Pumping on your feet — the Treadle pump


Say you are a poor farmer in a rural area in a developing country. Then your best bet out of poverty is to make more money. From where? From the field. You need to grow stuff. And because growing things need water, you need access to water. Water is money.

One options is to wait for the rain. It is a stressful option, because the rain might come too late, it might not come at all, or it might come all at once, all of which are bad. The other options is to take control over the water you need. That means getting a pump. What kind of pump? One that is affordable, available, and repairable. Ergonomic, and easy to operate.

The treadle pump fulfills all these demands with flying colors. It is a foot-powered water pump widely used in Asia and spreading in Africa. It consists of two metal cylinders with pistons that are operated by a natural walking motion on two treadles. It is ideally suited for use on small farms which draw irrigation water from 1-7 m deep. Because it is a suction pump, the depth is limited to about 8m.


The treadle pump was designed by the Norwegian engineer, Gunnar Barnes in the 1970’s. It was first developed and used for irrigation in Bangladesh in the late 70’s. In the 1980s, International Development Enterprise (IDE), led by the inspiring Paul Polak, initiated a campaign to market the pumps to smallholder farmers. Over the course of 12 years, 1.5 million treadle pumps were purchased by farmers, increasing the farmers income by $150 million annually. In 2006, the IDE treadle pump programme in India won an Ashden Award.

The treadle pump is also being promoted in Africa, by organizations such as Kickstart, under the name MoneyMaker, and Enterprise Works. The pumps are now widely used for small-scale “spray” irrigation.

Going strong
The treadle pump is very, very affordable. In Bangladesh a treadle pump costs US$ 20, and on average farmers make an additional US$100 per year in extra income. Currently, over 2 million treadle pumps have been installed worldwide, produced in 300 local workshops and used by more than one million poor rural families that otherwise could not have afforded an irrigation pump. Not bad for a humble pump, don’t you think?

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