Ler Per Her Water Treatment Workshop

For this, my second post on the Chemists Without Borders blog, I had prepared a more “academic-sounding” post about Making “Low-Tech” Biochar Adsorbent For Decentralized Water Treatment. While that’s an interesting topic (I hope…), we’ll save that discussion for next week as I’ve just returned from a real Chemist-Without-Borders situation with visceral immediacy I’d like to share instead…
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The last time I was in Ler Per Her village in Karen State, eastern Burma, it was May of 2009. I met with village officials to discuss installation of a water treatment system serving the health clinic and surrounding community, and promised to come back after the incipient rainy season to complete the project.
I shook hands with the locals and boarded a long, narrow Karen canoe for the trip across the deep and cool limestone cliffed Moei River to Thailand. Once across, I scaled the steep, sandy bank through clumps of bamboo, and hiked along under the shade of teak trees through a winding track flanked by bougainvillea, where a brood of scruffy goats munched the underbrush around a humble thatched-roof abode. Emerging from the verdant jungle onto broken pavement, I commenced to travel, first on the back of a motorbike and then in the back of a truck, and then the back of another truck, and then in a tuk-tuk, and then on an early morning bus, and then in another tuk-tuk, and then in several airplanes, and then overnight in the backseat of a friend’s Subaru, and finally found myself in Boulder, Colorado, USA, starting graduate school, in what would turn out to be a long-lasting state of severe reverse culture-shock.
A short couple of weeks after I had arrived in this convoluted manner into one of the most affluent and privileged communities in the world, Ler Per Her was attacked by the Burmese Army’s proxy Border Guard Force, burned and razed to the ground. Villagers were sent fleeing across the river into Thailand and those who could not escape in time were taken into forced labor.
These events marked for me a bittersweet recent return – not six months later like we had originally hoped, but five years later. Conflict has since ceased (at least for now, and hopefully for good…), and Karen people displaced far-and-wide have begun to make a cautious and tentative return to their home locale.

Over the past three days, 20 people came together from Ler Per Her and five other villages in the region to hold a water treatment workshop. We built a drum oven for making adsorption char and generated several batches using hardwood waste from a local sawmill. We constructed six portable water treatment systems, and installed one at the Karen National Union base in Ler Per Her. The other five portable systems will make their way to the difficult-to-reach jungle communities and be installed over the next couple of weeks. Our workshop was conducted without electricity – 100% of the fabrication and installation was accomplished with simple hand tools.
Securing access to safe drinking water in a sustainable and locally managed manner is critical to basic community development, and my colleagues and I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of this recent activity in Ler Per Her. Please see our Facebook page for more photos from the workshop.
Tremendous thanks to Khun Champee, Naw Gay Pho, Saw Hsar Khlo, and Saw Be Soe Toe for planning, logistics, translation, leadership, and most of all for making the workshop a lot of fun for everyone!

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