I arrived in Sagaing, a city on the bank of the Ayeyarwady River, on a dusty October afternoon. I could hear the jackhammer-like report of single-cylinder diesel engines ricocheting over the hilly landscape. I dismissed it as the usual chorus of generators—common in the dry season when reservoirs dip low and hydropower grows scarce.
At this exact moment, what appeared to be a cross between a tractor, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner rounded the corner. Plodding down the road with dangling tubes splayed out, it belched smoke and sloshed water onto the street through an opening in its storage tank with each pothole it bounced over—which, in Sagaing, is a lot.
These machines are known as tuolaji, Mandarin for “pushpull machines”. The first tuolaji were likely developed in China during the mid-1960s. Despite the massive shifts that have since swept across China, the tuolaji’s design has remained relatively unchanged. A hybrid between a tractor and a truck in horsepower, cost, and payload capacity, the term “tuolaji” actually describes a diverse range of vehicles: from basic handlebar-steered “walking tractors” hitched to a cargo wagon to truck-like vehicles with enclosed cabs and exposed engines.
Designed as on-farm vehicles, they have been adapted by users in Myanmar to perform a myriad of tasks using limited resources and unlimited ingenuity. Souped-up incarnations can mill rice, generate electricity, and ferry passengers. And in the dry season, they provide the critical municipal service of water supply.
During the monsoon season, Sagaing’s residents harvest rainwater for household use. But when that’s no longer an option, tuolaji step in to transport water from the nearby Ayeyarwady River to households throughout Sagaing. Rear-mounted storage tanks are patched together from salvaged metal. Though costlier, round water tanks are preferable: take a corner too sharply, and the water could knock against the insides of a square tank with enough force to knock the vehicle onto its side.
With minor modification, a household water pump is mounted on to the tuolaji and connected to its engine to pump water from a water source into the storage tank. Upon arrival at a customer’s house, one merely reverses the pump’s direction to move water from the storage tank into a household’s water tank.
A basic, locally-assembled “walking-tractor” tuolaji—equipped with a 13-horsepower crank-start engine—costs around USD 800, including all the accessories needed to get started, such as plastic hose. Compared to a human-powered wooden cart carrying a 50-gallon drum or a family member being tasked with the fulltime job of carrying water in a pair of buckets hung from the shoulder, the power of the converted tuolaji to mobilize water means a tangible increase in the quality of life for the residents of this growing city.