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PHOTO GALLERY: The Play Pump

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: There's been record flooding in Europe and China this week. But in many other parts of the world the news is of drought. And a shortage of potable water. More than a billion people worldwide don't have access to drinking water. But in South Africa pumping for water has taken on a whole new meaning.

Gretchen Wilson reports from the village of Boikarebelo.


Gretchen Wilson: It doesn't sound like it, but these kids are hard at work. This is a cool invention. It's a Play Pump — a merry-go-round like a playground toy. As kids spin it around, they draw gallons of pure water from an underground well and into an elevated storage tank. It all flows to a free tap for this community of 1,000 people.

And this isn't run-of-the-mill water, either. Con Cloete runs the development projects in the village.

Con CLOETE: Yeah, apparently when they tested the water, it was superior even to Perrier!

But mostly, it's used for cooking and washing. In Africa's rural areas, piped water systems are still a rarity. Streams and other water sources can run low, or be polluted by a cow that happened to die in the wrong place.

That's why a small, cheap solution can make a big difference. Each costs $14,000. So far, there are about 1,000 Play Pumps in four African countries serving more than a million people.

CLOETE: They can now collect water when and where they feel like, and they don't have to walk that far. Because the Play Pump is situated right in the middle of the village.

Village chair Alice Ngwenya takes me on a gravel road to the far edge of Boikarebelo. Most villagers used to walk a half a mile here and back again, hauling about 40 pounds of water on their head or shoulders.

ALICE NGWENYA: We used to use this tap. This tap was supplying the school and was also supplying the village. So you can see that now it's broken. Can you imagine from there, coming here? And some of these people, they are old. Some they are sick. They'd have to walk a very long distance.

And that's a relatively short order. Women and children in rural Africa walk an average of five miles a day for water.

Play Pump's backers include the U.S. government, the Case Foundation, and private donors. If the funding keeps flowing, 4,000 communities will have similar pumps by 2010. A local subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson installed this one three years ago.

Sixty-two-year-old Lady Mnisi is in her yard, doing laundry hunched over a tin wash bin.

LADY MNISI [interpreter]: Before this pump, it was tough because there was a big line and we used to stand long hours. Now at least I'm able to wash and bathe my granddaughter.

The Play Pump's also become a wellspring for emerging businesses.

Lima Kumbe sells chickens to local supermarkets. Now instead of standing in line, he uses his time to clean cages. This means healthier chickens, which fetch better prices so he can buy more chickens. Five hundred chicks run around this coop's dirt floor.

LIMA KUMBE [interpreter]: The pump helps me a lot 'cause these chickens need about 75 gallons of water a day. Now I'm trying to raise funds to get a pipe that can come here directly.

Of course, it takes money to maintain the pumps. Companies like Unilever and Vodacom pay big bucks for billboards that surround the tank.

Just under these billboards, children come to play on the merry-go-round every day after school. It's created a kind of town center. But the oldest kids have figured this out, and they know it's not just about fun. Again, Con Cloete.

CLOETE: Some of them, however, have caught on to the idea that there's a sort-of hidden agenda. But it's not too serious a problem.

Luckily, adults can spin it, too. So if the kids ever tucker out, parents can step in.

In Boikarabelo, South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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