Other O&M models in Africa

Brief history of handpump maintenance models

During the "International Water Decade" (1980 - 1990) there was suddenly a huge interest in improving the water supply for rural communities in Africa, and many development organizations started drilling for water and developed and installed handpumps. Unfortunately, there was little time and no previous experience with handpumps and the overall focus was on installing as many handpumps as possible in a short time. This was also reflected in the design of handpumps, the main concern was to have a cheap pump, not on durability.

Handpump types
Initially, there were over 25 types of handpumps in use in Africa, often NGOs developed and promoted their own type. But his resulted in chaos when people needed spare parts, so it was decided that there should only be a few "standard" models (Afridev, India Mark II), to enable a market for spare parts. Unfortunately, due to the sudden high demand for handpumps, these "public domain" designs were never properly tested in the field for many years and the design was fixed, without a good plan for how to deal with improvements.

When African Governments imposed only to use these "standard" models, it soon became clear that this "monopolization" completely stopped the handpump innovation, so basically, these old designs were never updated and most water projects still use these old design today. It takes little imagination that the well-intended decision to "standardize" the handpump has in the end considerably hampered the development of rural Africa.

Public Domain handpumps
In order to keep the price low and to create a level playing field for tenders, the technical specifications of these pumps were published and these pumps were called "Public Domain Handpumps". The idea was that everybody was allowed to produce these pumps, as long as the respected the original design, that was kept and monitored by the SKAT Foundation in Switzerland, mainly sponsored by the Swiss Government. But despite many efforts, SKAT could not effectively control the handpump factories in India, and many sub-standard, but cheap, handpumps were exported to Africa. 

Over the years, there have been several attempts to "improve" these standard designs, or make hybrid combinations with other pumps. The "INKAR" pumps (a mix of the India MK2 and the German-made Kardia pump) used in West Africa is such an example.
However, in practice, it became an administrative nightmare to control all these "upgrades" and the spare part supply became again a nightmare, causing thousands of pumps useless in the end. Also, when projects ordered an "Afridev" or "India MK2" they often had no idea to specify the newest model, and because these modifications often added to the price, they were again offered the cheapest, original design.

All in all, this resulted in a devastating situation all over rural Africa where these pumps are used, and today, the average lifetime of these standard Public Domain pumps is still not more than 3 to 5 years, though many of them will not even last only one year... This proved to be very profitable for the companies in India that were producing these pumps, in fact, they had a huge never-ending market in Africa. Obviously, when some NGOs and people started to question this Public Domain policy, it received a strong resistance of those who already had a vested interest in the commercialization of these products.

The VLOM model
Together with these standard handpumps, during the Water Decade, a simple model of how to maintain them was introduced, the "VLOM Model" (Village Level Operated & Maintained). The basic idea was that on the Village level, a community "Water Committee" was created, and trained to do repairs.

The underlying reasoning to heavily promote the VLOM model was to make it more easy for NGO water projects to just install a handpump in a village, give some basic repair training to local Water Committee members, make a picture for the fundraiser, leave some spare parts and leave and NEVER look back...

This VLOM model was also very convenient for the local Government because they had no responsibility or "after-care" whatsoever for the functionality of the pump. In other words, if the pump would fail, the NGOs and Government would blame the community.

However, already in the nineties, it became clear that this colonial oriented VLOM system did NOT provide a "sustainable" operation of the handpumps. See the revolutionary and "bold" article of Micheal Wood of CARE international, 1994, Click Here).

Nevertheless, most water projects just carried on with fragile standard pumps and VLOM, mainly because there was no accepted better alternative and, as mentioned earlier, it was also convenient for the projects to leave after the pump was installed...

Only in 2010, 16 years after the bold article of Michel Wood and after a lot of "hot" debates in the Rural Water Supply sector between VLOM critics and VLOM promotors, the devastating evidence of broken handpumps all over Africa could not be denied anymore.

Finally, in a shocking but honest publication, UNICEF / RWSN (Click Here) finally admitted that on average over 40% (in some areas over 70%) of the donated handpumps were non-functional and that the VLOM model for Community handpumps did not provide the expected "sustainable" operation. RWSN concluded that the Communities were NOT to blame, but that these often poor people actually never got a fair chance to play their role in the maintenance of the pumps.

Having said that, what is a better solution? What would be a more appropriate role for the Rural Communities to play to make the "simple" handpump sustainable in a Community? 

Failing VLOM handpump

Communities and especially children suffered a lot because of the poor quality of the VLOM pumps that did not provide a "sustainable" solution, see for instance the critical article of Dr. Ellie Chows; failing pumps in Africa (click here).