What happened? Were we duped? Were we somehow hoodwinked and did not know it? Or was it something else?
We were neither duped nor hoodwinked. There are several reasons why the Play-Pump failed and they mostly categorised into three:
.Technically, the Play-Pump had an inherently complex design with pump parts that were either not readily available on the local market or too expensive. In this age of community-based management, where the onus for operating, maintaining and replacing water supply systems is shifting from government and NGOs to communities—this technical flaw made the Play-Pump unsustainable.
.Conceptually, the Play-Pump needed the play-energy of the children—meaning that the pump was dependent on children spinning the merry-go-round to pump water up into an elevated tank. What the designers did not count on was that the children would have to pump 27 hours a day to meet the minimum standard of 25 litres per person per day. The Play-Pump only managed an average of two litres per child per day.
.Safety-wise, the Play-Pump proved dangerous to children with stories of children falling and hitting their heads on the concrete pavement.
These are all correct and valid lessons to take from the Play-Pump’s monumental failure, but the real culprit of the Play-Pump’s failure is not really conceptual or technical—it is human. It is the very thing that was supposed to provide solutions to our water problems, but is ironically adding to them. And that “human thing” is the water sector itself. The water sector as a whole—donors, NGOs, bureaucrats, technocrats—we are all responsible for the failure of the Play-Pump!
As a sector, we do not think things through before implementation. We are very quick to sign off on policies and strategies that do not take into consideration the impact of the changes we intend to make on the existing complexities of human nature or community life. We seek out quick fixes that offer short-term relief, but secrete even larger problems in the future. We jump on any bandwagon that large NGOs and multilateral donors push without asking: Can this idea work for the Malawian context? Will it be sustainable? What new problems could this idea potentially create because of its intrinsic nature/design?
Several NGOs and local experts started emerging out of the woodworks claiming to have foreseen the Play-Pump’s failure. I only wish these Monday Morning Coaches had said something on Sunday afternoon.
Nobody did or said anything when it actually mattered! We just accepted what we got without asking any questions. And even when failures were imminent with the Play-Pump—we marched on believing in our naivety that we were doing our little part to change Malawi. As long as targets were being met, numbers were being reported, LOGFRAMEs were followed and donors were happy, there were no worries!
And, despite all good intent, the water sector, and how it works, becomes the very reason why water is not flowing. As our fancy “one size fits all” technical solutions continue to break down, frustrated communities remain, not just at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases but also at risk of remaining in a deficit mode of hopelessness, apathy and mistrust – a potent recipe for sluggish development in the long term.
The problem is not technology, it is the sector and how it works.
If we do not stop for a moment and reflect critically about the wider cycle of water-poverty and how our solutions, approaches and strategies are impacting, either negatively or positively, on it in the longer term, then we are doomed to fail again and again – no matter how many lessons we learn or how good our policy documents or ideas sound on paper.
So, join me as I raise a glass in acknowledgement of the failure we know as the Play-Pump. I hope it is pulled out from under the carpet, out from among the many unspoken and unholy failures of years-past and years-to-come, and given a high place of dishonour where people will see it for what it truly is: a reflection of us – water sector. –The author is grants manager for Water for People, writing in his personal capacity.