Out of the millions of hand pumps that have been installed around the world to provide water to developing communities, an estimated 50 to 70 percent are broken. For communities that rely on a hand pump as their only source of clean water, a broken pump can be the difference between life and death.

While drilling a new well is often the go-to solution, this process—which takes three to five days—can cost $7,500 to $15,000 in addition to the price of the drilling rig, which can be as much as $250,000. For a community in need of water, the cost can be an insurmountable obstacle.

With the right hand tools and repair knowledge, however, a team can fix a broken hand pump in two to four hours at a cost of $5 to $250.

North Americans have the resources and technology to drop an electric pump down a well, plug it in and get water. But what if you have limited or no access to electricity? I think of the Westerns I watched on television when I was a kid: the pitcher pump at the horse-watering trough or drawing water from an open well with a rope and bucket. In some parts of the world, people still get water this way—from rivers, open wells and closed pump systems.

To fully grasp the startling statistics about the state of the world’s hand pumps, one must understand how these pumps work. Three main types of hand pumps are commonly used throughout the world: India Mark II/III, African Bush Pump and Afridev. Although these pumps look different, the principle of how they work is the same. These pumps work by moving a handle attached to a chain which moves a rod up and down within a pipe that has a cylinder at its bottom. The rod is attached to a plunger and has a top valve. A foot valve at the bottom of the cylinder allows water to enter from the aquifer. As the handle moves down and the rod moves up, water is drawn into the cylinder and then stacks on top of itself in increments of 9 to 12 inches until it reaches the surface. This kind of pump can be installed on wells from 25 to 250 feet.

The India Mark II/III, Afridev and African Bush Pumps are closed systems designed to prevent contamination of the water supply and provide high volumes of water from great depths. These economical pumps use fewer parts, need little maintenance and require no electricity, which make them ideal for communities in developing countries.
As with any mechanical device, some maintenance is required. For example, leather or neoprene gaskets and cups in the cylinder commonly wear out and need to be replaced. While replacement parts are widely available and relatively cheap, this is where many development projects fail. If communities are not trained in pump maintenance when the well is drilled and a hand pump is installed, no one can fix the pump when it breaks months or years later. When a hand pump breaks, communities must have the tools and training to fix it.

WaterStep, a nonprofit organization in Louisville, Kentucky, has recognized this need and works to provide the training and resources needed to keep hand pumps operating so that communities never have to go without water. The organization’s three-day, hands-on training course teaches students to assemble and disassemble pumps, troubleshoot common problems, and use critical thinking, problem solving and a little bit of imagination to get broken hand pumps back up and running. The course also teaches students the subtleties of working with other cultures and the importance of training those in the community.

Training locals is key to the success and sustainability of well repair projects. Repairing a hand pump is important, but we can’t simply fix things. Leading a team of North Americans to fix hand pumps is a matter of addition: With each pump that is fixed, a working well is added to the mix. WaterStep goes beyond by teaching students about the multiplication effects of training. Imagine that a team of six people trains six more people at every community well they visit. Then those six trained people can each train six more people. Before long, more hand pumps are fixed faster, and the response time for repairs is shorter. I have seen this work in African nations where a WaterStep team set up a training center to teach locals to fix Afridev pumps. By the time the second class received their certification, there were no pumps to repair in the immediate area. The first class had already fixed them all.

WaterStep works alongside local people, not simply fixing their problem, but joining them as a partner to provide the tools and training they need to be able take care of their own water supply. Now, when a community’s well stops working, they don’t have to wait for someone else to repair it. They can fix it themselves.

To learn more, visit waterstep.org

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