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Hand Pumps Are Dinosaurs – Why Use IBM Technology On Pre-Historic Hardware?

Hand pumps are inefficient, poorly designed and unhealthy for water consumers, so why are millions of dollars still spent installing them? Hand pumps used to be great, the workhorses of developing countries’ water supply systems. But the hardware is dated; Shadufs were cool then, but not anymore. Aid workers assume people “want” them, because it is traditional and they are thought to be robust.  However, water consumers do not want hand pumps and with up to 50% broken at any one time, many never get repaired and they become part of the water system maintenance problem. It is disappointing to see that the majority of well known, famous NGO’s and donors, including government organisations, continue to fund the installation of hand pumps, rather than exploring more innovative and sustainable solutions.

School children drinking water from a hand pump. Credit Docta Ulimwengu.

Here are four reasons why hand pumps should be consigned to the history books :-

Firstly, proof comes from the hand pump programmes themselves. IOT (Internet of Things) sensors inside hand pumps are the new hot ticket. But with or without sensors, a large percentage of hand pumps still remain broken, as sensors are not a sustainable financial solution and does not solve the lack of maintenance problem prevalent in the communities they serve. Knowing a hand pump is broken is one thing, but without a responsive paid for maintenance service a sensor is redundant. Who pays for the broken hand pump when it is broken? Who pays for the labour, the petrol, the tools? Who manages that maintenance and how do they get paid? How does anyone know who has been paid? Thanks to these new sensors anyone can go online and see that a large percentage of the hand pumps are either ‘offline’, ‘under repair’ or ‘no use’. In our opinion, ‘no use’ has to mean ‘broken for a long time’. In conclusion, sensors are the future, however, at present they are only telling the world what it already knows, that 50% of hand pumps are broken at any one point in time due to lack of funds for pumps to be fixed, rods to be pulled out and checked, the flanges to be re-screwed on and welded. A sustainable maintenance loop requires transparent revenue collection and smarter sensor technology. 

Public data on hand pumps in Kenya, Somali Region and Ethiopia from IBM backed IOT sensors (Jan 2020).

Secondly, whatever happened to listening to the community? From research conducted across villages using eWaterPay dispensers, many water collectors were females and under the age of 20. In 2020, rural communities should be offered water technology that makes their lives easier, with less distances to travel and saves them time when collecting water. In villages with eWaterPay installed, people say it has changed their lives having a water dispenser located within 50 meters from their house, unlocked and available 24/7 without having to manually pump for water. What is even more impactful on the community is they are willing to pay (approx. $3-5 a year) for clean, convenient and reliable access to water. 

Young child using all his strength to collect water from an old fashioned hand pump.

Thirdly, hand pumps have a major design flaw that has been ignored. People in rural communities do not want to exert themselves collecting water on awkwardly designed hand pumps. It is also embarrassing to see on websites of new hand pump sensors, dirty, makeshift plastic funnels attached to the end of a hand pump. After 40 years, neither the India Mark 2 or Afridev designers have made a funnel that actually fits a jerry can. This means time and time again, contaminated pieces of plastic are unsafely attached to the spout of a hand pump. 

IOT Sensors Alongside Dirty, Makeshift Plastic Spouts

Finally, convenience is key to water consumption. With hand pumps installed on drilled boreholes or deep hand dug wells, communities only get one hand pump, meaning lots of water consumers have to walk long distances and suffer queues. Surely, with affordable solar panels and pumps today, it is better to use that same borehole, pump water up to an overhead tank and install 20 dispensers, so most people only have to walk 30 metres to an eWaterPay smart water dispenser. World Health Organisation (2017) research shows that ‘the quantities of water collected and used by households are primarily a function of the distance to the water supply or total collection time required’. If a water source is within 30 minutes of a household, consumption is likely to be approximately 20 litres of water per person per day. In 2020, we cannot expect children to collect nearly 20 litres of water and carry it for over 500 meters daily.

Young child collecting water from a hand pump in The Gambia.

It has been claimed that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation can be achieved by large amounts of funding being spent on current solutions and methods. However, without live monitoring of water dispensed, revenue tracked, time to repair and hours of downtime, it will be even harder to achieve. To really make an impact, the water sector needs to embrace sustainability, new technology and solar, but hand pumps are dated and should no longer be part of the WASH narrative. Time to say goodbye to hand pumps in developing communities as they are part of the problem, not the solution. 


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