In search of the perfect handpump

Health, Innovation, Water

Broken handpumps are a regular sighting in rural Africa. However, as Brian McSorley reports, a new type of pump being piloted in Turkana is hoping to change this.

Go to almost any rural area in Kenya and chances are you won’t have to drive around for long to find a broken handpump. Whatever the make there’s always a reason why it wasn’t possible to fix – lack of funds, no spares, spares but no tools, technician was trained but left village, “We’re waiting for the agency that installed it to come and fix it,” etc, etc.

Pumps break, it’s normal – isn’t it? So doesn’t it seem strange that it has not been possible to produce a reliable handpump that doesn’t break down in the first place?

In 2006 when a developer from the Netherlands claimed to have produced just that – “a maintenance-free handpump, that could operate for 20+ years” – it was too significant a claim for Oxfam to ignore. That developer was Paul van Beers, founder of the Fairwater Foundation, and what has followed is a three-year pilot study to trial the “BluePump” in the Turkana District of Northern Kenya.

On inspection the first four pumps procured for the initial pilot looked technically sound – rods, handle, pipes, bearings and headworks were of high precision and good quality. It was therefore a surprise when the first pump broke down within 24 hours of installation.

The first problem related to a leaking foot valve which meant the pump needed to be primed every day.  In practice, for an 80 metre deep borehole this meant the first person to reach the pump in the morning had to pump the handle for 10-15 minutes before water discharged from the spout.  After a few minutes of no water coming from the pump, the natural reaction for the user was to assume the pump was not working and to give up.

In the three year pilot problems have been experienced with the cylinder, rods, centralisers and handle. Expressed this way it would not appear to be a success but this is actually far from the reality. The underlying success of the project has been the mutually beneficial partnership that has developed between Oxfam and the pump producer through regular e-mail or telephone correspondence on the performance of the pump. This has resulted in a pump that is now probably better than anything else on the market – and communities who are a lot more water secure than they were three years

For the developer he has access to the perfect field environment. Turkana is probably one of the harshest environments on the planet to test a handpump – water is scarce, water points are overcrowded and at times people literally fight over water. Handpumps tend to be isolated with no caretaker so are exposed to rough handling, general abuse and risk of vandalism.
The mechanics of a handpump undergo near continuous heavy use and abuse from the average village. The continuous movement and vibration of handle, rods and piston to lift the water puts enormous stresses on all components of the unit so it is no surprise that pumps break.

If there is something that can go wrong it will, so to have a team of field staff able to report performance issues back to the designers in Europe has been hugely beneficial. Equally having a pump designer with the technical expertise and willingness to invest time and money to resolve the problems has been a big help for Oxfam.

The BluePump is not the perfect handpump and may not be the most appropriate solution everywhere but it is arguably better than anything else currently available on the market. For Oxfam’s programme in Turkana it is particularly satisfying to be able to say that in 2011 because of our programme the BluePump is a significantly more reliable, robust pump than it was when it was first launched. Also as part of this process national suppliers have been encouraged to source and supply these pumps and spare parts are now readily available in Kenya.

More importantly, as a direct result of this work communities in Turkana now have improved access to water, are less vulnerable to water shortages during drought and have a greater level of self reliance when it comes to management of their water supplies than they did before.

This was really put to the test last year when Kenya experienced its worst drought in 60 years. Despite very heavy usage the pumps have performed well and have experienced minimal problems. This work is still not complete and regular discussions continue with the developer to explore what additional improvements can be made to strengthen the pump further.

Author: Brian McSorley
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.