Making the Business of Life Easier

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Prime time for the village pump

Liquid Asset: A new design of pump has brought clean, plentiful water to Indian villages, changing lives as it saves them

By John Stackhouse
First published Nov. 8, 1993

Biharipur, India

Some things never change in Biharipur. "Same fields, same houses, same mud," the village chief says, welcoming some returning visitors.

But not the same water. Three years ago, the arrival of a new water pump fundamentally changed the village of 750 residents.

"You can see the water is clearer," says Dhan Devi, 21, whose wrists chatter with blue bangles as she gathers up her four children at one of Biharipur's India Mark II pumps. "We still fall sick, but not as often."

In tens of thousands of Indian villages such as Biharipur, where life revolves around water, the Mark II pump has helped transform the health of children and the work of women. Financed by the state government and designed for local needs, the pump can reach down 40 metres into the deeper, cleaner layers of the water table, where contaminants are rare and water is plentiful. The result: a noticeable decline in the water-borne diseases - jaundice, cholera, typhoid, rashes - that once preyed on Biharipur, as well as less work for women fetching water.

Biharipur's four Mark IIs were brought in to replace five wells that had served the village as long as anyone can remember.

"Whenever there was a breeze, sand and leaves would blow into the well," says Kusuma, a mother of seven, who used to walk to a well at least 20 times a day. "It wasn't very clean water. There were bugs in it. Now, the cooked food doesn't smell like the well any more."

In the early 1980s, when the Indian government, assisted by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), surveyed the vast countryside, it discovered that some 230,000 villages did not have ready access to potable water. The typical family, which consumes 40 litres a day, relied on open wells, rivers, rainwater catchments and shallow hand-pumps. Those sources are the main reason so many Indian children - 1.5 million a year by Unicef's count - died from diarrhea-related complications.

To ensure safer water, the government and Unicef researchers devised a simple yet deep pump that could be installed at a cost of 14,550 rupees ($647) - high by local standards but low when measured against the cost of illness - and they put one in place for every 200 residents in the target areas.

Today, India has 2.2 million Mark II pumps, each equipped with durable polypropylene washers (instead of traditional leather) and galvanized steel to prevent rusting. It also exports the device to a dozen African countries.

Since water is a basic ingredient in almost all aspects of village life, the success of the pump affects everyone.

In the early morning, young girls fetch pails of water for livestock, just ahead of older men who line up to wash themselves and brush their teeth. In the background, an irrigation pump works to save a rice crop from poor rains. Later, a woman mixes water with straw and mud to repair a wall, shouting at her neighbour, "I swear on the Ganges you caused this damage."

In summer, water sustains Biharipur through the days of 45-degree temperatures. In winter, the villagers huddle over smouldering straw fires, warming pots of tea.

For all their benefits, the pumps are not without problems. True, villagers say the Mark II is more effective than the last government innovation, a biogas stove that came without assembly directions.

But the residents have been slow to adopt the rhythmic pumping strokes that prevent the machines from breaking.

"They don't take us too seriously," says Hakum Singh, a water authority engineer who trains villagers in their use. "They do it their own way."

Many women also continue to draw water from the open wells, some by habit, others for convenience. Local officials say they explained the pump's health benefits - they even showed a videotape made by Unicef - but the village women complain that they were not consulted when the Mark II boreholes were drilled.

"We were not asked where they should be," says Ram Dulari, who prefers pump water but refuses to walk 40 metres to the closest Mark II pump when a well is only 10 metres from her front door. "The decision was up to the chief."

One of the four pumps was installed in front of the chief's house.

Others do not see tangible benefits in the Mark II. "It doesn't make any difference," Shanti Devi says.

"We are still poor."

Suresh Chandra Nayak, the water authority's local executive engineer, says there was little point in consulting the village women, even though they use the wells and the pumps much more than men do.

"In the villages, there are few women who can say the correct things," he says. "Every woman would want one in front of her own house."

For privacy and a sense of proprietorship, many women will use a pump only if it is in their block or lane.

"Why would I go to a pump in front of other people's houses?" asked Bhagwati, the village midwife.

She has a teen-aged son, but he, like most men in the village, rarely fetches water.

The idea of a pump has become popular though. Many families spend up to 2,000 rupees ($888) for smaller private ones in their homes. Even though these pumps reach only the top layer of the water table, it is hard to resist the convenience and prestige, equal to that of a refrigerator in the big city.

Uncontrolled, though, the pumps could become too much of a good thing. Mr. Nayak, the water-authority boss, believes the water table in Biharipur's district has dropped three metres since 1990 as more and more private pumps tap into it.

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