Nairobi, Kenya — IN a crude iron shed on the outskirts of this city, blacksmith Hamid Abdalla is molding advanced DuPont plastics for a project that could change the dynamics of village water supply in the third world. A team of African and European engineers sponsored by the UN Development Program and World Bank has achieved a technological break-through with the design of a low-cost hand pump with high-technology parts.
Without any formal schooling as an engineer, Mr. Abdalla is using tools he manufactured himself to produce the valves and plungers he needs. His work is proof that the total package can be mass-produced in modest African settings. By the end of the year, the Afridev pump, as it is known here, is expected to go into production.
The importance of this pump is its simplicity. With a little training, three villagers can strip, service, and reassemble the pump in less than one hour using a single open-ended wrench.
Afridev pumps field-tested in villages near Mombasa, Kenya, have required little more than preventive maintenance once every 12 months. At $300 per unit, each pump has met the daily needs of about 250 people.
Communities dependent on imported pump technologies elsewhere in Africa have not been so fortunate. In the absence of spare parts and skilled maintenance crews, the time lag between breakdowns and repairs can run from weeks into months and sometimes years. Breakdowns of hand pumps have become so frequent and protracted that the technology in some areas has been discredited. Communities are returning to wells.
Donor nations have, mostly with good intentions, populated the countryside with their nations' products. But they failed to train the users to maintain them. And, they tended to ignore the fact that hand pumps designed to get routine maintenance are not likely to see such care in Africa, where they operate many more hours under much harsher conditions than those for which they were designed.
Hand-pump failures and a lack of spare parts or skills to repair are costly. Some 2 billion people in developing countries rely on distant and not very clean sources of water for domestic use. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the illnesses in poor communities can be traced to waterborne bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Villagers, left dry by a broken pump, simply go back to old watering places - more resistant to technological changes.
Most governments would prefer a more modern approach than hand pumps, such as motorized central pumping systems with diesel engines. But six years ago when the United Nations proclaimed ``clean water for all by the year 2000'' as an objective, global cost estimates for such a feat ranging as high as $600 billion came face to face with declining budgets.
``When the people behind the movement met and assessed the cost, the logistics, and the maintenance and management issues involved in centralized rural water supply, they reached the conclusion that for the billions who live in Asia and Africa, the most feasible option and solution would be the use of ground water and hand pumps,'' says Saul Arlosoroff, a UN Development Program and World Bank official.
They concluded, he adds, that ``if hand pumps and ground water were not the solution, then there was no other logical answer.''
Although the hand-pump option cut the projected cost of delivering safe water to rural areas in half, Mr. Arlosoroff and others were convinced that there had to be a more rational approach to supply and maintenance. To help restore the hand pump's credibility, the UN Development Program decided to fund a program that would identify the most successful pumps available, test them, and provide a ``buyers' guide'' for governments, aid agencies, and other consumers.
During a three-year period, the World Bank ran a testing program to weed out, from some 70 pumps from 25 countries, all but the most sturdy. About 30 models performed well enough to be rated as ``recommended'' or ``satisfactory,'' according to the findings which are expected to be out before Christmas.
This testing program eventually gave birth to the Afridev pump. David Grey, a hydrologist testing a pump called the Maldev in East Africa in 1981, was the man behind the Afridev pump. The Maldev met cost objectives and made use of locally available materials, but was technologically out of date.
Mr. Grey took his Maldev pump and organized an international team to update and simplify it. He believed that if small shoe factories in Africa could extrude simple plastic sandals, they should also be able to mold advanced engineering plastics into parts for his pump. Working with a senior design engineer from DuPont, in Switzerland, his efforts resulted in replacing important steel fixtures of the pump with plastic ones. The expensive stainless steel tube which carries the water from below ground was replaced by the same PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe in use throughout the United States today.
From the outside, the Afridev is ordinary and rugged looking. Its heart has been completely reworked on the principle that moving parts should be inexpensive and easy to replace. The new bearings cost only 30 cents to manufacture in Kenya, and about the same elsewhere in Africa or Asia.
``We based the redesign of every part on the question: How can it be made easier - easier to make, easier to assemble and disassemble, easier to maintain?'' Grey says. ``We made community maintenance a design feature. The pump can be made locally so there will be no shortage of spares. Spare parts will be affordable at about $10 a set and the villagers will be able to install them themselves. Three women can replace all the moving parts in a few minutes using a single open-ended wrench, and we are training village women to take charge of all maintenance. Women have traditionally carried the burden of domestic water supply in Africa, and they appreciate the importance of easy access more than anyone else.''
The first commercial models of the Afridev pump won't be available in Kenya until next year, but the results of field testing have been shared with others in Africa and Asia.
``Our materials are in the public domain,'' says Grey. ``We will give our designs ... to anybody.''