Remembering Paul van Beers (19 April 1950 – 19 April 2020)

“Always eccentric, often controversial; always authentic, often misunderstood; Paul was never boring. He enjoyed challenging the status quo and stirring things up.”

by Dr Peter Harvey, Chief – Water, Sanitation & Education Centre, UNICEF Supply Division

When I first met Paul twenty-odd years ago at a WEDC Conference, he was (surprise, surprise!) talking about handpumps. I was immediately captivated by his passion and imagination.

Always eccentric, often controversial; always authentic, often misunderstood; Paul was never boring. He enjoyed challenging the status quo and stirring things up. He sometimes upset people by his exaggerations (e.g. the ‘spare parts free handpump’) and his repeated promotion of everything ‘blue’ but none of this was in the interest of ego or self-gain. He was passionately committed to improving the well-being of those living in the poorest communities in rural Africa, and he was convinced the water sector could do so much better.

He believed passionately that handpumps should not breakdown often and that the prevailing statistic of one-third of non-operational pumps in sub-Saharan Africa was unacceptable. He was frustrated by the apparent insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. He recently quoted the car manufacturer Henry Ford, who said that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses, highlighting how people tend to stick to what they know. He believed in the power of innovation and that no one should have to make do with inferior products or services.

A professional hydrogeologist, Paul’s passion was rural water supply. He lived and worked for extensive periods in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mozambique, Angola and Kenya, before returning to the Netherlands to set up the FairWater Foundation https://www.fairwater.org/. Despite his scientific training, he was, in many ways, an engineer at heart.  He loved technology and the intricacies of engineering design. Among his numerous inventions were the Kisii Water Filter, the Afripump, the Water Donkey, the Beers Piston, Handpump Leasing, the Ribbon-and-Bead Pump (an improved version of the rope pump), and, of course, the Blue Pump and Blue Zones.

On one memorable occasion he jumped onto the table in a Nairobi bar and sat on a small plastic stool with a hole cut in it. “Look, the EasyShit!” he announced. That particular sanitation invention didn’t take off but actually made a lot of sense for the old and infirm. I had the pleasure of meeting him on many occasions to put the world to rights and ‘imagineer’ all sorts of solutions from bizarre soap alternatives to a submersible pump design based on the capillary action of plants (that one didn’t take off either!).

He was never afraid to have a daft idea. It would be much worse to have none at all. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Paul remained as positive as ever. Even when his leg was amputated in 2015, he was more focused on tinkering to make improvements to his prosthetic leg than feeling sorry for himself. His mobility was affected, but not his passion, nor his ability to post controversial contributions to the RWSN D-group!

I spoke to him shortly before his death and he told me of how his own story evolved. When he first worked in Africa 35 years ago, he would see a broken handpump and think ‘that’s a shame, a broken pump’. It took him many years to look at a broken pump and see the bigger picture behind it of suffering, dependency, self-interest and corruption. He was frustrated that many charitable endeavours were more focused on giving money to feel good than to do actual good.

His was a call for us to wake up and connect the dots: to look beyond technology, to the systems and behaviours that create dependency; to not be afraid to discard them and develop new blueprints for truly sustainable water services. He didn’t have all the answers, but he certainly provided some, and he never gave up searching for more.

The day before he passed away, he sent me a message: “We live and learn, a fascinating growing process, essential in life… Maybe that is why I hate so much if things do not develop, it is directly opposing the roots of life; innovation should always be there!”

Paul brought much colour to my life, as well as the many, many people in the communities he served over decades. I will miss him greatly and I am privileged to have called him a friend.

He was a keen flyer and had many tales of bush flying in Africa; I like to think he is now soaring high above us through the ‘blue zone’.

Pete Harvey

P.S. For those of you who may be interested, in future the Bluepump will continue to be manufactured and promoted on a non-profit basis by Join the Pipe https://join-the-pipe.org/eng/, the first social network of tap-water drinkers.

Photo: Paul at home in Amsterdam, 2018 (P. Harvey)

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit https://www.rural-water-supply.net/ to find out more

2 thoughts on “Remembering Paul van Beers (19 April 1950 – 19 April 2020)”

  1. I have not met Paul personally but I started reading his posting in 2014 when I just joined RWSN . I have kept most of his postings as I found them always very enriching and full of real field experiences and solutions. Its such a sad moment to learn of his passing away and loosing such a very resourceful and intellectual person in our generations is indeed very sad. May his soul rest in peace.

  2. Paul was very active in the discussion on sustainable rural water supply.

    I looked at discussions via RWSN D groups and counted over 100 mails from Paul since 2013.
    In a discussion in 2013 about “Corrosion of hand pumps” he mailed:
    “50% abandoned wells and pumps in subsahara Africa. We, as FairWater Foundation, state that this is not fair. We sadly see, that many NGOs continue to install pumps that rust away or are not fit to put in deep boreholes, often because these Rusty Pumps are cheap to buy! Even worse, some NGOs make pictures of broken pumps for fundraising purposes, but still use the same rusty pumps that breaks down.”

    After explaining problems he would always have “the solution” like:
    “We should put in durable pumps like Blue Pumps installed by a local company that offers a yearly check-up for 50 to 100 US$, with a maintenance concept like the BlueZone. This means that families have every day water for 1 to 2 US$ per family per year.”

    Paul often exagerated but also had enormous experience, a lot of technical knowledge, dared to say things others only think. I had several discussions with him, among others about rope pumps. He was very much against rope pumps for communal supply. Partly right because the examples he mentioned
    were bad indeed. (mainly because there was no quality control by the NGOs implementing these pumps, errors in the construction, or lack or organising the maintenance. In short, too little capacity building.)

    Lateron, maybe also because of the discussions with Sean, Paul became a bit “softer”.
    On 20 January 2020 in the discussion “The ethical role of international Cooperation” he wrote;
    “I am getting older and maybe soon phasing out of the WASH and handpump sector, so my intention is to transfer as much as possible of what I know and these discussions are great for that, so thank you for the opportunity.”

    Paul is no longer with us but, besides critism, he left us a wealth of knowledge and experiences, among others in the 100 mails to RWSN D Groups.
    I guess that the best way to honour Paul is using his experiences.
    Thank you Paul

    Henk Holtslag
    SMART Centre Group

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