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From Albany to Africa: McGrath at the Washington Park merry-go-round.

PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

The Gift of Laughter and Water

The water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is a dire problem, but the simple, innovative PlayPump system is helping—and, for one African community, that help is coming from Albany

By Kathryn Lange

At Basa Primary School in northern South Africa, boys and girls are running, giggling, spinning a simple merry-go-round—their only piece of playground equipment. With each spin, they are supplying the town of Diepsloot with fresh, clean water. With each spin, they are changing their own lives.

The merry-go-round is part of a PlayPump water system. As the merry-go-round turns, it pumps water from a deep well into a 660-gallon storage tank, providing enough water for 2,500 people. Before there was a PlayPump at Basa Primary School, the community water sources frequently ran dry, and were, more often than not, contaminated. Children at the school used pit latrines not far from their drinking water supply. Girls often had to abandon their studies, preoccupied with the business of collecting water.

Today, they have a clean, reliable water source, and the motivation to go to school. The PlayPump has even supplied enough water to mix the cement needed to build some classrooms, and to start a large-scale garden, which provides a healthy lunch program for the students. It has inspired the children to dream about the possibilities in their future. “We cannot live without water,” says 12-year-old Basa student Palesa Mkhabela, quoted in a report on the Diepsloot project. “When I become a doctor and can help other people I will always remember that health starts with clean water.” Her classmate, Itumeleng Mpane, now aspires to be a scientist: “When I grow up,” she says, “I also want to invent clever things to help my community.” Today, the children at the school are healthy, educated, and aware that they can change their world for the better.

The PlayPump at Basa is one of more than 900 PlayPumps that have been installed to date in sub-Saharan Africa. PlayPumps International, the nonprofit organization that oversees the funding and installation of PlayPump water systems, has stated a goal of installing 4,000 PlayPumps by 2010. If that goal is met, the pumps will be providing a free, clean, and sustainable drinking supply to at least 10 million people.

Toni McGrath, a longtime resident of the Albany area, is doing her best to fund one of those PlayPumps with support from the Capital Region. The PlayPumps mission hit a personal chord for McGrath, whose daughter Emily recently spent 10 weeks in Africa working on a research project. “She talked about the kids and how wonderful the children in Africa were, because they were really like kids,” Recalls McGrath. “They weren’t into mechanics, into electronics; they were just kids out playing.” A snapshot graces the fridge in McGrath’s cozy Delmar home: Emily, disheveled and glowing, reaching her hand toward the roughly bristled haunch of an African elephant. McGrath offers me a drink; the typically offhand response, “I’ll just have a glass of water,” seems suddenly callous.

One restless night in February was all it took to hook McGrath on the PlayPumps mission. “I couldn’t sleep,” says McGrath, who has just apologized for the dim light—they’ve switched to energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, which take some time to warm up. “I was on the couch in the living room, flipping through channels, and Frontline was on. It was an explanation of this invention,” she recalls. “What impressed me was how happy the kids were. It made me think of what Emily had said. These were kids who, all of a sudden, had a piece of playground equipment. They were running around, just freaking out at how much fun it was. They didn’t have a real concept of how much they were giving to their community. What caught me was that this was such a great piece of technology. It requires no power. It requires very little maintenance. It doesn’t create emissions. It’s completely off-grid. It’s in the center of the community, and it provides fun for kids. Kids play, and water pumps.”

Fresh start: children in sub-Saharan Africa at a working PlayPump tap.

PHOTO: Frimmel Smith

McGrath stayed up all night that night, watching and rewatching the Frontline report, reading every page of the PlayPumps International Web site, printing off facts that grabbed her. When her husband Dick finally awoke, she bombarded him with her newfound cause. “I said, ‘Oh, I found this great thing on TV last night. I’m gonna buy one. It’s $14,000,’ ” McGrath recalls, chuckling at her idealistic enthusiasm. “And I actually thought I was going to buy one! Then I got kinda serious and thought, well actually, I’m not gonna buy it, so, OK, what’s next?” Since that night, McGrath has been determined to raise $14,000, enough money to install one PlayPump in one village in Africa. Enough money to provide clean water to 2,500 people.

‘As I learned more about it,” says McGrath, “I started realizing how truly important it was to the communities.” According to a report by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund, women and girls shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for water gathering, often hauling 5 gallons, or 40 pounds, of water, an average of 6 miles a day. Women spend much of the day away from their homes and families. Girls, responsible for making exhausting water trips three times a day, frequently drop out of school, unable to keep up with their studies. And that water, borne home with such effort, often carries something of its own: disease.

The statistics on the water crisis are overwhelming. According to the World Water Council, 1.1 billion people, 18 percent of the world’s population, lack access to clean drinking water. “Twenty-five percent of the world’s population is ill from waterborne disease,” says McGrath, her twinkling enthusiasm for PlayPumps dimmed, for the moment, by the enormity of the problem. “Fifty percent of people in developing countries. It’s mind-boggling.” Unsafe water is now the single largest cause of illness worldwide. Almost 2 million children die each year due to the lack of clean water and inadequate sanitation—one child every 15 seconds—making water-related disease the second largest cause of child mortality in the world, according to the United Nations Human Development Report. “And it’s not huge diseases like AIDS,” McGrath emphasizes. “It’s just diarrhea. It’s just dysentery, things that are easily corrected. It makes a huge difference if they just have clean water.”

That is the difference that PlayPumps International is striving to make, and McGrath along with them—one well, one merry-go-round at a time. With her campaign, which she’s dubbed Albany Friends for PlayPumps, she tries to focus on the solution. “To this day,” she says, “it’s still the happiness for me. It’s such a dire problem. It’s such a difficult problem, and yet this particular solution is all about happiness and fun, and really changing lives.”

McGrath’s husband Dick bustles in from work with a gentle whirlwind of support, pride, and enthusiasm, playfully tousling the shaggy fur of Chewie, their floppy family dog. “Can you believe what Toni’s done?” he asks. “It’s been magical. It’s been really wonderful. And we’ll raise our 14, too,” adding, “It’s such a stupidly simple idea. It’s such a cool idea.”

The PlayPump system functions on very basic mechanical principals. As children spin on the PlayPump merry-go-round, the turning wheel drives a pump in an underground well. The pump forces water into an enclosed 660-gallon holding tank, 20 feet above the ground. Opening a simple nearby tap enables people in the community to draw water from the tank as needed. The pump, which requires no electricity, is capable of drawing almost 400 gallons of water per hour from a depth of 130 feet, and is effective to 330 feet. The delivery rate and ease of use of a PlayPump system far outmatch the hand pumps often found in such communities. And hand pumps function only to around 30 feet; shallow wells are frequently contaminated and can easily run dry. The deep wells allowed by the PlayPump system ensure a constant supply of pure water.

Trevor Field, the man behind today’s PlayPumps system, stumbled upon the basic concept in 1989 at an agricultural fair outside Johannesburg, South Africa. A local engineer and borehole driller had devised a pump driven by a children’s merry-go-round to amuse the rural kids who often gathered to watch him drill. The pump drew water from a shallow well and into the field nearby. Field recognized the potential of the simple technology, and collaborated with his longtime business colleagues, Paolo Ristic and Sarel Nienber, to create a more effective model. The trio licensed the idea from its inventor and started Roundabout Outdoor, a company dedicated to manufacturing, installing and maintaining the PlayPump system at no cost to the communities.

They modified the original pump to function with a deep borehole, and reworked the system so the merry-go-round would pump water when spun in both directions. They added the sealed storage tank and water tap, and devised an overflow that directed unused water back into the well from the tank, because kids often play on the merry-go-round so much that they pump more water than the tank can hold. Finally, they designed the holding tank with four square sides—each side to be used as a billboard. Two sides of every PlayPump tank offer public-service messages, most often about HIV awareness and sanitation. The other two sides are paid advertising that fund the maintenance of the system. All the installations and upkeep are done by a team of local men who are responsible for all the PlayPumps in a specific geographic area. These men are guaranteed employment for 10 years; their salaries are paid in full by the PlayPumps’ billboards. The idea is comprehensive and achievable.

By 1997, Roundabout International had installed 20 PlayPumps in South Africa, a slow-going process, personally overseen by Field and his wife. Then the organization won the World Bank Development Marketplace Award, which provides grants to fund creative, small-scale development projects. The award immediately funded the construction of 40 new pumps, and the publicity drew substantial donations, including a grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation for an additional 60 pumps. PlayPumps International was founded, and began building worldwide partnerships, providing global education about the water crisis and what can be done to help. To date, Roundabout Outdoor has constructed over 900 PlayPumps throughout South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia. They hope, over the next three years, to expand their reach into Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda, building 4,000 Play Pumps in total. The organization strives to keep their operating costs as low as possible. According to PlayPumps International, 94 percent of every $14,000 goes to the actual manufacture and installation of each PlayPump.

While her commitment to PlayPumps hasn’t waivered, raising the money to fund a single pump has been an uphill climb for McGrath. “It’s been a real learning curve,” she says. “I’ve never raised money before.” She began with an e-mail campaign, but quickly realized that most people don’t open mass mailings, even for a good cause. “It felt pretty bleak,” she recalls. But one of the people she e-mailed was her niece, Gwen Farrell, who offered McGrath much-needed support; Farrell built the initial Albany Friends for PlayPumps Web site, and helped McGrath put her fund-raising campaign in perspective. “She came up with the idea that you don’t need to raise $14,000,” says McGrath, brightening, “you just need to come up with 30 people who are willing to raise $500.” And that’s what they set out to do.

Kids play, water pumps: kids, and the pump, in action.

PHOTO: PlayPumps International

McGrath’s neighbor, Bob Barbato, offered to run in the New York marathon on behalf of Albany Friends for PlayPumps. Between Barbato’s marathon Web site, and a letter-writing campaign by McGrath promoting his effort, Barbato’s 26-mile run raised more than $4,000 toward the final goal. Family friends Bernie and Maggie Bourdeau threw a fund-raising wine-and-cheese party. They invited 55 people, and charged $25 a person or $40 a couple for the evening. “All of the people who responded sent checks,” says McGrath. “They had their wine-and-cheese party, and they raised over $1,100 dollars.” Dick McGrath, who owns Atsco Products in Albany, spoke with a Nigerian-born business associate who vividly remembers the hard work of getting water as a child. He was so impressed by the PlayPump system, he not only donated money to Albany Friends for PlayPumps, but told McGrath he hopes to fund a pump of his own. “It makes you realize how nice, how good, your friends are, your family,” Dick says, beaming, his feet buried under a tumble of dog. “It’s a pass-it-on thing,”

There have been small steps as well. Selling tickets to the Great Escape and coupons for Bon-Ton’s Community Day raised more than $500. Even reconsidering expenses at home has made a difference: Instead of paying someone to mow the lawn, Dick mows the lawn himself and donates the $25 to PlayPumps each month. To date, Albany Friends for PlayPumps has raised $8,496, all of which goes to directly to PlayPumps International. Albany Friends For PlayPumps will not be assigned a specific village in Africa until they are near the end of their fund-raising goal. Still, according to McGrath, the simplicity of the idea and the direct impact of each contribution motivate her to keep pushing for more. “It is such a basic idea,” she says. “It isn’t overwhelming, like attacking the problem of world hunger or AIDS or even clean water. It’s buy a pump. Install it in a village. Make kids happy, and provide the entire area with potable water. . . . $14,000 doesn’t seem like a big price for such a great benefit.” Based on PlayPump International’s estimates that each pump will provide enough water for 2,500 people for 10 years, the cost of supplying clean, fresh water to one person for one year is only 56 cents.

McGrath’s next big step is a collaboration with Mohonasen High School. The student council is organizing a school-wide fundraiser, and McGrath is working with the teachers and administration to develop an interdisciplinary education program based around the PlayPumps concept. “We’re going to talk about sustainability, and about solving problems by thinking outside the box,” says McGrath, who is particularly excited about involving kids in the PlayPumps mission, since kids are at the heart of the solution. As Field puts it, “We are using the power of children as a source of pure, renewable energy.”

“It all comes back to sustainability, really,” says McGrath, “and that’s where the world is heading.” She grins as she delivers one of the taglines of her cause: “The only emissions from the operation of a PlayPump are laughter.”

“It’s amazing to me,” says Dick. “It’s an environmental issue. It’s a women’s issue. It’s a poverty issue. It’s an energy issue. It’s a global-warming issue. I mean—it’s everything,” he adds, echoing an underlying awareness that clearly permeates their household.

“It’s really such a simple thing,” says McGrath, “It’s a simple thing, and it’s happy kids.”

If you’re interested in donating to Albany Friends for PlayPumps, or have fund-raising ideas to share, you can visit their Web site at, or send checks payable to PlayPumps international to Albany Friends for PlayPumps, P.O. Box 414, Slingerlands, NY 12159.

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