PlayPump's Problems Prove Designing for Water Shortages Is Tough Work

playpump mock up image

Image via Water for People

A few years ago, we reported on the PlayPump, a design that incorporates the power of kids at play to pump and store drinking water for communities in Rural Africa. Five years ago, it seemed like a brilliant idea with a lot of potential, and following the designs release it did get a lot of financial investment and attention from international organizations. However, there are at least two vital must-dos when designing solutions for rural areas: the design has to be made to last and be easily repaired, and the design has to be appropriate for the areas where it is installed. Unfortunately, PlayPumps rushed into communities in Mozambique failed to meet these criteria, and the design is receiving harsh criticism from the country's government as well as international organizations including WaterAid and UNICEF,Circle of Blue writes, "A technology once heralded as a simple solution to Africa's drinking water problem now stands as a broken, unused and poorly planned reminder of international water aid's latest misstep."

The problems facing PlayPump and those using it are a testament to what can go wrong when a design made for rural developing areas is rushed through production before enough testing and design tweaks perfect it. Even if something is intended to relieve immediate issues like water shortages, the good intentions don't excuse half-measures and short-cuts. And from the perspective of those in Mozambique where PlayPumps were installed, that's exactly what happened. However, it isn't necessarily the PlayPump itself that is causing the problems, but the actions of the organization behind installations.

An organization called Save the Children seemed to bite off more than it could chew when it installed dozens of the pumps without proper analysis of site suitability and without following up on repair requests. According to a report by Mozambique, the organization's slap-dash efforts left some areas without water for as long as six months at a time. The organization hurriedly installed PlayPumps before stakeholders could even discuss the viability of the product, and even without consulting the communities where they were installed.

One major lesson learned from the failings of PlayPump installations, pointed out by Circle of Blue, is that there is no one silver bullet to water shortages -- it takes a wide variety of technologies designed for the wide varieties of communities and ecological settings where assistance for gathering and storing water is needed. Instead of helping, a rushed installation of dozens of PlayPumps has resulted in angered communities, wasted donation funds, and brought many communities back to square one in finding solutions for drinking water.

There is a plethora of design ideas for providing water to rural Africans, most of which will never see the light of day. And that's because designing for real life is a whole lot harder than just coming up with some handy-dandy plastic or metal thingamajig that will magically produce gallons of drinking water from thin air overnight. It takes a lot of energy to make sure that those cool-sounding concepts can realistically function, be manufactured, be delivered to those who need it, and work as promised for those using it.

As we witnessed through the Hippo-Roller design project, coming up with solutions is tough, tough work. The Hippo-Roller seems like a "duh" solution on the surface, but figuring out everything from the right type of material to use to ensure a roller will last at least 10 years of daily use on tough terrain, to the conundrum of how to economically ship a product that takes up massive amounts of space were serious challenges. And that is for one simple barrel that rolls water -- not a pump that involves dozens of moving parts and constant interaction with the manufacturers to keep it running.

It takes design savvy and financial backing to make a project like PlayPump work, but it also takes smart implementation and a whole lot of follow through to make the initial efforts worthwhile and, more importantly, ensure that people have access to water. Unfortunately, it looks like PlayPump has fallen well short of that goal.

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