Column: Dispatches From The Edge: Of Treadle Pumps and Grandmothers

By Conn Hallinan
Friday August 04, 2006

Erica Schoenberger is scrolling through her photos of Maphaphateni, a small village in the “Valley of 1,000 Hills” northwest of Durban in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province. She is looking for a particular image that crystallizes the difference between a project funded by the World Bank and one sponsored by the Colorado-based organization, Engineers Without Borders (EWB). 

A full professor of geography at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Schoenberger has just returned to Berkeley from South Africa where a team of 15 students from the Hopkins chapter of the EWB put in irrigation systems for two community gardens run by grandmothers. The women, known as the “Isthembe” (“Commitment”) group, take care of over 100 children orphaned by AIDS.  

HIV/AIDS has infected over 40 percent of the rural population in the province, making even mega-killers like malaria look almost benign in comparison.  

The photos stream by, a kaleidoscope of rolling hills, simple houses, and earnest looking students digging ditches and hefting plastic pipes. There are pictures of the grandmothers, one in which they are laughing it up at a ceremony marking the end of the project. 

Schoenberger, who spends eight months a year in Maryland, and four months in Berkeley, is a sort of bi-coastal scholar. She earned a BA in history at Stanford, and a PhD at UC Berkeley in city and regional planning. The department she teaches in—the Department of Geography—is an unusual one, a merger of geography and environmental engineering.  

“It is important to train a generation of engineers who can read the social landscape,” she says, pausing at an image of several women dressed in long dresses and bright headscarves. Instead of just dropping in and whipping up some technical solution to a problem, the program works with local people to figure out what kind of technology is appropriate for the specific cultural, social and historical context of a given community. 

EWB was formed in 2000 to draw together engineers, professors, and students to help developing countries with their civil and environmental engineering needs. The group is installing solar panels in Rwanda, clean water systems in El Salvador, and building schools in tsunami-ravaged Southeast Asia. Projects include villages in Kenya, Nicaragua, Haiti, Macedonia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Belize, and Mali. The organization has nine member countries, plus provisional chapters in 35 countries from Argentina to Turkey. 

While Johns Hopkins has a reputation “as a very conservative place,” says Schoenberger, the program attracted students across the engineering spectrum, from standard brick and concrete types, to bio-medical engineers. The team also included two public health students. While the project gets some funding from the School of Engineering and individual departments, the bulk of the money for the South Africa trip—about $40,000—was raised by the students themselves. 

The field experience may be the most real-life, hands-on engineering these students do, because most engineering departments are wrapped up in theory, says Schoenberger. “No one tinkers anymore, no one messes with things. Here the kids get to see and feel engineering, not do just abstract good, but dirt good.” 

She finally zeros in a photo of an odd looking device whose design hardly suggests its use. It consists of two narrow metal bars with a handle in the middle. “It looks like it could be in a gym at Guantanamo,” she chuckles, “part exercise machine, part torture device.” The apparatus is a “treadle pump,” and the idea is for someone to stand on the two metal bars while holding on to the handle. Then the person pumps up and down as if on a kind of primitive StairMaster, creating a pumping action that raises the water from a stream to the gardens. 

It is low tech, requires no power, and it works—providing that an elderly woman can stand on the two bars and vigorously pump for a goodly time. “This is the World Bank in action,” she says. “Low cost, low tech, and totally inappropriate.” The women are too old to work the pump, and their charges are too young. 

The garden is critical because the little community subsists on small pensions that the grandmothers draw from the state. The gardens are an important food supplement. Normally the water is hauled uphill in pans and drums, an exhausting and never ending ordeal. According to a United Nations study, women and girls carry water an average of four miles a day in the underdeveloped world. Because it is so difficult to transport, water is saved in containers, which in turn can easily become contaminated. Water-born diseases kill some 13 million people a year, most of them children under five. And yet world wide, only about $3 billion out of the $80 billion in foreign aid goes toward improving access to clean water. 

And, as Maphaphateni illustrates, sometimes that aid is wasted on technology projects that bear no resemblance to what is actually needed. 

The Johns Hopkins team installed “ram pumps” which work by harnessing the momentum of the stream to pump water uphill 24 hours a day. No grandmothers are required to stand on narrow rails while doing heavy cardiovascular workouts, and the group can maintain the pumps without outside supplies. The water is pumped into 5,000 liter tanks and then distributed to the gardens through irrigation piping,  

Putting in the irrigation pipes was the job of the students, and it was hot and heavy work. “The kids dug hundreds of meters of trenches,” says Schoenberger. 

In the process they not only learned how to install the system, they learned how to start off by talking to the local people and working from there. “The idea (behind the project) is to grow engineers who will not take World Bank money and do something stupid, but to take that money and do something smart.”  

The EWB group, in partnership with the local Church Agricultural Project, plans to install ram pumps in more villages during upcoming visits. It is also investigating the possibility of biogas generators to provide cheap and sustainable electricity. Biogas can be produced from compost and human and animal wastes. 

EWB is a non-profit, but is not the slightest bit averse to taking money from anyone, including the World Bank. The KwaZulu-Natal Province project actually applied to the Bank for funds, hoping to get in on the huge organization’s 2006 emphasis on water. “But we didn’t get the money because the World Bank was focused on drinking water and this was irrigation water,” she says, rolling her eyes.  

EWB chapters are spreading in campuses across the nation, although so far there is none in the Bay Area. Schoenberger thinks this is a situation that ought to be changed. “EWB’s motto is ‘Building a better world one community at a time,’” she says, which she thinks is an excellent goal. “But it could take a thousand years to achieve it if we had to rely on bake sales to fund it. If we could put the EWB philosophy together with the kind of money the World Bank gets to play with, you might really see some dramatic changes.” 

She urges people to check out EWB’s website at and If you want save the grannies of the world from treadle pumps, lend a hand.