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Panel 8

Village water supplies

In the summer of 1967, a chronic drought and an alarming drop in India's underground water reserves ignited a revolution in village water supplies -- and started a process of improvement whose effects are felt to this day throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Around 70 per cent of India is separated from the water table by a deep rock shield, and many Indian villages that rely on underground water are extremely vulnerable to drought. In the 1950s, the Indian Government had identified 153,000 villages as 'water-scarce' -- most of them in hard-rock areas.

Photo: Safe water, a primary requisite for health, is also a delight. ©

In the 1960s, there was a series of droughts, and in the summer of 1967 the situation became critical in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh when many of the existing wells dried up. It would have taken many weeks for the villagers to sink more wells using traditional methods, and some 250 villages were faced with evacuation to refugee camps. UNICEF flew in 11 pneumatic drilling rigs capable of boring through 150 feet of rock in about eight hours. When this emergency passed, the rigs were transferred for use in drought emergencies elsewhere.

As the water table continued to recede, the Government asked UNICEF for more drilling equipment. Between 1970 and 1974, UNICEF shipped in 125 hammer rigs, along with trucks and spare parts. Each of these rigs could drill about 100 boreholes a year -- theoretically supplying water to 12,000 villages and about 9 million people.

But boreholes also need efficient pumps. Most of the handpumps in India at that time were poor-quality cast-iron replicas of European and American models that had usually been designed for family use. But while pumps in the US might have been used by a farming family three or four times a day, those in India were used incessantly, with women and children queuing up to use each pump from dawn till dusk. Not surprisingly, the pumps frequently broke down. When UNICEF did a survey of boreholes and pumps in two states, it found that 75 per cent of the pumps were out of action.

Clearly, India needed a more rugged pump. A 1975 workshop sponsored by UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Government of India and the government of Karnataka state summed it up: a design simple enough to be manufactured in unsophisticated workshops, easy to maintain and costing no more than US$200.

Rather than start from scratch, however, UNICEF water supply staff searched for the most durable pump then available. They settled on the Sholapur pump that had originally been designed by a self-taught Indian mechanic. They modified this for easier mass production and maintenance, renamed it the India Mark II and field-tested it in 1976 and 1977.

Mass production of the India Mark II started in 1977-1978, with 600 units a month. By 1984, 36 manufacturers were producing 100,000 pumps a year. By 1987, annual production had reached 200,000. With exports to other countries in Asia, as well as to Africa and Latin America, the India Mark II was well on its way to becoming the best-known deep-well handpump in the world. Meanwhile, development has continued -- and has produced the more user-friendly India Mark III.

In less than two decades, more than 1 million of the pumps have been produced, and they have proved both reliable and durable. A 1984 survey, commissioned by UNICEF, found that in six states in India, 80 per cent were operational at any one time. Every year about 50,000 new pumps are installed in India, and an equal number are finding their way into communities throughout the developing world.

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