Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Turning water into child’s play.

[[This is a truly inspiring article related to a piece I saw last night on PBS’ Frontline]]

In rural villages across South Africa, some 5 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water. To get a sense of the severity of the water scarcity there, you have to go back to the early 1800s when Europeans and others started colonizing the country.

When these settlers arrived, they brought with them nonnative seeds and plants with the idea that they would be able to re-create the thick forests and vegetation of their homeland.

Two hundred years on, the pines and eucalyptus trees, along with 161 other invasive plants introduced to the country, are soaking up billions of gallons of water that used to flow into mountain streams and support wetlands and other precious arteries in this largely arid country. Add to that the needs of South Africa’s growing population and you have a situation in which the competition for water has become fierce.

Which brings us in a roundabout way (no pun intended) to this week's Rough Cut—reporter Amy Costello’s surprisingly upbeat tale about a canny entrepreneur who decided to tackle South Africa’s water woes in his own novel and enterprising way.

Trevor Field, a retired advertising executive, had done well in life and wanted to give back to his community. He noticed that in many rural villages around the eastern Cape, the burden of collecting water fell mainly to the women and girls of the household. Each morning, he'd see them set off to the nearest borehole to collect water. They used leaky and often contaminated hand-pumps to collect the water, then they carried it back through the bush in buckets weighing 40 pounds. It was exhausting and time-consuming work.

“The amount of time these women are burning up collecting water, they could be at home looking after their kids, teaching their kids, being loving mothers,” Field tells Costello. He knew there had to be a better solution.

Field then teamed up with an inventor and came up with the “play pump”—a children's merry-go-round that pumps clean, safe drinking water from a deep borehole every time the children start to spin. Soup to nuts, the whole operation takes a few hours to install and costs around $7,000. Field’s idea proved so inventive, so cost-efficient and so much fun for the kids that World Bank recognized it as one of the best new grassroots ideas.

In true ad-man style, Field's next idea was to use the play pump’s water towers as makeshift billboards, selling ad space to help pay for the upkeep. He reserves a spot for the national loveLife campaign, which helps educate children about HIV and AIDS. “We've got to get the message through to them before they become sexually active,” he says. “It seems to be working.”

In the film, Costello and producer/photographer Cassandra Herrman drive out to a small village where the taps have been dry for a week. There, a crew sets to work installing a play pump near a children’s play area, boring 40 meters down until they hit the fresh water table below. As soon as the last colorful piece of the puzzle is in place, dozens of children show up to play—much to Field’s delight—pumping cool, clean water to the surface as they spin.

The indefatigable entrepreneur wants to build thousands of these pumps to help water-stressed communities across South Africa, then expand to other African countries. He says, “It would make a major difference to the children, and that's where our passion lies.”