Friday, August 20, 2010

A Football Analogy

Dan on a breakaway! Playing football with some of the neighbourhood kids on a pitch near our house

Today, August 20th marks exactly three months for me in Malawi and on Sunday I will be making the four to six hour journey by bus to start EWB’s “re-integration training” in Lilongwe, the capital city. This will likely be my last in-country post and I would like to thank everyone who’s supported me on this journey.

Playing soccer (or bola in Chitonga) here in Malawi is definitely an experience. It’s an even more remarkable community event when I join into play, with all the kids within view or earshot dropping whatever they’re doing and rushing to witness the foreigner flailing around the pitch and tripping over himself, and occasionally my host father standing beside the field shaking his head and smiling.

It is amazing how much soccer goes on without a soccer ball. Kids collect discarded plastic bags and through a careful process melt and tie bits together forming a surprisingly live ball which works perfectly for pick-up matches. Despite this some NGOs spend their time and money handing out soccer balls, and around Mpamba a few carcasses of these free balls can be seen, busted open from hard use. That’s not to say they’re not more durable than the home made balls, those things fall apart all the time! Luckily, with a bit of string, or a knife heated in the fire and a scrap of plastic a quick, cheap repair can be made to the ball and the game continues.

The same could be said for the water sector in Malawi. Many NGOs, and research papers spend time obsessing over the breakdown rates of their, and other organizations pumps. Many of them re-engineer designs every few years in an attempt to make their pump more durable. Though counter-intuitive, this is a bad thing.

No matter how well engineered, eventually every pump will break down and require maintenance of some sort. Just like our two soccer balls, a pump that can be repaired at a low cost, with materials that can be found nearby is ideal. Many NGOs, EWB included put a heavy emphasis on setting up a particular community member as designated to perform maintenance on a number of wells, usually as a business. As well, spare parts need to be available in shops relatively near these communities, such as Trading Centres where they purchase other day-to-day necessities. A pump with breaks down frequently, and is cheap to repair has the potential to drive enough demand to create a profitable supply chain of spare parts, making it possible for shop owners to stock the parts as a viable business. It also means that trained individuals keep their knowledge up to date by doing frequent repairs and maintenance, and business is more profitable for them.

This dichotomy, where well designed pumps lead to bad water programs has taught me to never look at another aid program the same way again. Instead of asking questions about technologies, ask questions about approach, where are decisions in the organization coming from? Does the program convey patronism or empowerment? What evidence is there of sustainability?

After three months in Malawi my footwork on the pitch may not have improved much, but I like to think that my thinking has.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Anatomy of a Shallow Well Part 3

A complete Afridev handpump Pump assembly.

The pump is one of the most interesting parts of a well or borehole. It’s definitely the most complicated, the most likely to break and sometimes the most controversial (to learn more see EWB Volunteer Owen Scott’s series on the Playpump, as well as a new Frontline documentary). It’s also the part which most frequently breaks down and renders a pump non functional. It’s these breakdowns which in theory should create a financial driver for people who have been trained to repair pumps, and for small grocery owners to stock replacement parts for sale, this unfortunately is only sometimes the case.

Afridev parts, cementing the cylinder with foot valve (grey piece) to the PVC pipe (white piece). When we last left our well, it had been covered with a concrete pedestal and apron to protect it from contamination, and the “civil works” and washing slab had been built from bricks and concrete. We arrived late in the afternoon in a minibus carrying all the parts required for the Afridev hand-pump and right away set to work.

Threading the rope through the pipe centerizers. A “foot valve” assembly in the bottom cylinder  will keep water inside the pipe that the hand-pump pumps through. This assembly is cemented with PVC solvent cement and a small fire to the PVC pipe. Then, pipe centrizers are slid onto the pipe. These guide the rope holding on to the bottom cylinder, in case it should come unglued. This is slid down the well, and the pipe is measured for length, ensuring that the foot valve is at least one foot above the bottom of the well to stop it from being clogged.

And the pipe, and whole assembly goes down the well. An assembly to hold the pipe in place and centered is cemented to the pipe and it is slid back down the well. The ropes are tightened, and the assembly is bolted to the riser pipe. On top of this the pump casing is also bolted, and the Afridev starts to take shape. Now the plunger, and plunger rod are attached to two more rods and descend down the well. The plunger is a white plastic piece (similar to a foot valve) with a bobbin that creates a valve and is used to raise the water level up the PVC pipe.The rods are linked together and go down the well pipe.

The rod is then descended down the well, attaching to interlocking rods as necessary to reach the bottom of the pipe. The top rod is measured to length and marked, then the whole thing comes back out of the well to cut the rod to length.

The fulcrum is attached to the top rod. Next, a fulcrum is attached to the top of the rod. This is where the pump handle is attached, allowing a person to move the rod up and down from outside the casing. A pin and bearings are attached to this fulcrum, and the pump handle attaches through the casing to these. If that makes any sense at all, for some clarity hover over the picture.Clarity: the brown metal piece is the fulcrum, the white bands are the bush bearings and the pin goes through the centre of all this to hold the steel claws of the pump handle in place.

Now, the pump is functioning fine, and all that remains to do is  re-attach the cover, and get a bucket.



The well assembly team poeses for one final photo as Foster pumps the first bit of clean, safe water from this well.

For more pictures from today, and the rest of the well construction see my online Picassa album at

Monday, August 16, 2010

How Inappropriate!

Baptist Drilling: sending the drill bit and drilling pipe down the borehole.Appropriate technology. It’s quite a buzz word in the development community and only a few years ago it was on everyone’s lips at EWB. Fast forward to the present day and in some circles within our organization it has become taboo. To mention appropriate technology makes you look outdated, old-fashioned and a little ignorant, “don’t you know that we tried that and it didn’t work?”.

Our founders and co-CEOs sarcastically talk about their vision founding EWB as flying over Canadian-designed solutions to technical development problems overseas in helicopters. As an organization we very quickly changed this approach to be more balanced and addressed the needs that weren’t being fulfilled in the development community. As I think Playpumps International has demonstrated very well to the development community for an NGO to be centered solely around a technology or technology in general is flawed and can be a hindrance to a country’s development more than a help (wondering what I’m talking about? See Volunteer Owen Scott’s posts on the playpump). “Development” can be defined as many things, but primarily it is a process of people, and thus primarily you should be involving people. That is however not to say that appropriate technologies should not play a part.

the valved drill bitMy placement is actually highly centered and focused on an “appropriate technology”, Baptist Drilling (named after Baptist Missionary, Mr Terry Waller) and how it can be employed in a sustainable business. Baptist drilling is a manual drilling technique that falls into a group of “percussion drilling” methods. Percussion drilling essentially means moving a pointed weight on a cable (the “bit”) up and down to create a dent in the ground. This dent is the filled with water and a valved tube is lowered to remove the resulting muddy sludge, then the process is repeated. Baptist Drilling only differs slightly in that the bit is on the end of the valved tube, and thus you save time not having to replace the two pieces.

A sample of different types of drill bits. From right to left: 2'' valved bit, open bit with 6'' reamer (for widening holes to 6'' diameter in gravel and hard layers) and a valved bit with 4'' reamer, for widening holes to 4''. Compared to drilling with a machine Baptist Drilling (and many other manual methods) are cheaper and less complex as well as being able to reach remote areas where the roads are impassable for drill rigs. However, a manual drill cannot penetrate stone layers When compared to digging wells by hand it reduces risk to the digger, is easier to protect from contamination and can penetrate deeper into the aquifer, reducing the likeliness of winter dry-up. All in all, it’s an advantageous technology and well worth pursuing. The challenge is employing this drilling technique in a profitable way. How can you turn manual drilling into a business?

Where we’re planning to start is where there is already demand  in Malawi, the NGO sector. Drilling wells for NGO's seems the logical step to reduce risk as we launch a new business. This is where the demand already exists in the sector and provides the opportunity to gain experience with the drilling technique, and reduce the unknowns at lower risk (where a large NGO could absorb costs in the event of problems).

More interesting though is whether we can find demand in the private sector. Namely, are there individuals living in rural areas of Malawi who are both able and willing to pay for clean water? This introduces a plethora of issues, the most complex being assigning a monetary value to safe drinking water.


Hungry? Check out the new recipes section of this blog! I’m looking to turn it into a cookbook to sell as a fundraising item for the Waterloo chapter of Engineers Without Borders Canada and would love your feedback.


The photos and the background on Baptist drilling in this post were taken from the Connect International ( manual on Baptist Drilling by Henk Holtslag and John de Wolf.