A 200-year old technology – the ram pump – was able to revitalize an impoverished community by providing it with a basic need we all take for granted: clean water.  2011 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee AIDFI has since installed their hydraulic ram pumps in 184 upland communities across the Philippines and even other countries, including Afghanistan, Nepal and Cambodia.

When discussing the conveniences made possible by modern technology, most conversations are dominated by talk of the latest developments in handheld computers and smart phones.  To the First World urbanite, access  to running water and/or electricity is seen to be something so fundamental – if not outright taken for granted – that they are seemingly only worthy of mention when said services are disrupted.

The same, however, cannot be said for a significant  portion of Filipinos, whose nation’s progress towards modernization can best be described as coming in fits and starts.  As is the case for many developing countries, priority of utilities and facilities is given to city centers and business or tourist districts, leaving other areas to play catch up, regardless of whether or not they have the resources to actually do so.

This was the harsh reality which greeted Dutch engineer Auke Idzena in Negros Occidental in the 1980’s, when the worldwide crash of sugar prices caused many people to lose their livelihoods.  In 1990, he, along with union organizer Leonidas Baterna and two others, would co-found the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation, Inc. (AIDFI).  A non-profit organization, AIDFI was originally created to champion the rights of the unemployed sugar farmers.

The AIDFI Ram Pump
The AIDFI Ram Pump

In 1992, the AIDFI would be registered as an NGO and come to be involved with numerous programs designed to create alternative sources of livelihood for the former farmers.  Stress and exhaustion would take their toll on Baterna in the mid-90’s, causing him to return to his native Holland for a much-needed sabbatical.

Upon Idzena’s return to the Philippines in 1997, he resumed his work with the AIDFI with a new energy and direction.  Their new focus would be to create sustainable development for the poor, to be achieved by improving their living conditions with cheap, renewable technology.

Ironically, it would be a reworked version of a technology over 200 years old – the ram pump – that would make the biggest impact towards making the AIDFI’s new aspiration a reality.

Specifically-designed to move water from low-lying areas to those of higher elevation, the ram pump is usually available in diesel-, solar- or wind-powered models, but it was AIDFI’s introduction of a modified hydraulic version that would make the world take notice.  Powered entirely by the natural kinetic energy of flowing water, the new hydraulic ram pump completely eliminated the need (and expense) for gas or electricity.

Children of Negros Island, Philippines enjoying clean water
Children of Negros Island, Philippines enjoying clean water

The AIDFI started out their ram pump project by demonstrating the product to skeptical community leaders all over Negros Occidental.  Actual installation of the pump and training of technicians would run about three to four weeks, as well as the setting up of ram pump associations to regulate fair use of the pumps within the community.  These associations would also be   in charge of maintenance and coming up with ways of using their new water sources to generate income.

The hydraulic ram pump project was an instant success, as those living in elevated areas no longer needed to travel for hours to collect water; now, thanks to the AIDFI, anywhere from 1,500 to 7,200 liters a day could be collected, stored in reservoirs and used for a variety of purposes.  The time, effort and money formerly allotted to water collection were now put to better use, including small-scale livestock-raising and agriculture.

Aside from bringing water to formerly waterless communities, the ram pump also proved to be a viable alternative to costlier, traditionally-powered models.  In addition to saving users thousands of pesos in monthly fuel expenses, they also save on maintenance costs, as all of the ram pump’s parts are easily sourced or fabricated from readily-available materials.

Children collecting clean water through the ram pump
Children collecting clean water through the ram pump

To date, thanks to support from local governments, AIDFI has built and installed 227 ram pumps for 184 upland communities across the Philippines and even other countries, including Afghanistan, Nepal and Cambodia.

Other technologies ADFI has been instrumental in introducing to rural areas are micro-hydroelectric power sources for battery charging, biogas plants, hand and foot pumps, solar water heaters, micro wind-power generators   (that can generate up to 800 watts of electricity) and an essential oil distiller that can steam distill lemongrass into oil for industrial users.

In a clear case of putting their money where their mouth is, the AIFDI has even set up a section of their headquarters just outside Bacolod City where visitors can see the mechanical marvels in action.

The AIDFI’s commitment to the betterment of individuals and their communities through the introduction of technology and organizational  and livelihood programs has brought them acclaim and numerous international awards, including the first Green Award of the Philippine Department of Energy, the Ashden Award from Al Gore, the BBC World Challenge Award, the Neri Satur Award for Environmentalism.  This year, the AIDFI added the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award to their list of honors.

Truly, the AIDFI has more than lived up to their vision of working towards, “A society where technology systems exist in harmony with nature and serves as foundation of growth and sustainable development where people share and live in abundance and happiness and where there is justice, freedom and equality.”

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the AIDFI team, the villagers of Negros Occidental have made leaps and bounds on their way to modernization, forming the core of AIDFI’s ever-growing number of international success stories.

AIDFI spreading ram pump technology in Nepal
AIDFI spreading ram pump technology in Nepal

While it is true that the villagers of Negros Occidental still have quite a ways to go before they start debating the pros and cons of the latest Apple release, it’s become increasingly clear that, thanks to AIDFI, when that day comes, they’ll know better than to take it for granted.