How PlayPump Works

The PlayPump is a merry-go-round attached to a water pump.
The PlayPump is a merry-go-round attached to a water pump.
Photo courtesy of PlayPumps International

Turning on the tap to get a cool glass of water or run a bath is something most Americans take for granted. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa and other underdeveloped countries around the world, getting water is a chore -- and finding uncontaminated water can be nearly impossible. According to the United Nations, more than 4,000 children die every day because they don't have clean water to drink [source: Frontline].

In the late 1980s, a billboard advertising executive named Trevor Field recognized the need for clean water and discovered a unique solution to make it happen. While Field was visiting South Africa, he came across an invention that combined a child's merry-go-round attached to a pump. The idea was that as the children played, the pump would bring fresh water up from the ground. Field and two colleagues licensed the invention and took its design even further, adding a large water storage tank and billboards to hold advertising and public service announcements.


Their creation was called PlayPump. In 1994, the first two of these devices were installed in South Africa's Masinga district. The idea gained momentum in 1999, when South African President Nelson Mandela attended the opening of a new school where a PlayPump had been installed. The story made headlines, and by the end of 2005, nearly 700 PlayPumps had been installed all over South Africa.

The following year, first lady Laura Bush and former President Bill Clinton announced a $16.4 million grant to build additional PlayPumps in South African communities. The grant was to be funded by a collaborative effort between the U.S. government and private charities.

PlayPumps International and its partners intend to install 4,000 PlayPump water systems in 10 sub-Saharan African countries by the year 2010. Together, these systems will bring clean drinking water to as many as 10 million people [source: PlayPumps International]. The company's next goal is to bring PlayPump to other countries in need of clean water.


PlayPump Explained

A PlayPump can produce 370 gallons (1,400 liters of water) if it's spun 16 times per minute.
A PlayPump can produce 370 gallons (1,400 liters) of water if it's spun 16 times per minute.
Photo courtesy of PlayPumps International

PlayPump looks like the kind of colorful merry-go-round you'd see at a children's playground. But this piece of play equipment is very different. As children spin on the PlayPump merry-go-round, their motion creates energy. Like a windmill, that energy has a reciprocal effect on a pump underground, which moves up and down, pulling water up from a borehole. When children aren't playing, adults can turn the wheel by hand.

Before a PlayPump system can be installed, surveyors look for locations where there is clean water under the ground. When a good spot has been located, workers drill a deep hole called a borehole to a depth of between 100 and 330 feet (30 and 100 meters). The ideal depth is 200 feet (60 meters).


If the PlayPump is spun 16 times per minute, it can produce 370 gallons (1,400 liters) of water. The attached tank can hold 660 gallons (2,500 liters) of water, enough to provide clean drinking water for 2,500 people each day [source: PlayPump International]. Local residents can access the water by a tap. Any excess water that is pumped into the tank overflows back into the borehole.

Outdoor Fabrication and Steelworks in Johannesburg, South Africa, manufactures the PlayPumps. Roundabout Outdoor, another South African company, installs and maintains the systems. Each PlayPump system costs about $14,000, which covers the merry-go-round, pump, storage tank, tap, piping, setup, installation and operating costs.

To help cover maintenance costs and keep the system free for local residents, the tank has four billboards, two of which contain paid advertising messages from companies such as Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever. The other two billboards hold public service announcements, which provide educational messages about important topics such as AIDS prevention and hygiene.

Next, you'll read how PlayPump is helping communities in Africa.


PlayPump Applications

Billboards help cover maintenance costs and provide public service announcements.
Billboards help cover maintenance costs and provide public service announcements.
Photo courtesy of PlayPumps International

PlayPump could potentially bring water to millions of people in areas where clean water is now scarce. With a simple turn of the tap, it provides people in towns and villages with the water they need to stay hydrated and clean.

Today in Africa, women and young girls can spend as much as five hours each day collecting water from faraway pumps. They often have to walk for miles lugging containers that can weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms). These containers are heavy enough to cause injury. With PlayPump, people have access to a central tap right near where they live, work and go to school. Women and girls do not have to trudge long distances each day to fetch water. Instead, girls have time to get an education. Women have more time to care for their families and hold more meaningful jobs.


Thanks to its unique design, PlayPump also provides play time. For many children in underdeveloped countries, it is the first piece of play equipment they've ever seen or used. Because PlayPump systems are often installed near schools, children have both a place to play and a source of hydration.

Even the billboards that flank PlayPumps have significan applications since two of the four help pay for the system's upkeep while the other two hold important public messages. Many of those messages, which are created in cooperation with PlayPump partners such as Save the Children, teach residents about AIDS prevention. This is a crucial message, considering that more than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are currently infected with HIV [source: Avert].

Between the positive messages, the clean water supply and the simple fun, PlayPumps seem poised to influence the future of water delivery.

In the next section you'll find much more information on PlayPump.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • BBC News. "Why Pumping Water is Child's Play." April 25, 2005.
  • Costello, Amy. "PlayPump Project Receives Major U.S. Funding." Frontline. Sept. 20, 2006.
  • Fox, Catherine Clarke. "PlayPumps: A New Invention Turns Work Into Play."
  • Gammell, Caroline. "Billion 'don't have clean water.'" AOL News.
  • Motley Fool Staff. "Think Globally: Help Build a PlayPump," April 12, 207.
  • PlayPumps International.
  • World Bank. "South Africa: the Roundabout Outdoor Playpump."