Pumping Water is Child's Play: A Case Study

In many parts of the world, obtaining drinking water is a real problem. According to estimates around 900 million people around the globe – that’s one in every six of the planet’s population – have no regular supply of clean drinking water, and there are 300 million of them in Africa alone. For many, untreated and often contaminated surface water is the only source and UN studies suggest that around two million – mostly children less than five years old – will die each year as a result.

Those kinds of statistics make deeply depressing reading, but in a welcome success story, one South African company, the aptly named Roundabout Outdoors, has come up with a surprisingly simple way to help, and provide much needed play facilities for local children into the bargain. Their solution is a child-powered merry-go-round, called a ‘Play Pump’, that pumps water from a clean underground borehole to provide a supply for the whole community.

Simple Idea

The idea is surprisingly simple, and works on much the same principle that drives the many wind-powered water pumps to be found across the world; it’s all about rotation. As the youngsters spin themselves around having fun in the playground, beneath the roundabout lies a series of cogs and a vertical shaft that turns their effort into reciprocal motion of the actual pump which lies deep underground, at the bottom of the water-rich borehole. The water is then drawn up a pipe and into a 2,500 litre storage tank located on a tower seven metres above the ground, making the job of getting water a whole lot easier for everyone!

According to the company, if the kids push themselves around at a rate of 16 revolutions per minute, 1,400 litres of water per hour can be drawn from 40 metre deep, and the system will work for borehole depths of up to 100 metres – although the effort to pump water that far is obviously much greater. In a straight comparison, the Play Pump easily out-performs traditional hand-cranked water pumps at the task – although it clearly calls for a fairly constant supply of energetic and playful youngsters to make it work!

A Question of Cost

Despite its advantages, the fact remains that with a price tag of around £9,000 – roughly four times the cost of a conventional water pump system – the Play Pump is a fairly expensive piece of kit to buy. As a general rule, the very communities that have the most need of a new clean water supply are the least likely to have the money to pay for it in the first place, and then there’s the question of maintenance.

Although some of the charities active in the water sector feel that this makes it inappropriate and unaffordable, there are those, notably Water for People, who do offer Play Pumps as one of a range of clean water technologies that they make available to communities. In addition, there’s also an innovative solution to the maintenance issue – in the form of advertising. With the water tank perched high above the ground, it makes an ideal place for bill-boards and a number of private businesses and government departments have purchased space to sell their wares, or promote public campaigns. The revenue generated can then be channelled into ensuring that the pumps keep running smoothly, and any necessary spare parts can be bought.

Water is a Feminist Issue

In most parts of the developing world, the responsibility for fetching water falls squarely on women and that has a profound impact on their daily lives and health. In rural Africa, women routinely walk between four and eight miles a day to collect water – and possibly twice this distance during the dry season. Add to that the inevitable queues at water holes and in many places, a woman can be forced to wait as much as five hours before she can fill her pot.

Aside of the colossal amount of time all this takes, which obviously prevents millions of women from being able to undertake other beneficial activities, it also makes massive physical demands too. Up to 85 per cent of their daily calories may be used up fetching water, while carrying as much as 20kg – the same weight as an airline’s maximum baggage allowance – on their heads can do long-term spinal, pelvic and joint damage.

With so many of the stories coming out of Africa telling of desperate privation, it’s great to hear of an idea as simple, and yet brilliant, as the Play Pump that can help lift communities out of hardship, ease the burden of women – quite literally – and make the kids happy too. Sounds like a real win-win for everyone!