Bangladesh trip changed millions of lives

Rower pump originally created for farmers in Bangladesh has had lasting impact worldwide


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Forty years ago, a young man from Carman had an idea — and millions of people around the world today are better for it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/08/2018 (1506 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Forty years ago, a young man from Carman had an idea — and millions of people around the world today are better for it.

That young man was George Klassen. He and his wife, Sheri, were on a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) assignment in Bangladesh.

Klassen, now 70, had recently graduated from the University of Manitoba as an agricultural engineer. He was sent to Bangladesh by MCC to help farmers. Sheri’s assignment was to help Bangladeshi women improve their lives economically.

A Bangladeshi farmer uses a rower pump to irrigate his crops. (George Klassen photo)

The couple arrived in 1977. George was given a challenge to help farmers in that country find an easier way to get fresh water to irrigate their crops.

At the time, farmers in Bangladesh used traditional hand pumps to irrigate their small plots of land during the dry season. But the pumps were expensive to buy, difficult to install, and hard to maintain and repair.

Klassen started by asking farmers what they needed. They told him they wanted the opposite — inexpensive, easy to install, and simple to use and maintain.

To that list, Klassen added a condition of his own: it needed to be able to be manufactured locally, using local materials — no foreign parts.

Although he had never designed a water pump before, Klassen quickly decided the traditional hand pump was not the answer.

“Maintenance was a major issue,” he says, adding it was also hard for women and children to use.

After months of talking, reading and thinking, he came up with a new and revolutionary idea: the rower pump.

“It was a brand-new design,” he says. “There was nothing else like it in the world.”

Unlike traditional pumps, where people stand and push down on a handle to draw up water, the rower pump is just like what you imagine — people recline and use a rowing motion to pull water up.

In 1978, he took his design to a local boys’ school which trained students to get jobs in manufacturing. The school produced two prototypes, which were taken out to local villages for trials.

“We installed one in a marketplace, one in a schoolyard, and hired people for eight hours a day to use them,” he says.

After one month, they took them apart to see how they held up.

“There was no discernible wear,” he says. “The results were very positive.”

After making additional improvements, 140 pumps were made and quickly sold.

“They were never given away,” Klassen says, noting that right from the start, the idea was to create a business employing local people.

Within two years, more than 40,000 pumps had been sold. By 2014, it was estimated more than 500,000 pumps were in use in Bangladesh. The design was also adapted for use in other countries.

“I’m very happy to see the rower pump is still doing its job today,” Klassen says.

“It changed the lives of millions of people.”

In addition to providing water to irrigate crops, the pumps also provide people with safe drinking water. “There are so many health benefits that can’t be measured,” he adds.

Klassen is quick to note he didn’t do it alone. “I borrowed ideas from here and there to come up with my own design,” he says.

Harold Penner, a retired farmer from St. Adolphe, was also an MCC volunteer in Bangladesh at that time with his wife, Marianne.

“The credit goes to George for the idea,” he says.

“He felt the rowing motion was something people were more accustomed to, and used the body energy in a more efficient way. I felt he was right then, and still feel he was right.”

After three years in Bangladesh, George and Sheri came back home to Manitoba, where George went on to a career with the province in water management. Now retired and living in Steinbach, he operates George’s Glass, a business making art from recycled glass.

Looking back, Klassen says he feels “very fortunate to have been able to work on the rower pump. I’ve worked at many important projects over my career, but this is the one that gives me the most satisfaction.”

In 2020, MCC will celebrate its 100th anniversary. During that year, the organization will recall the many ways it has helped to make the world a better place. One of those ways will be the rower pump, I’m sure.

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