In rural Cambodia, water pumps help farmers help themselves
Paula Shirk, founder of Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia, tells of a grass-roots approach to helping poor farmers irrigate their fields.
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We matched Kickstart's price, even though we have greater overhead. But we can’t sell them for more than $95. So we run on a shoestring budget and we rely on donations to cover our overhead costs.Skip to next paragraph
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In terms of distribution, we went into a Muslim area for two reasons. One is that they had the soil and the water table that the pumps require. But also, no one else was going to help them. [Former Cambodian dictator] Pol Pot tried to wipe them out, and I think it’s still the policy of the government to do this.
We just got the shipment in, in March. We’ve sold about 20 and we’ve ordered another shipment.
What is something concrete you’ve been learning or challenged by as you’re starting this organization?
We’re building our own pump, because we can’t continue to sell the Kickstart pump. We have Cambodian engineers on staff and University of Wisconsin engineers on standby. But we really want the Cambodian engineers to do it. The Kickstart pump was made in the West, but the Cambodians should do it their own way, using local materials. Steel is expensive and the Kickstart pump has a lot of steel in it. We’re up to our third prototype now.
What happens if the pumps break?
The pump is a simple 2-piston treadle and it works by gravity. The pumps last for years. The replacement parts are really cheap.
There are a lot of people and organizations working on water issues, using a variety of approaches. What would be the benefits of sharing information or collaborating?
I know our team over there talks to a lot of NGOs. Kickstart is certainly helpful; we like working with them although it’s too costly. But a lot of groups are building wells, which is not the same as these pumps, which create a sense of individual ownership. And if the community owns it, nobody owns it. We’re really into this ownership, so in that sense our approach is different. But I hope that we, social entrepreneurs, can work together to develop these pumps.
What other issues do you see contributing to rural poverty in Cambodia?
Soil erosion, and trees being cut down for fuel. But we are focusing on this pump and later we’ll tackle the other issues. And one other topic here is that we want to help women. 65 percent of households are headed by women, but they are barely visible. So that’s on my mind too.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
This interview first appeared at Dowser.org.