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Evaluating the influences and impacts of developing water pumps for use in countries without access to clean water

Clean water and sanitation were acknowledged in 2010 by the UN General Assembly as a basic human right (World Health Organisation , 2022). The severe impact of unsafe water is abundantly clear – in 2017 it resulted in an estimated 1.2 million deaths. For low-income countries in particular, unsafe water accounted for 6% of total deaths (Ritchie & Roser, 2021). In an effort to increase access to clean water, relief and development organisations often install water pumps in low-income countries, thereby reducing the risk of disease transmission. (UNICEF, 2022). However, these pumps are often not fully fit for purpose and create new difficulties.

In this essay, I will evaluate how the design of water pumps has developed over time by assessing two different design approaches and their impact on society and culture. I will identify what inspired the different design solutions and how effective they were at providing clean water. Finally, I will consider the adoption of approaches such as cross-cultural design and decolonised design within the design of the pumps to ensure the needs of the individuals using it are met.

Figure 1- Handpump (Schermbrucker, 2022)

Figure 2- Playpump (PlayPumpsSA, 2022)

UNICEF are a charitable organisation that ‘work across India to save children’s lives, help them fulfil their potential and defend their rights’ (UNICEF, n.d.). Fulfilling this brief includes ensuring that all children in India have access to clean water and safe sanitation facilities. In the 1970s, UNICEF worked in collaboration with the Indian government to develop a new pump that was desperately required due to severe drought. At the time, cast-iron pumps that were designed to support a single family as opposed to an entire community were used. These were unpredictable and prone to breaking, meaning there was no reliable source of water for many individuals (Ahmad, 2020). Therefore, the INDIA Mark II pump (as seen in Figure 1), was developed as an alternative solution which was suitable for withstanding wear and tear by rural communities of more than 500 people. It is a handheld, human-powered pump which has been designed to lift water from a depth of fifty meters (Ahmad, 2020). The pump consists of a pump head, pump stand and a handle of galvanised steel, ensuring durability, while the down hole components include a brass lined cast iron cylinder with a foot valve and a glass plunger (RWSN, 2022).

The pump works effectively, but there are two issues with this design. Firstly, whilst the above ground components that comprise the pump element have the potential to be manufactured locally, this is not true for other, more specialised parts which require a high degree of quality control. Secondly, communities are still reliant on aid efforts for the installation and maintenance of new hand pumps. In an attempt to negate this reliance on aid and allow the communities to be self-sufficient, the pump was designed for easy repair (RWSN, 2022). This requires basic training and tools for a few members of the community in addition to spare parts that are available in the local market. According to Golay, Technical Officer at UNICEF Supply Division’s Water, Sanitation and Education Centre, in order for the pump to be successfully operational for a long period of time, the community must feel ownership towards the pump and be prepared to spend money on the maintenance required to keep it functional (UNICEF, 2022). Unfortunately, due to economic constraints and a lack of specialist tools and equipment, many pumps fell into disrepair without the additional support of ‘mobile units’ which were expected to look after 500-600 tubewells each, carrying out preventative and corrective maintenance (Baldwin, 1983). Nonetheless, while there remained a high dependence on aid for the success of the pump, it successfully integrated into the community’s traditional culture, in which water collection was a communal effort where individuals would come together, assisting those who needed additional support, e.g. the elderly or pregnant women (Zenios, et al., 2012).

In an attempt to identify a more innovative approach, the Playpump was developed in 1989 to both provide communities with clean water and act as a children’s playground. As seen in Figure 2, each Playpump system consists of a merry-go- round like wheel which is attached to an underground water pump. The pump can extract water from a depth of forty meters using the kinetic energy supplied by the playing children. Notably, it features a 2,500 litre storage tank which can also serve as an advertising panel, helping to provide revenue for the maintenance of the pump (Zenios, et al., 2012).

Trevor Field, the owner of the water pump technology established the company ‘Roundabout Outdoor’ to manufacture, install and maintain PlayPumps throughout Africa (Zenios, et al., 2012). Field had a vision of ‘killing two birds...with one stone’ (Zenios, et al., 2012) by developing a product that would not only provide clean water, like the traditional hand-operated pumps frequently installed by aid organisations such as UNICEF, but that would also act as a form of playground equipment similar to that often found in European and American countries. Field felt that this would enable the product to not only improve sanitation and reduce health risks, but also improve the quality of life for children living in developing countries. However, despite the initially encouraging results, several problems quickly became evident, due to the minimal consideration of the preferences, behaviours, or cultural context within which communities in Africa gather water. Firstly, there were physical limitations and safety issues, such as the reports of children quickly becoming tired from pushing the wheel and often injuring themselves. Furthermore, when tested, it was identified that the average able-bodied adult male took 3 minutes 27 seconds to fill a 20-litre bucket of water with a PlayPump compared to 28 seconds with a traditional hand pump, making it significantly less efficient (Zenios, et al., 2012). Finally, the cost of installing and maintaining the PlayPump was also significantly higher. Therefore, many of the features that helped make this product so desirable to potential investors in the West were, in reality, disadvantageous to the 3rd world users of the pump.

On a cultural level, it also removed the communal and supportive approach to water collection. Furthermore, women felt that operating the PlayPump was not socially acceptable as it was considered a children’s toy, and this raised the threat of exploitation of children to pump enough water to meet the communities demand (Stellar, 2010). As a result, many communities returned to using the original INDIA Mark II pump as it could be more readily integrated into their traditional water collection practises.

Overall, both water pumps have the benefit of providing clean water to communities without the risk of physical harm - in developing countries where half or less of the households have access to an improved water source, women are the most common water carriers (Sorenson, et al., 2011), often having to carry jerry cans that weigh as much as 40 pounds, which regularly results in injury. This health risk can also extend to children when the water carrier is ill or pregnant. Furthermore, the clean water these pumps provide significantly reduces one of the leading risk factors for diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio (Ritchie & Roser, 2021). Nonetheless, there are a plethora of fundamental problems that neither of these products (or their supply chains) fully address regarding the self- sufficiency of the communities or how the pumps assimilate into the cultures of these communities. Adopting approaches such as cross-cultural or decolonised design when designing the water pumps could result in a product that can be easily and successfully integrated into different communities and cultures. Additionally, these approaches could reduce the reliance on aid organisations to manufacture and install the pumps by allowing communities to build their own systems for water collection using more traditional, alternative approaches to design and manufacture.

Therefore, in conclusion, alternative water pump solutions were driven by factors such as extreme demand and urgency in the case of the INDIA Mark II Pump and the potential to further improve the lives of communities in developing countries through education and play with the PlayPump. However, both designs have problems - the INDIA Mark II pump cannot be provided or maintained by the local supply chain and therefore is highly dependent on aid, while the PlayPump also fails to recognise traditional water collection cultures and indigenous ways of living, and therefore does not integrate well into communities. The application of decolonised or cross-cultural design could further improve the design of the pump to ensure that it is fully meeting the requirements of the user as opposed to any potential investors. Consequently, as an extension of this, communities may be able to manufacture, install and maintain the pumps themselves using local materials, methods, and knowledge, reducing the need for aid and increasing the availability of clean water.


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