Classroom Activities
Southern Africa: Troubled Water

In 2005, FRONTLINE/World featured the PlayPump, a promising new technology that pumped fresh water when children played on a merry-go-round The story appealed to the good intentions of politicians, celebrities and funders, who gave support to installing thousands of these devices in Africa. When students watch Southern Africa: Troubled Water, they will see the problems that happened during the PlayPump rollout and learn important lessons related to the implementation of foreign aid projects.

Getting Started

For classrooms studying global studies and world history, FRONTLINE provides a set of video themes and discussion questions to help students analyze and understand key current events around the globe. Watch the video chapter and start a discussion about the problems encountered with the large-scale rollout of the PlayPump in Africa. Go further into this topic with the Southern Africa: Troubled Water Lesson Plan that asks students to analyze lessons learned from the PlayPump initiative and develop advice for other aid organizations about how to prevent a similar situation in the future.


Video Themes

  • In 2005, a FRONTLINE/World story profiled South African social entrepreneur Trevor Field’s efforts to build and install PlayPumps, a promising new technology that pumped fresh water when children played on a merry-go-round.

  • Eager to provide a solution for Africa’s water woes, funders, celebrities and politicians gave endorsements and pledged millions of dollars to bring the PlayPump to thousands of African communities.

  • Ambitious and arbitrary goals to roll out the PlayPump resulted in an emphasis on quantity over quality of device installations. Site visits and reports to evaluate the PlayPump cited inappropriate site selection, technical malfunctions, poor maintenance, lack of local community support, and children not playing as expected on the pumps.

  • Organizations involved in the funding and rollout of the PlayPump were reluctant to take responsibility for the PlayPump’s problems and instead blamed each other when issues in the field became public.

  • Trevor Field says his organization is addressing maintenance issues and improving the technology. He admits the PlayPump, which is mainly effective at large schools where plenty of children provide “spinning time” throughout the day, will likely never live up to its initial promise.

  • The aggressive rollout of PlayPumps ended in fall 2009. The device is now used by charities in Africa as one possible solution to water needs in limited circumstances.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think the PlayPump device attracted the endorsements and millions of dollars from celebrities, funders and politicians?

  • What challenges were encountered in some of the communities where the PlayPump was installed?

  • UNICEF concluded that the PlayPump is not as sustainable as it needs to be to work in rural Africa. What does “sustainable” mean? Why would that characteristic be important when evaluating potential solutions to problems in Africa?

  • Why might charities be reluctant to talk to reporters about problems with their aid projects? What risks do they face?

  • Who do you think should be responsible for fixing the PlayPumps where the equipment did not work properly?

Go Further

Featured Lesson Plan: “Learning From a Troubled Foreign Aid Project”

Web-exclusive Resources: Timeline: The PlayPump Trail

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