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PlayPump Project Receives Major U.S. Funding

Bill, Clinton, Laura Bush, Steve and Jean Case on stage in New York.

Bill Clinton with First Lady Laura Bush and Steve and Jean Case at the the annual Clinton Global Initiative Conference held in New York on September 20.

You may remember our heart-warming story about social entrepreneur Trevor Field and his PlayPump water project in South Africa. We broadcast the story on FRONTLINE/World back in May -- if you missed it, you can watch it on our Web site. Today in New York, Field received an enormous boost to his project when First Lady Laura Bush and former president Bill Clinton announced a multimillion-dollar grant to build more PlayPumps -- the child-powered merry go-rounds Field pioneered that pump clean drinking water to rural communities in South Africa.

The news was announced at the annual Clinton Global Initiative Conference, a gathering at which government, business and non-profit leaders get together to talk about some of the world's most pressing problems. With President Clinton beside her, the First Lady stood on stage and unveiled a government plan to vastly expand the reach of PlayPumps in Africa. "Finding clean drinking water is a central daily task of many women and girls in Africa," the First Lady said. "The public-private partnership we're announcing today will be known as the "Playpump Alliance."

To help Field expand his merry go-rounds to other African countries, Mrs. Bush said several funders will come together to donate to the project. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are giving $10 million, and an additional $5 million is being donated by AOL cofounder Steve Case and his wife, Jean, through their charity, the Case Foundation.

When I spoke to Trevor, who was in his home in South Africa, about the donations, he couldn't quite believe the news. "We're absolutely ecstatic. I keep pinching myself to see if I'm still dreaming," he said.

Field's company has already installed more than 700 PlayPumps in schools and rural communities throughout South Africa, and these pumps have provided clean drinking water for up to 1 million people.

Field's nonprofit company, PlayPumps International, has already installed more than 700 PlayPumps in schools and rural communities throughout South Africa, and these pumps have provided clean drinking water for up to 1 million people.

As you can see in our video report, Field's ingenious invention works like a traditional merry go-round. As the children spin around, a device in the ground beneath them begins to turn. With every spin, clean water is pumped from the ground and stored in a container high above the ground. By harnessing the natural energy of children, one PlayPump can provide enough drinking water for 2,500 people every day of the year.

Access to safe drinking water is a major problem across the developing world, and the United Nations reports that more than 4,000 children die every day because they don't have clean water to drink.

In South Africa, Field witnessed the problem in his own community and saw that there had to be a solution. "We just need to build bore holes in villages where they haven't got water and put pumps in it," he said. "It's a preventable problem. We can change it."

A child spins around a colorful merry go-round.

Children spin on a PlayPump merry go-round installed by Trevor Field's company in South Africa.

Steve and Jean Case visited Field in South Africa last year to see the PlayPumps in action. After spending time with the passionate Field and seeing the community firsthand, they knew they wanted to be involved.

"Those who have business savvy and apply it to a social problem are making great inroads in development," says Jill Rademacher, Case Foundation vice president, about the foundation's decision to support Field.

The Cases were also compelled by something more visceral than Field's business model. During their visit to South Africa, Jean saw a child playing with a broken chair. She realized that along with basic necessities like clean water, children deserve the chance to simply have more fun in their lives. "Our hope is that by providing this money, the PlayPump will be a resource that gives kids the chance for play," says Rademacher. "We also hope it will enable a spirit of teamwork and social interaction tha's missing from many people's lives."

Field was born in England, but made his fortune as a billboard advertising executive in his adopted home of South Africa. At first he pursued the PlayPump idea on the side, as a charitable cause. "My wife installed the first pump in the ground because I couldn't quit my day job," Field recalls. "I was on the phone with her all day, asking how it was going."

"My wife installed the first pump in the ground because I couldn't quit my day job," Field recalls. "I was on the phone with her all day, asking how it was going."

As the PlayPump business began to grow, Field started looking at the long-term sustainability of every pump he was putting in the ground. He decided to erect billboards over each water tank and sold ad space to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of each pump. Now every PlayPump is self-sustaining.

The new influx of donor dollars has already changed Field's business. For years the specialized merry go-rounds were produced in a small factory outside Johannesburg, which could churn out 30 PlayPumps a month. Field knew the facility wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand. "We'd all be growing beards and getting old by the time it was done," he says.

Field has now built a new factory and tripled the size of his staff. Accenture Development Partnerships, a nonprofit business consulting firm, recently spent time with Field at his office in Johannesburg. The firm's advisors helped him ramp up his operations so that he would be ready to manage the charitable windfall coming his way.

As he gets ready for the challenge of installing thousands more PlayPumps in countries that have bad roads and arid terrains, Field says he sometimes can't help but wonder how the richer countries can sleep at night knowing that children are dying because they lack the most basic necessity -- clean water.

"It's the biggest killer of our children. And it's preventable. So if it's preventable, then we should be doing something about it. I've dedicated my life to it," Field says.

Field's cause is gaining notoriety in some unlikely circles. Hip-hop legend Jay Z recently announced that he would use his upcoming world tour to bring attention to the global water crisis. "If you bring awareness to other young people, they're gonna see [that] and want to be involved," Jay Z said at a U.N. press conference last month. "I'm not a politician -- I'm just a regular person with a heart. If you see a problem like that and do nothing about it, there's something wrong with you." The musician has pledged to pay for several PlayPumps and is encouraging other artists to show their support.

And the Case Foundation is taking its participation a step further, approaching other charities in order to raise a total of $60 million -- the Cases want to see 4,000 PlayPumps installed in Africa by 2010. If that goal is reached, it would mean clean drinking water for some 10 million people in 10 African countries.

Once that milestone is achieved, Field wants to install his child-powered water pumps all the way from India to the Middle East. "I've always dreamed big. I'm an optimist. I believe it can be done," he says. "And if I can provide some fun to kids at the same time, that's pudding."

Related Links

South Africa: The Play Pump: Turning water into child's play
Amy Costello's report about Trevor Field and his work in South Africa has become one of our most popular stories. You can watch the original report and read responses from viewers on our Web site.

The Case Foundation
Learn more about the work of the Case Foundation, started by AOL cofounder Steve Case and his wife Jean to provide support for social entrepreneurial projects around the globe.

Clinton Global Initiative
The site highlights the philanthropic work of former president Bill Clinton, and reports on the issues discussed at this year's global initiative conference. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, and E.U. Secretary General Javier Solana were among the guest speakers.

PlayPumps International
The official Web site for Trevor Field's organization shows you how his merry go-round system works and includes updates on Field's plans to expand his play pumps to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The U.S. Agency for International Development
The official agency site details its ongoing programs to fight AIDS and other global diseases and reports on reconstruction efforts in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief
This White House Fact Sheet from 2003 outlines the administration's five-year, $15 billion initiative to help fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.


Randee Barrett - HUNTSVILLE, Alabama
I think it would be great to see the children of this country get involved in this venture, in some way. I would also like to know how, besides speading the word, can an individual get involved in this ' very good thing?'I will continue to read threads and anything else related to the PLAYPUMP.
Matter of fact, I just realized that this story should be shown to every school age child here in America, so that they can really see just how precious H2O is.I too, feel Mr. Field deserves a Nobel prize for this effort AND effect!
More H2O

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
You may contact Trevor Field directly at...

John Kang - Fort Lee, New Jersey
Mr. Field, and to all the philanthropists involved, to me, a 30 something father of 2 infants, I believe that your collective work is an amazing show of the power of love, compassion and generosity. So many people have heard. I just want people to commit, and remember. I also am a big fan of, same message, different M.O. All the best to everyone involved. Faithfully yours,J

San Francisco, California
I congratulate Mr.Field for his unbelivable generousity and commitment to help those who are less fortunate than him. I think he should be awarded the NobelPrize as well as a MacArthur Fellowship! People like him affirm one's hope that in spite of all the evil acts that are perpetrated by humanity, man may be capable of redemption through lessons learned from angels like Mr. Trevor Field!
Thank you.

Sheila Simeona - Honolulu, HI
Aloha. I loved the story; I wish more people knew about it. That something so simple as a play pump could give them clean water, which in the world we live in today everyone deserves clean water. I was so touched by the story. I wish we could do more; they should be all over the world so everyone can have safe drinking water.

Joan Tvedt - Cambria, CA
I saw your story about the play pumps. WOW! I had an idea with the same concept except to generate electricity by human power and store it in batteries. Maybe a way to employ some as well. What do you think?

I would like to know if South Africa is the only country going to benefit from the water initiative. What about GHANA and other developing countries such as Sudan,Somalia and most of the war torn countries in Africa.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
The play pump project, which began in South Africa, is expanding to Mozambique and other African countries. As the story says, that was always founder Trevor Field's dream.

Ted Gaston - Belpre, Ohio
Our church currently has a partnership with the Balgo school in Burkina Faso in West Africa. The school has no water, however, in October they will be getting toilets and a well. I would be interested in finding out how we go about applying for or getting additional information on Play-pumps.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
For more information contact Trevor Field, the director of Playpumps International, Johannesburg. His e-mail is:

You can also watch our story and read the long strand of e-mails discussing the project on our web site...