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The Hydrological Playground

The PlayPump water system works like so:

While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round (1), clean water is pumped (2) from underground (3) into a 2,500-liter tank (4), standing seven meters above the ground.

A simple tap (5) makes it easy for women and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole (6).

The water storage tank (7) provides a rare opportunity to advertise in outlaying communities. All four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, with two sides for consumer advertising and the other two sides for health and educational messages. The revenue generated by this unique model pays for pump maintenance.



Not surprisingly, trying to assess the design and application of the PlayPump system took us on an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute we were giddy with enthusiasm (“Fucking brilliant!”), but the next minute, completely raving with skepticism (how long do the children have to twirl and twirl around to fill the tank; and is the water any safer?), only to return back to unbridled enthusiasm (well, it's not as if the goal is to provide communities with daily showers, car washes, and indoor toilet flushes; and surely groundwater is reliably safer than the surface water sources to which the PlayPump offers an alternative).

Back and forth.

Convinced how cool the whole thing is, we soon found yet more reasons to doubt the viability of this earnest endeavor: aren't there better options, such as these? Well, of course. The PlayPump isn't meant to be the singular solution for every possible situation. Aggregation is a good strategy.

Counterproductive as we sometimes are with our privileged ironic asides, we asked ourselves: don't you find the ads a bit troubling, even comical? (Advertising in economically depressed areas? Is this like Colors by Benetton or something?) To which we replied: Yes, we are indeed privileged.

Back and so forth.

But before we reverted back to our usual default position of enthusiastic interest, we asked one last question: wouldn't it be better to just slice off a sizable chunk of what we in the United States spend on public water services — for instance, to recreate some sort of Edenic fantasies in the desert Southwest with water diverted from severely depleted sources — and allocate that portion to sub-Saharan African nations where the money will be used to improve their hydrological infrastructure, and we are the ones who get to install the PlayPumps in our school grounds, parks and backyards, where a growing population of obese, diabetic, allergic children — the ones inured to the hardship of suburban domesticity — are forced to trim a little bit of the fat, reduce their susceptibility to diabetes and prevent future addictions to Allegra® and Claritin® while simultaneously teaching them about the incredibly, wonderfully awesome subject of hydrology and imparting a life long commitment to water conservation?


POSTSCRIPT #1: PBS Frontline has a follow up on the PlayPumps, and most of it isn't good news.
  • Urbanscapes...
  • May 24, 2007 at 2:44:00 PM CDT
  • This is a fantastic idea - and infact I did think on a similar note during an urban design studio project while studying at UMich - a similar system along a transit oriented development to drive a neighborhood water (grey) recycling system (as a solution to their acute water shortage and love for artificial nature in their front yards)to manicure the lawns, for household usage and community gardens in the suburbs of LA.
    To think about developing countries and particularly its rural realm, what if these systems also produced local electricity? (no the kids cant be twirling around for this) but wondering if there are ways to do that without large investments?
    And if not advertisements, the tanks could definitely hold valuable social messages to address the illiterate populace?

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