A ‘master tinker’ for affordable, accessible clean water

A new World Vision partnership aims to reach more than a million people in eight countries with clean, safe water by 2017 at a price of less than $20 per person — a mere fraction of the cost of standard hand pumps. World Vision’s Randy Strash discusses the background behind this exciting opportunity.

By Randy Strash, World Vision U.S.
Published December 13, 2013 at 12:45am PST

I’ve been a tinker since childhood. I distinctly remember my dad giving me a lecture about that when I was 10.

He said it was better to invent something new than to tinker with something that wasn’t even broken in yet — let alone broken! I couldn’t help it, though. While I admire inventors, I’m aware of the limits of my own inventiveness.

But I don’t mind altering someone else’s brilliant idea and making it a bit better.

A revolutionary idea

I’d like to tell you about Steve Stewart, a master tinker. He worked for years as an industrial design expert in the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma. But some time ago, he got to thinking about applying some of his skills for the benefit of the poor instead of those already prosperous in his industry.

So he started asking around, beginning with some missionary friends. Some suggested devising a cheaper way to drill wells where the water table is fairly easy to reach.

Steve soon came up with a simple but robust two-person auger and a line of auger bits that cost only $5,000 in total for a complete set, compared to $1 million for a truck-mounted drill rig. His auger could drill through ordinary soil layers to depths of 120 feet as rapidly as the big rigs could, given the amount of time required for set-up and take-down.

Inspired by da Vinci

Then he decided to design a hand pump to go with the auger, one that didn’t need any maintenance — one so cheap, you could simply toss it and slap on a new one when it finally gave out.

This was important, because the median cost to maintain and repair standard hand pumps in Africa is about $150 per year — but often twice this much, or even more. So after only five years, the costs for repairs would be more than the original purchase and installation cost of about $750 — a major hardship for communities where most live on just a dollar or two a day.

One day, Steve came across a wooden pump design by master inventor Leonardo da Vinci. It worked like a bicycle pump, forcing water instead of air through a valve. Best of all, it didn’t need any maintenance! So Steve modified da Vinci’s design so it could be built out of inexpensive PVC pipes, valves, and fittings.

The cost of the materials: under $25. The total cost, including installation: $75.

Steve tested his pump by hooking it up to a motor to see how long it would perform without maintenance. That was several years ago, and the pump is still running night and day without maintenance or rest — more than 4.5 million strokes and counting!

But the proof of a new design is in its performance, so Steve sought someone to test it under real-world conditions. Steve’s friend, Dick Greenly, owner of Pumps of Oklahoma, believed in the system enough to set up a small non-profit called Water4 to turn the idea into reality.

A life-changing partnership

Enter John Yale of World Vision Angola. He and his colleagues were among the first to test the Water4 equipment in 2009. Now, nearly 500 wells later, we all know the system is worth scaling up big-time.

In a groundbreaking partnership this year, World Vision launched the $20 million Water4More program in partnership with Water4 to drill 7,000 wells in eight countries by 2017, benefiting more than a million people at a cost of less than $20 per person. (Once drills and pumps are manufactured locally, the cost could be as low as $10 per person.)

To this partnership we’ve added the services of Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, a high-tech research unit associated with the University of Nevada. They use satellite imagery and on-the-ground geophysical instruments to tell us where the geology is suitable for the hand-augering technique, and where it’s not.

Currently, operations are well underway in four countries — Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Angola. The program ramps up next in Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia, as resources allow. I’m so excited I can hardly sit still!

If you are as fascinated as I am by new inventions and breakthrough technologies that help the poor and don’t require a Ph.D. to understand and use, watch the video above from Water4 in Zambia.

Here’s to Steve Stewart, master tinker, and our Water4More project! Steve, I promise I won’t tinker with this design!

Learn more

Two ways you can help

  • Thank God for the passion of Steve Stewart and his friend, Dick Greenly, to bring affordable clean water to people in need. Please pray specifically for the Water4More program, that it would successfully reach far and wide to bring life’s most basic resource to communities struggling with poverty.
  • Make a donation to support World Vision’s clean water and sanitation projects. Your gift can help bring new health and hope to parts of the world where contaminated water currently causes sickness and despair.

Highlights

  • Industrial design expert Steve Stewart developed a two-person auger and hand pump set capable of drilling through soil to depths of 120 feet as quickly as big drill rigs can do.
  • The cost for this remarkable invention is just over $5,000, compared to $1 million for a truck-mounted drill rig. Together with the fact that the manual rig needs no fuel, this reduces the cost of drilling a well tenfold.
  • Now, World Vision is partnering with a non-profit called Water4 to use this technology to drill 7,000 wells in eight countries by 2017, benefiting more than a million people at a cost of less than $20 per person.

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