Sunday, December 27, 2009

Playing With Water: Play Pumps Transform The Lives of Children

Water is more important than food. Now, I’m not saying this to be controversial – it’s a biological fact. Most of your body is made up of water, and while people can live for weeks without food, we can only live for five days without water. In times of dramatic climate shifts and swings in the relative abundance and scarcity of water, it’s especially important to consider water when we think about our food supply. Yes, we can happily go along planting all of the seeds we want, but if we can’t grow the crops due to lack of water, can’t wash our food, and don’t have any clean water to drink, all of that is for naught. Did I mention that water is important?

I’m a parent, so of course I am a big proponent of working kids hard. Actually, strike that. I’m a big proponent of play. Of course, I want my daughter to work around the house and to learn how to do such work, but I also want her to spend a lot of time playing and using her imagination.

But what if a child’s play could transform a community? That is the concept behind the PlayPump. Water pumps are a deeply utilitarian object. In many parts of the world, there is no water pump and adults and children must walk for long distances to gather water from unsafe surface sources, an act that can take up much of a day. This makes it difficult for children to get an education, let alone play.

Like the bicycle-powered grain mill, the PlayPump takes an ordinary object and turns it into something extraordinary. A child’s merry-go-round becomes the active part in a large water pump that is designed to move water from groundwater sources into a 2500-liter water tank. This tank becomes a source of clean water for a nearby community, reducing the time and travel involved in collecting water for the home. The tank can also feature advertising on its sides, and the advertising pays for the maintenance of the pump. PlayPumps have been installed in communities in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia.

An ingenious idea? Yes! In many ways, the future of sustainable food and sustainable water rests on such ideas that take an arduous task and turn it into something that is fun and builds community. When we talk about technology to face an uncertain future, we may talk about nuclear, solar, and wave energy. We may talk about genetically-modified foods. We may talk about vast and often controversial ways to power and feed a growing population. However, it is often these small innovations that make a world of difference.

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