Three Tales of Development – The Playpump

The play pump for me highlights so many aspects of what is wrong with development. I will not reinvent the wheel, another EWB volunteer Owen Scott already wrote a brilliant series of posts highlighting some the main problems with the playpump, so check this out and then read on

Now that Owen has brought you up to speed, I want to share with you a story about the installation of a play pump at a school in Chikwawa.

It is a cloudy, Saturday morning and I am excited to see a borehole drilled for the first time. Although I would prefer that the drilling were for traditional Afridev pump, I am excited to see the process from start to finish. I climb on the back of a motor bike and shoot over sand and gravel roads to a local primary school.

At the school, a crowd has already gathered. Women and children are standing and sitting watching the spectacle of the drillers setting up their equipment. Being that the supervisor and a white person have arrived, older children carrying chairs immediately rush across the field to accommodate us.

The crowd gathered to watch the borehole being drilled.

The school is large and vast set on a flat landscape of sand and tufts of grass. I have visited the school before to see the progress on the construction of a number of new pit latrines which are being installed as part of the same project installing the borehole. The pit latrines are almost fully constructed and should be open for the students to use in a number of weeks.

I greet the headmaster; he is a tall man for a Malawian with an open smile of poorly cared for teeth. He is teeming with excitement over the installation of the pump for the school. This primary school has 1238 students and 16 teachers in grades 1 to 8 – that averages to 78 students per teacher. Schools in Chikwawa are seriously understaffed partly due to budgets, partly due to availability of educated individuals to act as teachers…but that is another issue altogether.

After greeting the headmaster, I sit down with the Project Officer, an employee of the District Water Office and a couple of other men. I ask the Project Officer when the drillings were planned for the other 3 schools which were meant to benefit from the project. He pauses and responds that timings have been delayed and begins to explain why.

The original plan was to install 4 play pumps at 4 primary schools in Chikwawa; however, play pumps can only be installed now if the surrounding communities are given another water source so the plan was changed to install 3 playpumps and 3 Afridevs (traditional pumps) in the surrounding communities. I think that this is a reasonable compromise as not only schools but communities will have increased access to water, what do you think?

BUT that is not what is going to happen, instead 2 playpumps and 2 Afridevs are planned for installation because the price of playpumps went up and the project could not afford the third playpump and borehole. I am then informed that in all likelihood in actuality, only 1 Afridev and 2 playpumps will be installed.

Hmm…. Why not install 6 Afridevs total that way budgets are met and no community is left out. Well, that is simple; the deliverables on the project specify playpumps in primary schools.

This is important; I am going to stress it again:

The deliverables on the project are playpumps installed in primary schools, not water access for schools, not reliable safe water for rural Malawians, playpumps.

Because of this, communities are being excluded.

As you can imagine at this point I am getting frustrated. If you didn’t check out Owen’s blog posts before, check them out now as they are important to understand this discussion I ask the Project Officer who is going to maintain the borehole; he tells me that a committee at the school will be formed to maintain the borehole. Will be formed?

You see in an ideal project, a committee is formed, consulted in the planning process and trained BEFORE the borehole drilling begins. This was not done on this project because they don’t want to promise a community water and then not be able to fulfill that promise.

This is important as well, so I will stress it again:

No pre-emptive planning was done because the likelihood that the organization will not fulfill their promise is too high to raise communities’ hopes.

A further discussion begins that places the responsibility for training individuals to maintain the boreholes all the way up to the national government. Luckily, the Project Officer is pulled away and I have a chance to reflect before becoming even more frustrated. One of the men who was sitting with us pulls me aside to thank me for raising concerns and tells me that he is the Group Village Headman.

The Group Village Headman does not want the playpump, was not consulted to give his opinion on if the community would prefer a playpump or an Afridev, does not think there are people who are educated or trained in the community to maintain the pump, has no idea where to find spare parts and is too nervous to raise his voice in disagreement. He is the authority for the area.

Some time passes and I go over to speak with the headmaster. I ask if he was consulted about whether he would prefer a playpump or an Afridev. To my pleasant supply he was, he chose playpump.

I ask if he is excited about the installation, very much so he tells me so. Why is that? Because there are so many students and they will have something to play on.

I ask how the borehole will be maintained. He responds that the school will take care of it. The 16 teachers will maintain the borehole in their spare time? Yes. Who will train them? Trainings will be arranged. By whom? He doesn’t know.

At this point an employee of the District Water Office comes over and informs the headmaster that training and technical ability are required to maintain a playpump that likely none of the teachers will be skilled enough to do it. The headmaster has no response.

The employee then inquires if the headmaster knows there are no spare parts sources in Malawi for playpumps. The headmaster seems confused; they will just use spare parts from an Afridev. If you are unfamiliar, you cannot use Afridev parts to repair a playpump. The headmaster walks away.

I look over and there are children dancing in the water shooting out of the drilled hole as it is being cleaned in preparation for the casings to be installed. The school will have water, the children will play on the pump but one day that pump will break and there is no one prepared to fix it and no one taking responsibility for ensuring the sustainability of the water source.

Children dancing in the spray from cleaning the borehole. They may or may not know what is coming, I just hope the pump does not break down for a long time and these children can harness that energy into getting water for their school.

Sometimes I hate development projects.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cathy Sandy on July 10, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    It makes you wonder why the the people who start these projects don’t use a little common sense.
    It sounds like they need to spend a whole lot of time with you.


  2. Hey Lauren,

    I love this post, and love your insights into why you think playpumps are a bad development project. From reading Owen’s posts and your post on the subject I also share your conclusions about the project. So now that we know it’s bad, I would really like to hear WHY you think it is bad. Why will the organization not be able to fulfil it’s promises. Why is no one taking responsibility for the sustainability of the water source? Why is the deliverable for the project playpumps? I would love to hear your thoughts on this, maybe it belongs in a whole new post, and maybe Owen has already touched on these but I want to hear what you think.

    One reason I think that the deliverable of the project is playpumps and not something more appropriate could be because individuals or organizations (perhaps the inventors of playpumps) are fixated on the idea that playpumps are right because they created them. They have a special interest in playpumps because it was THEIR idea and THEIR invention. What do you (and other readers) think?


  3. Hi David,

    I think that play pumps are bad development projects because they do not take into account the realities of the people who are using them. In theory, I do not object to the idea of a playpump – harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of kids in order to draw water while also creating a toy for the children to play on. I do object to the following:

    1. Playpumps require multiple people to operate
    This is a continual complaint I hear from women who I find working very hard to spin the wheel of a playpump. In contrast, a traditional Afridev pump (which uses an up and down motion) can easily be operated by one person

    2. Playpumps are a new technology with few individuals trained to repair them
    The technical expertise required to repair a playpump necessitates a certain level of education. The number of individuals without jobs and this level of education are relatively few in Chikwawa but more of a concern is the fact that they HAVE not been trained while the play pumps have already been installed.

    3. Playpumps are built on a tall tower
    Instead of working to raise water from the borehole to the level of the bucket, whomever is operating the playpump must work to raise the water an additional 20 feet into the air just so they can turn on a tap to fill their bucket on the ground.

    4. Playpumps are being installed on existing boreholes
    This is not the case for all installations but in some cases, functional Afridevs are being removed (to unknown locations) and are being replaced by playpumps. Where is the sense in removing functional infrastructure???

    5. Most importantly in my mind, the lack of spare parts
    Playpumps are manufactured in South Africa and as a result spare parts do not exist in Malawi. This in and of itself is not a major problem – Afridevs are also manufactured in South Africa but spare parts are stocked in almost all major trading centers in local groceries and Chipuku stores (a chain). Thus in order for playpumps to have long term sustainability, not only do they need to be installed appropriately, qualified individuals found and trained to maintain and repair them, but a whole new market needs to be created.

    Now imagine you are a shop owner, how likely are you to want to take the risk of stocking expensive spare parts for a technology that noone in your village is qualified to maintain and as a result buy parts? Creating market chains is not as simple as willing them into existence.

    I can’t really comment on why no one is taking responsibility or preventing the play pump installations except to say I have learned in my time in Malawi that if there are funds available for a project, that project will go ahead however ill advised. It is not hard to see the perspective – free infrastructure must be better than no infrastructure right? It is just hard to understand how such major obstacles are overlooked to make that perspective a reality in the present if not the future.


  4. Posted by David McColl on July 27, 2010 at 4:38 am

    I think this problem merits more investigation. It seems suspicious.

    I think the community-school compromise is perhaps well intentioned but gee…


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