Earlier this week, PBS”s Frontline ran a story about the PlayPump, a technology that was supposed to bring drinking water to thousands of African communities by harnessing the power of children at play. The title of the Frontline story, “Troubled Water” indicates that all didn’t go as planned with the PlayPump. As Frontline reports, dozens of PlayPumps in Mozambique sit idle, and in many villages, PlayPumps have been removed and hand pumps reinstalled.
The idea behind PlayPump is simple, and it’s not hard to see why so many people got so excited about it. A merry-go-round type device is installed and connected to a water pump. As children play on the merry-go-round, water is pumped into a storage tank, and is then available on demand. Frontline originally reported on the technology in 2005, leading to a tremendous amount of excitement, including support from Laura Bush and AOL Founder Steve Case. As the new Frontline story reports, however, it seems that PlayPump hasn’t lived up to its original promise and even its strongest backers have had to admit that the large-scale roll-out they had originally planned was not realistic.
So, what went wrong? There are many ways to answer this question, some relating to the appropriate role of development agencies and philanthropic foundations. Another thorny question, particular to PlayPump, is whether children playing is an appropriate source of energy for water. As reporter Amy Costello says, the line between work and play isn’t as clear-cut as one would think.
In addition though, I would contend that in many cases, the problem with PlayPump is that it was addressing the wrong problem. PlayPump can only work in very specific types of situations: when there are large supplies of high-quality groundwater, close to the surface, and when present infrastructure is insufficient. As we often argue at the Water Center, many times the root problem is due to actual water scarcity - not having enough supply to meet demand. In these cases, a PlayPump will not be helpful, and indeed at least some appear to have run dry. Similarly, if water is available but of poor quality, a PlayPump alone is not a viable solution. Finally, for PlayPump to work, it must be in a setting where the supply it produces can meet the demand. If demand is too great for its relatively modest capacity, there is the real threat of exploitation of children: to force them to keep “playing” in order to pump and meet demand.
The failure of PlayPump points to a huge problem in meeting water challenges – simply put, there is no panacea. Water problems are very complex and come in a multitude of flavors. In some very specific situations, PlayPump may be the right type of solution. In most situations though, it is imperative to first really understand the problem and to then design appropriate, tailored solutions. It’s also necessary to focus on the big picture, with an emphasis on water supply. If sufficient supply isn’t available to start with, no amount of pumping, no matter how playful it may be, will help.
One impressive aspect of the PlayPump story is the dedication by some of its early proponents, including the Case Foundation and Save the Children, to learn from the experience. We’ll only be able to solve water challenges through innovation, and with that comes the risk of failure. While in many ways PlayPump didn’t live up to its original promise, it would be a mistake to be overly critical of the project or its funders. They tried something new, innovative and bold and learned from the experience. We can continue to learn from it, but let’s also focus on “what we do next“.
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