How Playground Equipment and Sippy Straws Could Save Millions of Lives

Access to potable water remains one of the most enduring problems around the world. Today more than 1 billion people do not have access to improved drinking water sources. This leads to 1.6 million deaths from diarrhea each year, the vast majority occurring in children younger than 5.

Multilateral development agencies have been working for decades to improve this situation. Early water projects were well-intentioned engineering gifts. The SCANWATER project, for example, simply installed gas-powered water towers on the highest hills around Cameroon. Because these projects didn’t develop local capacity to train technicians or to collect money for expensive maintenance, most of these water towers rapidly fell into disrepair.

So the key to sustainability is access, simplicity, good design and minimal maintenance. Two promising products are the Playpump and LifeStraw. As you can probably guess from the compound names, these products combine simple existing concepts with water sanitation development goals.

PlayPump is a water pump powered by children who play on a merry-go-round. The pumps are often located near
primary schools to take advantage of abundant free “labor.” Many primary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have more than 100 students per class, so classes are taught in shifts. During this downtime, children can play on the merry go round ensuring a regular supply of water.

PlayPump in action

The PlayPump also takes advantage of the demographics that characterize developing nations, where half the population is under the age of fifteen.

In villages where girls are most often assigned the chore of fetching water, the PlayPump has the potential to reduce the distances walked for clean water, increasing the likelihood that girls can go to school.

Playpumps cost about $5000 each and can produce up to 1400 liters (370 gallons) per hour, enough water for 2,500 people. The water towers also can accomodate up to four billboard advertisements, two of which are normally reserved for public health messages, and two for revenue generation that provides for maintenance expenses. Currently a South African company is installing them with some help from the World Bank.

LifeStraw in actionThe second product is LifeStraw, which is produced by the Danish company Vestergaard-Frandsen. The LifeStraw is basically a lightweight handheld filtration device that can be worn around the neck. Any time someone need a sip of water, they can use this device to automatically filter out contaminants. The LifeStraw doesn’t require any spare parts, and it lasts for about one year or 700 liters. They retail in the developing world for $6, or about 1.6 cents per day. The company that produces LifeStraw has ambitious sales goals. The creator, Torben Vestergaard-Frandsen, said that, “We will be disappointed, if we do not sell at least 10 million LifeStraw a year.”

At less than a cent per liter of water filtered, LifeStraw is competitive with other water filtration systems in the developing world. That cost should come down as they ramp up production and realize economies of scale.

And lest you get the idea of ordering a LifeStraw for your homeland security kit or for camping, it’s still being reviewed by the EPA, so it’s not yet available in the U.S. One other caveat: it does not protect against Giardia, a nasty little parasite that Statastico really recommends avoiding.

What other ideas are waiting to be combined into a life-saving innovation? How about an electrical generator powered by soccer players? A playground slide that doubles as solar power? With more than 1 billion people around the world without access to clean water, invention is indeed the mother of necessity.

1 Billion without Access to Clean Drinking Water

Sources: Statastic research, WHO, United Nations