The PlayPump: What Went Wrong?

by |July 1, 2010

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.

Source: Envirogadget

Source: Envirogadget

The idea behind PlayPump is simple, and it’s not hard to see why so many people got 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 Columbia 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.

Source: PlayPump Service Project

Source: PlayPump Service Project

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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14 thoughts on “The PlayPump: What Went Wrong?

  1. Karen says:

    What a fascinating post! This is a great case study for how groundwater management intersects both science, policy and even human psychology.

  2. Cassandra says:

    Thanks for this story. Unfortunately it seems that such “one size fits all” approach is very prevalent today when it comes to western NGOs working on water issues in the developing countries. Its a pity because spending these resources on more community involvement in the planning stages would be so much more beneficial.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s a case of the good old Law of Unintended Consequences! The dry wells is like what happens at an oil field. The water is found, more wells (and occasional dry holes) are drilled, pump jacks are installed, production peaks and declines until the last play pump runs dry. It’s the area’s “peak water” syndrome!

    Worse, as production declines, the adults force the kids to suck the last of the water out of the ground by having them turn the not so merry go round pump. Obviously, Steve Case never heard of “peak oil” and realize it’ll work the same with a town’s “peak water”.

    To get new water, they’ll have to drill for artesian wells and hope for gushers. That’s assuming suitable geological formations exist…

  4. I was amazed to read on the BBC website today that six months after the demise of playpumps the organization One Difference is selling it’s brand of bottled water ‘One Water’ to support playpump projects across Africa. According to their FAQs ( they have are building playpumps at a rate of one playpump every 3 days and have installed a total of 536. Frankly this stinks of fraud.

    Jane Franklin

  5. Duncan Goose says:

    Hi Jane
    I think you’ve picked up on a few mixed messages which are, unfortunately, floating around on the web, some old, some inaccurate, and to say that “The Playpumps organization has been shown to be a fraud following…..” couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact PlayPumps International was created by The Case Foundation – Steve Case being the (billionaire) founder of AOL and he ad his wife, Jean, being some of America’s foremost philanthropists. There are also some mis-informed reports which have been re-tracted by the NGO’s you mentioned after it was discovered that the contractors they’d been using for installation were actually not, how shall we say, being completely honest in their analysis.

    As a charitable foundation we have a board of trustees who’s job it is to separate fact from fiction, and spin from the realities of life. If we, and me personally, had any issues (and we do a lot of background checks – some of them in a ‘mystery shopper’ type format) we’d stop what we were doing.

    I’d be happy to chat more if that would help – or do drop me an email at

    All the best


  6. Dave birch says:

    For three consecutive years I have raised funds through cycling with friends in south Africa. The visits to the schools showed me how grateful the children are to both play and get fresh clean safe water. The head of governors at the last school near Nelspruit told me how playing on the roundabout melted away the daily stress of these poor children. I am proud to support the one foundation and the roundabout play pump organisation in south Africa. Some projects do fail, most work, let us hope the bad press goes away.

  7. Paul says:

    Steve Case has published a useful analysis of the PlayPump saga It makes an interesting follow-on read to this story.

  8. Why do you need to know my name? says:

    I believe that the playpump is a great idea… but the article is right. The playpump is turning play, into work. They’re forcing kids to work, just as the kids where in the beginning! The playpump forces kids to work, just in a different way!

  9. Mike says:

    Why not have the roundabout in parallel with a standard hand pump? That way users are not stuck with having to use the roundabout only?

  10. Dave Bro says:

    You can easily make a self-working pump. But, it has to be worked by a worker at some point… It will just make it easier for poor Africans

  11. Dave Bro says:

    leaving it as is will make the population density in Africa to shrink.

  12. Huggins Madondo says:

    I want to know if it is possible for you to provide a solar pump in a clinic in Mozambique remote areas in tete changara district.

  13. Sasha Alyson says:

    The story says that the Case Foundation and Save the Children learned from the experience. Not that I’ve seen!

    The link points only to the Case Foundation’s “Painful acknowledgment of coming up short,” by Jean Case. She starts by focusing on her own pain and embarrassment. There is no indication anywhere that she is aware that people in Africa were also affected, for example, by losing their water supply. The “lessons learned” run along the vague lines of “innovating is hard work anywhere and anytime. In the developing world even more so.” I’d say not much was learned, and that if anything had been learned, this would have been called an apology, not an “acknowledgement.”

    As for Save the Children, the article gives no source for this assertion that they learned from the experience, nor have I encountered any evidence of this, in the considerable reading I’ve done about this.

  14. Huggins Madondo,
    I would need the exact longitude and latitude of the clinic. Then I would be able to answer your question. Please email me at

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