Getting water to run uphill

An innovative Philippine company has applied an old idea – the ram pump -- to provide impoverished hillside villages with clean water. Auke Idzenga of AIDFI, a 2007 Ashden Awards winner, told Maryann Bird about it.

In countless rural hillside villages in developing countries, water can be a major problem. When it’s not falling from the clouds, making the steep, rocky terrain a dangerous place to tread, fresh water isn’t readily accessible to local people as they eke out their living. With precious water supplies needed for drinking and cooking, there is often little left for adequate hygiene, sanitation and agricultural use. Such circumstances have trapped generation after generation in poverty and illness.

Take the island of Negros, in the Philippines, for example. Many people lost their livelihoods in Negros – the fourth-largest isle in the Philippine archipelago – after sugar prices collapsed in the 1980s. Conflict broke out, some of which continues to this day. Deforestation, too, has begun to take a toll, leading to greater drought in the warmer months and the abandonment of some land.

On the island, many villagers have to descend the steep slopes twice daily to collect water from springs, streams and rivers in the valleys below. They then carry it back uphill in jerry cans on a shoulder yoke, burdened by the weight and always in jeopardy of stumbling and sliding on the hillsides.

To their rescue has come the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Inc (AIDFI). The organisation was founded in the early 1990s, growing from the shared ideas and dreams of Philippine union organiser Leonidas Baterna, Dutch-born development worker Auke Idzenga and several colleagues with long years of grassroots experience in the Philippines. Their vision: “a society where technology systems exist in harmony with nature” and where, through sustainable development, “people share and live in abundance and happiness and where there is justice, freedom and equality”. On a practical level, that has meant the development and production of simple, sustainable water pumps.

Under Idzenga’s leadership in the field of appropriate technology – technology that is durable, relatively inexpensive and made of easily found, easily replaceable materials – AIDFI has designed and installed 98 ram pumps in 68 Philippine hillside communities.

For developing a pump built to last at least 20 years, and then bringing clean water to more than 15,000 people so far, Negros-based AIDFI has been honoured as a renewable energy pioneer. At the prestigious Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy in London on June 21, 2007, Idzenga accepted a £10,000 (US $20,000) international second prize for education and welfare. The Ashden honours “recognise outstanding achievement in using sustainable energy to improve quality of life and protect the environment”, as well as aiming “to encourage the wider take-up of local sustainable energy solutions across the developing world”.

AIDFI’s hydraulic ram pump clearly fits the bill. Such technology drives water from a lower level to a higher one without using electricity or diesel pumps – that is, without the use of fossil fuels. A purely mechanical method, it is ideally suited to steep terrain. (For technical details, see here.) AIDFI estimates that there probably are another 10,000 sites in the Philippines where ram pumps (which come in a variety of sizes) could easily be used.

Al Gore presents Aude Izdenga with his Ashden Award

Al Gore with Auke Idzenga

Idzenga chuckles over the fact that this “very unknown technology” has a two-century history, having been used in its early days to move water up to production floors of European beer breweries. Ram pumps use water’s downward flow through a drop of a few metres to lift a small percentage of that water to a far greater height, where it is needed. “Our pump can go up to 220 metres,” says Idzenga.

In addition to the pumps on the Philippine hillsides, which have provided more than 15,000 people with access to clean water and land irrigation, AIDFI has also installed a few units in Malaysia, Japan and Thailand. The secret to the pumps’ success, which can be duplicated in similar regions, lies in its simplicity and in community involvement, Idzenga points out. (Many implementations of ram pumps in developing countries have failed over the years, however, because of poor design and lack of parts and maintenance.)

“We work with communities themselves,” Idzenga says. “Requests for help can come from individuals or from local groups.” In making use of renewable energy (falling water) and with no operational cost (for either electricity or fuel), the pumps can work 24 hours a day. With a minimal number of moving parts, a long life is possible. And spare elements –relatively inexpensive and durable — can be easily fabricated locally.

On the slopes of Negros and similar areas of the Philippines, says Idzenga, rural people now are able to utilise many sources of water, obtaining drinking water from springs, for example, and irrigation water from larger streams and rivers. In most places, the ram-pump system is paid for by local governments, or sometimes sponsored by an NGO. “At £2,000 ($4,000) for a complete system,” Idzenga adds, “it’s helping the whole village.”

An example of the ram pump

The pumps, he says, help villagers to produce two or three crops a year. After an initial rain-fed rice crop, for example, a second, dry-season, crop can be produced by irrigation. A third one – of vegetables – often is possible. “Two crops are usual,” he notes. “But the climate is changing and nothing is predictable.”

In one area, local people are operating a self-sustaining factory set up by AIDFI, distilling lemongrass oil, which is used in flavourings, medicines, essential oils and other products. A ram pump pushes water up 30 metres, where it is then heated by solar power in the renewable energy-based production process.

To many villagers, the increase in their agricultural output due to the ram pumps is astonishing. Many did not believe it possible to get water to flow up to the higher elevations. “People would say, ‘I’ll cut off my finger if you can bring water up here’,” says Idzenga. In addition to increased crop yields, he adds, provision of additional clean water aids in the raising of chickens, ducks, pigs – and even fish in small ponds. “Everybody benefits if there is water,” he says, “and poor people can easily increase their income with simple technologies.” As one local mayor observed, “Seeing is believing.”

Idzenga stresses the importance of “social preparations” in AIDFI’s pump projects. A social worker visits a village before the technical work is implemented to explain how it all will work. Local people also are trained to be pump technicians, and — once a system is installed — villagers pay for repairs and maintenance. “We never, ever start a project without local technicians,” says Idzenga. “It’s a minimum condition. Otherwise, it will fail, obviously.”

The success of the ram-pump projects is close to the heart of Idzenga, who has lived in Negros since 1985. Work with cargo ships, as a marine engineer, first brought him to the Philippines, where he was moved by the extreme poverty – particularly among sugar workers – that he witnessed. He was soon working for labour unions, organising sugar workers, before co-founding AIDFI.

Combined with being brought up in a “socially conscious” Dutch household, Idzenga says, the poverty he saw in the Philippines “made me decide, at 23, to do something for the poorest.” Today, many of Negros’s hillside villagers will agree that he and AIDFI have, indeed, done “something for the poorest”.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.