Standardised hand pumps – a good thing?

Paul van Beers of FairWater.Org  manufacturer of the ‘Blue Pump’ is frustrated by the process (or lack of it) of standardisation around handpump designs.  He has a point.   There is a tendency in the rural water sector to assume that standardisation is a ‘good thing’ – because it helps to simplify spare parts chains, allows for economies of scale in acquisition and simplifies the task of district water officers, pump mechanics and others.  And these are all valid arguments.

However, the flip side of the argument and the risk of standardisation is that locking in a small number of technologies leads to stagnation and takes away any incentive for innovation.  Given the appalling lack of sustainability in existing approaches (an issue that kept popping up during discussions and presentations at the forum) there is clearly plenty of need for innovation – technical, financial, managerial.

What’s the solution?  To me it lies in clarifying and strengthening the systems by which pumps (and other bits of kit or indeed different management models) are accepted for inclusion in national rural water service delivery programmes.  Ideally this should be based on a clear and transparent process of testing, during which it can be seen whether the benefits of a new technology (or approach) are enough to outweigh the costs of its introduction (in terms of new skills, expanded supply chains etc.).  Such a system can test the hype of inventors and manufacturers in a rigorous way and help policy makers to understand the costs and benefits in a way that make it easy for them to make a decision.

Indeed several NGOs and other actors support programmes like this as part of their regular work.  And it is a common thread throughout much of our work in IRC – where we’ve identified the lack of emphasis on learning and innovation in the WASH sector as one of the most critical barriers to increased sustainability and equity.   And we are addressing the challenge directly through  the WASHTech programme (coordinated by IRC)  in Ghana, Burkina and Uganda – which aims specifically at defining and strengthening national frameworks and processes for new technology testing and adoption.

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