Ode to a piece of hardware: the water pump

In the past 3 years, the organisations of the Dutch Relief Alliance have drilled and installed 45 new boreholes and water pumps in the Central African Republic. And we have rehabilitated 51 dysfunctional boreholes. Giving access to safe and clean water to 54.000 people.

Boreholes and water pumps, are we still doing that?! Absolutely! After all, without clean water there is no life, no health. And no peace. Because water is fought for. Increasingly. But how does it actually get there, one such pump? A water expert in the Central African Republic tells the story. About the pump everyone knows. Or doesn’t.

Safe drinking water for a thousand people. Better yet, ten thousand people. Or, more jargony: x number of people have gained access to drinking water. This is a typical WASH way of describing results. WASH being water, sanitation and hygiene, a famed pillar of humanitarian aid.

But you hardly ever hear the story behind it. About how the water gets there. About one such water pump. Mind you, we’re not talking about faucets. In the places where we work, houses often have no plumbing. Let alone a tap. Sometimes there are no houses, only emergency shelters.

We’re talking about a public pump, as you used to have on every Dutch village square. The pump everyone knows from the pictures, with laughing and soaking wet children. The symbol, almost, of humanitarian aid. Who builds it? How deep goes the drilling in rock or soil? How long do these pieces of hardware last? How many people use it? What’s the cost? What’s the impact they have?

Cordaid colleague Paterne Yapende knows the answers. He can tell the story, because he’s up to his head into water and pumps.  Paterne is an engineer by training and water expert in the Central African Republic. Of the 60 or more professionals involved in one well, he is the spider in the web. Or the Nemo in the pond.

This is about the one and only water pump. If you think you know it, think again.

What’s the right spot?

For every 500 people there should be at least one safe water point, according to the international humanitarian SPHERE standards. The pump has to work well, it has to last. The water must meet quality requirements, and the source must be sufficiently large.

Step one is: going into the field, and checking with communities what their water needs are. You want to be there where the needs are most urgent,” says Paterne.

And then it gets more technical. Because how do you find sources deep into the underground? In the past, people used dowsing rods. They still do sometimes. “But we do things differently,” Paterne continues. “In geophysical surveys of the earth’s soil, we use electric currents. As the resistance of water is different, we can trace groundwater layers very well. And find sources.

The survey doesn’t stop until a few underground sources are spotted, to make sure at least one is suitable for drinking water. But hydrogeology is one thing, sociology is another. The pump needs to be strategically placed, near where people live. Preferably near a school, near a residential area, a market, a crossroads. Where geology and demography meet marks the drilling spot.

How deep into the earth?

Comes in the heavy artillery. The drilling machines. “They weigh up to 15 tons. There are different drill heads, for rocky earth layers we use ones with diamond. And to reach suitable water sources, we sometimes drill up to 80 meters deep.

Is climate change forcing them to drill deeper and deeper? In the Central African Republic, according to Paterne, groundwater levels haven’t changed in recent years. “The drilling depth has not increased,” he says. This does not alter the fact that climate change has major consequences in the country. There are more and more floods. And because the drought is devastating in surrounding countries, more and more livestock farmers are moving to the still green and fertile land to graze their herds. This leads to conflict with farmers, more deforestation and ecological degradation.

Technical feat

Back to the borehole. “Once we know the water supply is sufficient, we start casing the borehole, which is about 15 to 20 cm wide. Only when the borehole is sufficiently cased can you pump up water without the well collapsing. And only then can you have the water quality tested”, explains Paterne.

It really is a technical feat, this encapsulation of a small borehole that reaches tens of meters into the earth. Sometimes it passes right through unsuitable aquifers before reaching the appropriate one. Clay seals are used to prevent bad and good water from mixing.

To reinforce the hole, they use PVC pipes and cement walls. And gravel and sand filters created deep into the hole, have to purify the water.

The borehole is finished. Now’s the time to test the water. Samples are sent to the laboratory in the capital Bangui. Researchers accurately measure the bacteriological quality as well as the amount of nitrates, fluorine and other substances and minerals.

If the composition meets the requirements of the Ministry of Health, there’s a sigh of relief. “If not, then you have to stop all activities and neatly close and cover the hole. But that has never happened to me”, Paterne is happy to say.

Golden rule: keep things neat and clean

Then comes the icing on the cake, the above-ground part, the pump. There are two types of pumps. A hand pump for a borehole with a depth of less than 40 meters. If it goes deeper, you need a foot operated pump to generate more power or pressure.

Before use, we test the borehole and the filter. An electric pump pumps up water for hours and hours. This allows us to really understand and check the nature of the water source, the behavior of the earth, deep down there. And to know whether we are at exactly the right depth.”

We install the hand or foot pump, lay a concrete floor construction and build a wall or a fence that protects the place and keeps animals away. That’s very important, because the golden rule is: keep things neat and clean,” Paterne explains.

The drilling itself only takes a day or two, but the whole process from A to Z can easily take one to two months. “Mapping water scarcity and needs, geological research, drilling and construction, water analysis, testing… You have to take the time for that, otherwise things will go wrong. There are a lot of professionals involved, that makes it time consuming too. From lab technicians clad in white, engineers, tough guys who operate the drills, community members and instructors… All together about 60 people. I myself am only one of them.

Safe water for a year at the price of one plastic bottle

The cost of all that? Ten million FCFA for one borehole plus pump, at the most. That is 15,000 €. For that money, at least 500 and in practice probably many more people have access to clean water. For ten years at least. That is the average lifespan of an average well. In short, for less than three euros someone can drink clean water for a year. Not bad. In the Netherlands, you have a bottle of water for that money. Or two.

So far the easy part, the hardware. Now comes the more difficult stage: the work, not with the earth, the water and with machines, but with people. People who have to make the best of it in the face of adversity. In places where there is too little of everything: water, food, hospitals, schools, peace, security. But also a lot of what is scarcer elsewhere in the world: resilience.

Once the pump constructed, you have to make sure it keeps working long after we have left”, explains Paterne. This means: training people in crash technology and repair courses, and providing tools. Management and maintenance is transferred. “There is a community committee for every water pump. A group of five, three women, two men. Because without women you get nowhere.

They need to make sure that everyone in the community treats the pump as their own, with care. To ensure that people take turns cleaning it. That if something goes wrong they fix it, and not wait for an NGO to repair things. Only when there’s a serious malfunctioning experts come in.

And there it is: safe, fresh running water. The pump is officially inaugurated. The children come and the women, with 20-liter jerry cans. Because here too, they carry the heaviest burden.

The result is the most convincing argument

Why is it that social work is more difficult than the technical part? People who live on the brink, of exhaustion, of hunger, often in conflict zones where escalations are looming, have more than a lot on their minds. Moreover, they have often been living in crisis areas for decades, where foreign aid is a given. Where’s the time, the need, the peace of mind to bother about a pump?

It is not very surprising that they expect the makers of the pump to come to the rescue in the event of a technical failure. Or that water pump maintenance discipline slackens. The water committees really keep reminding the community to won the well, the pump and to be wise in using it. And the most convincing argument to keep doing that is in the result,” explains Paterne. “People see that diarrhea and other hygiene-related illnesses decrease after such a pump is installed. They see their children getting healthier. There is nothing more convincing.

How many liters do they pump up in a day, deep out of the earth that gives us everything? Many. In humanitarian crisis areas, international standards like SPHERE give a good indication. Two to six liters for basic hygiene, three to six liters for cooking, 2.5 to three liters for drinking and eating. That means up to 15 liters per person per day. And that’s a minimum, called basic survival. In these figures, there is no shower, bath, washing or cleaning.

If it weren’t for the pump, people who live in crisis areas, meaning whole provinces or even countries sometimes, depend on other lifelines. Like water trucks. And if these don’t come, on dirty surface or river water. And if drought hits, on nothing. Think of places where refugees and residents seek shelter from war, or drought. There are many.

“I remember well, I was eight years old”

Paterne Yapende himself knows the magic of a water pump all too well. And what it means for a community. “When we were little, the children of my village just drank surface water. No wonder we were often having diseases. Diarrhea, all kinds of skin conditions. That’s really, as a kid. And then came the water pump. The first in our village. I remember well, I was eight. It was really something. And things changed in the village. I saw these men drilling, constructing. I stood by and kept my eyes wide open. Why do you think I went on to study engineering later and have this job now? It all started then and there.