Play Pump cannot provide water for an entire community.
- A crucial adaptation of the Play Pump model was Water For People’s guarantee that the Play Pump would never serve as the sole provider of water for an entire community – the school and all the households surrounding it. Accordingly, a Play Pump was only installed in a school when provision was made for the community to have its own water point for general use.
- Play Pumps are not suitable for adult use.
- Play Pumps are designed to be operated by a crowd of children, running at full tilt. By contrast, a single adult woman cannot get the sustained momentum to get more than a trickle of water. Again, Water For People ensured the presence of a standard community pump for household use and thereby solved the problem.
- The Play Pump storage tank was not user-friendly.
The size and materials of the original Play Pump tank prevented users from seeing how full or empty the tank was and left communities strained financially. Water For People reduced the size of the tank and found cheaper, locally sourced materials for its construction. We also added a partition within the tank and an extra tap, making for a reserve that could be relied upon for the feeding programs staff, which typically starts cooking before children arrive and start “play-pumping.”
- PlayPumps were expensive to install and maintain. Durability may be the first thing that comes to mind in sustainable design, but in fact, ease of installation and maintenance are at least as important. So while Play Pumps are sturdy, they are also quite expensive to install, requiring heavy, specialized equipment. Moreover, routine maintenance is difficult because key parts of the pump are so far below ground they can only be reached through partial destruction of the concrete pad on the surface. Water For People developed a combination of design modifications and special Play Pumps training for local independent repair people.
Despite these modifications, the sustainability of Play Pumps remained a worrying question in a context where we know that any impediment to maintenance can mean the eventual failure of a water point.
There have been other challenges, more difficult to address:
- Child Safety
- Government prohibition. Water For People has not been the only one concerned about safety. In November 2010 the Malawi Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development received negative reports from users of Play Pumps that prompted them to cease installation, pending an investigation. Some district-level water department heads – including that for Chikhwawa, a longstanding Water For People partner – followed suit and requested all water development agencies working in the district to stop installing Play Pumps. This decision was subsequently relaxed – only to be reinstated by the Malawi Ministry of Education, who had arrived at their own position regarding children’s safety and Play Pumps.
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