The Power of a Radically Affordable Irrigation Pump

Thursday, April 19, 2012

One of the more transformative technologies ever developed for the world’s poor farmers is a water-lifting device called a treadle pump.

It looks and operates much like a Stairmaster exercise machine that you’d find in a gym. But the dollar-a-day farmers who use these devices are not trying to lose pounds; they’re trying to gain them.

More than 850 million people in the world today are chronically hungry. It is a sad irony that most of them live on farms, typically cultivating small plots in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

(Related: “Growing Food Demand Strains Energy, Water Supplies“)

These farm families go hungry because they have neither the resources to make their land productive enough to meet their food needs nor sufficient income to buy the food they need.

For many of them, the missing ingredient is water. And that’s where the treadle pump comes in.

Traveling through Bangladesh some years ago, I saw vast areas of brown, barren land. It was January – the dry season in this monsoonal country – when there is too little rainfall to plant crops with any hope of a harvest. Without access to irrigation water, small farmers leave their land fallow, which in turn leaves them hungry and poor.

But northeast of Dhaka, the fields were green and bustling with activity. Men and women, children and parents, were operating treadle pumps, often under colorful canopies for some relief from the sun. In the pump’s original version, designed by Norwegian engineer Gunnar Barnes, the operator pedals up and down on two poles (called treadles), which activates a cylinder that suctions water up through a shallow well. The water then empties into an irrigation ditch and travels down the field to irrigate small plots of rice and vegetables.

For a total investment of some $35, Bangladeshi farmers could irrigate half an acre (0.2 hectares) during the dry season. Not only could they then feed their families, and get out of the hunger trap, they could also take some higher-value vegetable crops to market – and escape the poverty trap, as well.

Source: National Geographic (link opens in a new window)