Another fortunate trend in and outside sub-Saharan Africa is advancing technology. In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began a $265 million project to develop new approaches to manage human waste in developing nations. The foundation was particularly interested in designing: 1) multi-use toilets that would be used in schools, clinics, and public toilets in slums, and 2) single-use toilets that process wastes in households without needing running water or a sewer. The project generated multi-use toilets that are starting to reach the market and single-use toilets that are still under development.
But the more consequential outcome of the foundation’s investment could turn out to be the development of the Excluder, a mechanical tool developed at North Carolina State University to empty wastes from pit latrines.
In Africa, besides handling human wastes, pit latrines are also dumping grounds for all manner of debris, including clothing, bottles, magazines, condoms, and menstrual pads. The garbage found in latrines often clog mechanical emptying devices. Attached to the end of a vacuum pump hose, the Excluder is designed to actively screen out trash and enable vacuum pumps to suck up the feces. If the machine is as durable as its developers say, the Excluder could make unsewered sanitation much safer and more convenient. It also could spur a wave of waste-related entrepreneurship.
The Excluder will undergo field tests in Ghana and is nearing commercial application, said Francis L. de los Reyes III, the engineer and NC State professor who leads the design team. The price will be $1,500, which waste management companies looking for opportunity in an immense market with extremely high demand could afford. “We see this machine as a way to help professionalize the business,” said de los Reyes. “It could lead to a regulated sanitation economy.”
The NC State team has been working on the Excluder since 2012, when it received the first $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation. If the tool performs well, its widespread adoption could be swift, especially if the UN, the World Bank, or some other big development institution gets involved.
Filling water containers at an India Mark II pump. Photo credit: Haik Kocharian for Village Health Partnership (VHP)
That’s how the Mark II and Afridev water pumps spread. Both pumps developed out of work from the 1970s and early 1980s when the UN and the World Bank wanted to design sturdy hand pumps that would become the standard for providing water to rural residents in the developing world. In identifying the India Mark II and Afridev as the favored pumps, the UN and the bank recruited qualified manufacturers, produced reliable supply chains, and trained installers and maintenance crews. UNICEF also purchased thousands of pumps and installed them at no charge in communities around the world.
By 1982, according to the Rural Water Supply Network, production reached over 100,000 pumps annually. By 1984, annual production of the Mark II alone increased to 200,000 units.
India was a prime market. So was Africa. In a 2009 study, the Delta Partnership found that roughly 1 million hand pumps were installed across the continent, and more than 60,000 new pumps were being installed annually. An estimated 184 million people in Africa relied on hand pumps for water, according to a 2015 report by Jess MacArthur Wellstein, a WASH specialist and doctoral student at the University of Technology Sydney.
The India Mark II and the Afridev are no longer so popular. Members of the Rural Water Supply Network in Africa report that corrosion is a widespread and chronic problem. Wear and tear of the rubber parts causes many failures. Quality control in manufacturing, which is mostly done in India, is inconsistent. Parts made from poor quality galvanized iron, stainless steel, and brass are a particular problem. Too many hand pumps are so old and in such disrepair that they can’t be fixed. Lead contamination could shape up to be another deterrent.
For these and other reasons, the end of the era of hand pumps is in sight. Water suppliers are turning to submersible pumps, solar energy, and digital devices that can be managed online and remotely.
“For rural and small town water supplies, the trend is towards digitalization and solar pumping,” Sean Furey, the director of the Rural Water Supply Network, said in an email. “While solar pumping has definitely hit an inflection point and has a bright future, the underlying weaknesses in how water supply hardware of all types is procured, checked, installed, and maintained remains to be addressed.”
As in so much of the WASH world, there are several ways to judge what’s happening with the water supply at the frontlines of rural Africa. Old technology deployed in corroding hand pumps is slowing work to supply rural communities with clean water. The impediments caused by disrepair invites new pumping technology that is generating piped-water networks that can serve more people much more conveniently.
At the same time, governments are more serious about their responsibility to install, maintain, and operate water supply systems. Entrepreneurial water supply companies are becoming more numerous and more skilled in keeping systems operational.
Taken together, the new trends suggest that the space is much smaller between those who do and those who don’t have ready access to clean water. For half a century the world tread a difficult path. It is now closing in on a momentous human achievement. Universal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene is well within reach.