Earlier this week, PBS’s Frontline ran a story about the PlayPump, a technology that was supposed to bring drinking water to thousands of African communities by harnessing the power of children at play. The title of the Frontline story, “Troubled Water,” indicates that all didn’t go as planned with the PlayPump. As Frontline reports, dozens of PlayPumps in Mozambique sit idle, and in many villages, PlayPumps have been removed and hand pumps reinstalled.
The idea behind PlayPump is simple, and it’s not hard to see why so many people got excited about it. A merry-go-round type device is installed and connected to a water pump. As children play on the merry-go-round, water is pumped into a storage tank, and is then available on demand. Frontline originally reported on the technology in 2005, leading to a tremendous amount of excitement, including support from Laura Bush and AOL founder Steve Case. As the new Frontline story reports, however, it seems that PlayPump hasn’t lived up to its original promise and even its strongest backers have had to admit that the large-scale roll-out they had originally planned was not realistic.
So, what went wrong? There are many ways to answer this question, some relating to the appropriate role of development agencies and philanthropic foundations. Another thorny question, particular to PlayPump, is whether children playing is an appropriate source of energy for water. As reporter Amy Costello says, the line between work and play isn’t as clear-cut as one would think.