The kinds of things that can go wrong...
As the old saying goes, “pride cometh before a fall.”
The 2013/14 fieldwork season in SE Asia was action-packed. Our “blue barrel” systems were taking off in popularity and were beginning to proliferate around Karen state in eastern Burma.
The team and I traveled from the northern regions of Karen state to the far south over several months, visiting blue barrel systems installed by our former trainees, or trainees of those trainees, as well as conducting workshops, making water quality measurements, and doing several more installations ourselves.
“Blue barrel” biochar water treatment system installation in a remote Karen village.
Climbing up a mountain to take water samples at the source can be dangerous in more ways than one. Here I had local guides to keep me safe from wandering off into areas where land mines had been placed.
As you can see in the photo albums linked below, these workshops and installations took place in pretty remote, rugged country. Locations were off-grid, either completely without electricity or with electricity for just a few hours a day, supplied by a diesel generator.
Working in these remote, off-grid areas is all about logistics. Whatever materials, tools, and supplies that are needed and aren’t available on-site have to be transported in. We strive to rely on local materials as much as possible, but it’s still necessary to source things like surplus HDPE barrels, PVC pipe and fittings, and scrap metal and drums from nearby towns.
And you gotta get it all there, which often involves a variety of creative modes of transportation…
It’s amazing what all you can fit in a small pickup…
…or a longtail boat.
In addition to hauling tools, pipe and plumbing fittings, and other construction materials, we also arrived loaded up with rice, vegetables, fish, spices, and cooking oil from the nearest market town. We had to feed our team and the locals we worked with, and didn't want to stress the host village’s food supply.
The point is, with this kind of logistical challenge every detail matters. You don’t want to start work way out back-of-beyond somewhere and find you’re missing some critical PVC fitting, or your short one bag of cement, or that you massively under-bought on fish paste. There’s no popping down to the local big-box store to grab missing items.
After a string of successful workshops and site follow-ups, the opportunity arose to do an installation in town - specifically, in the courtyard of a home rented by Western volunteers who were serving a squatter community in the abandoned lot across the street.
A lot of migrants pass through the grungy border town of Mae Sot, Thailand looking for work, a place for their kids to go to school, basic medical treatment not available across the border, etc.
This particular squatter community had sprung up in the flood plain at the edge of town. Their water source was a single, unprotected hand-dug shallow well. The Western volunteers had heard of our work and wanted to set up a blue barrel system in their courtyard, where they could look after it, and pipe treated water over to the squatter community. And since all of our installations up to that point had been in remote areas, I thought it would be a great opportunity to have a working demonstration model in a high-traffic area often visited by Western NGO people.
I also thought self-assuredly: “In town! A few blocks from a hardware store! (Mostly) reliable electricity! This is gonna be a walk in the park…”
The water source was a shallow well in the garden of the couple’s rental house. The plan was to pump water from the well into an elevated tank, then gravity-flow it through the treatment system and over to the community across the road. After a few day’s work we got the system all set up and started filling the elevated reservoir. Then things went sideways.
First off, the water smelled. Bad. Really bad. Untreated sewage bad. Upon closer inspection of the well I realized it was about 15 feet deep and in a shallow subsurface aquifer that was highly permeable and basically formed a hydraulic connection with every septic tank and unlined latrine in the neighborhood. Ugh!
As tough as things were in the remote villages we had worked in up to that point, at least their source water quality typically was decent. Not safe to drink untreated, but a far cry from raw sewage.
But, ever the opportunist, I though it would be a good challenge for our system. How would we know how bad of water it could treat unless we fed it some real nasty stuff?
I ran the system for a few days, disposing the treated water back down the well while monitoring for E. coli and total coliforms. It took about two days for the whole system to be shot through with E coli. That dog wasn’t gonna hunt.
Swinging into improvise mode I bought a big jug of chorine bleach from the hardware store and started dosing the elevated reservoir two or three times a day. The thinking was not only to kill waterborne pathogens, but also to oxidize some of the heavy organic content and hopefully precipitate it out, to be removed by settling in the gravel tanks and straining in the sand filter.
A great hypothesis - but I was running out of time to test it. Here is a life-lesson for anyone who wants to get into grassroots development work: It is not a good idea to start a big experimental project a few days or even a week-or-two before the end of your fieldwork rotation.
I blundered into this situation due to hubris - over my recent string of seemingly successful projects in challenging remote locations - and shortsightedness - failing to guess that an urban, slum-adjacent source water, might present some challenges our base-model system developed for remote jungle villages wasn’t prepared for.
I talked over options with the volunteer couple who would be taking over management of the system when I left. I explained it was more complicated than usual due to the poor quality source water, but that I had some ideas for steps they could take and it still might work. They’d have to do heavy monitoring though, to make sure the water was safe before the squatter community could start using it, and continue regular monitoring thereafter to be sure.
I told them that, from my perspective, the arrangement was really far from ideal, that I hated having to turn things over to them at that point, but that I’d been away from home for six months and if I asked my wife for a one-month extension on the project she would probably kill me. The young couple were still gung-ho to get clean water to their neighbors, so I trained them up on operation and monitoring before heading for the airport.
Back in the US, I kept my eyes peeled on my email inbox for any news of the system, updated tables of water quality monitoring data, or questions from the couple. After a week or so it began to seem like the chlorine treatment was working. Coliform counts were high and erratic but slowly starting to decline. It was uncertain if it was going to work but there was enough reason in the data for cautious optimism.
Then the couple sent me an email: “The water is red. What does that mean?”
I replied, “Whaddya mean red? Like a little bit of a red-brown tint, maybe a little bit of reddish precipitate forming when the water settles? That’d be iron.”
They replied, “No - like, really red. Bright red.” And sent this photo.
That is some red water like I’ve never seen before. And that sample was drawn from the tap after the treatment steps.
They also said the valves had become difficult to operate, like they were clogged with something. I recommended them to start pulling things apart and we’d try to troubleshoot the problem.
Turns out, an eel had gotten into the system somehow. I have no idea how. It might have gotten sucked up from the well and pumped into the elevated reservoir and somehow made its way burrowing through the treatment system. Your guess is as good as mine.
The eel was lodged in the pipe. When they went to take a water sample the ball valve cut the eel in half and it bled out into the tank, turning the water bright red.
Sad to say, the eel did not survive.
What’s the lesson in all this? Always check for eels? Don’t start a project right before you’re about to leave the country even if you think it’s going to be a “piece of cake”? Don’t assume a procedure that’s worked well repeatedly in one context will translate seamlessly to a different context? That, literally, the craziest things can and do go wrong?
I’ll leave it up to you to decide what can and should be learned from this. Let me know in the comments.
What about the squatter community? Obviously I gotta take the “L” on this one, but what happened to the folks all this was supposed to benefit?
Well, the rainy season hit and since their slum was in the flood plain they got flooded. Their houses were up on stilts and mostly stayed dry, but to get anywhere they had to wade through waist-high really gross water.
Then one night the Thai police conducted a raid, rounded the squatters up and loaded them into trucks, and dumped them back across the border in Burma.
So they never got their clean water. And with the squatter community gone, the young couple wrapped up their volunteer rotation and headed back to the US. Since the migrants were deported and scattered across the border I have lost track of them. I hope no harm came to them, but who knows.
It’s sad - it makes me really, really sad. But this kind of thing is so commonplace. This story has been told a million times over.