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By: Josh Kearns
XE Episode #72 featured a discussion with author John Michael Greer on the topic of “Green Wizardry.” Green Wizardry is Greer’s term for a toolkit of low-cost, small-scale ecological technologies for meeting essential human needs. These “appropriate technologies”, which use predominantly limited and local resources, are intended to help people adapt to the “long descent” era of declining fossil fuels and contracting global and national economies.
In his blog post titled Seven Sustainable Technologies, Greer identifies seven “technological suites” of Green Wizardry that could be put into practice in the food production, energy, health care, communications, and engineering design sectors. The seven technologies are: “organic intensive gardening,” “solar thermal technologies,” “sustainable wood heating,” “sustainable health care,” “letter press printing and its related technologies,” “low-tech shortwave radio,” and “computer-free mathematics.”
While this is an excellent list, Greer didn’t intend for it to be comprehensive. Concordantly, Seth and Justin have put out a call to XE listeners to suggest additional modes of crucial Green Wizardry. For my part, I would like to add decentralized, small-scale water treatment and eco-sanitation to the list. Effective eco-sanitation systems such as composting toilets (see this excellent example from Toilets for People) are critical for protecting public health as well as returning nutrients from human excreta to soils for local organic food production. Decentralized water treatment, using simple technologies such as biologically active slow sand filters and biochar adsorbers, provides a barrier against microbial pathogens and many of the synthetic chemical pollutants that are unleashed into source waters by industrial society.
For several years now, I have been working in the decentralized water treatment and sanitation sector with rural, migrant and refugee communities along the Thailand-Burma (Myanmar) border with a non-profit organization called Aqueous Solutions. Over 60 years of fighting in the region has caused an estimated 500,000 people to be displaced from their home villages and territories, and the health situation in many communities along the rugged and remote eastern border is a chronic emergency. Every year, thousands of people cross the border into Thailand seeking not only an escape from the ongoing violence and widespread systematic human rights abuses, but also basic health care and education services. Ironically, current positive political changes in central Myanmar have contributed to a reduction in aid from international donors going to outlying areas, further stressing vulnerable hill tribe communities.
Such a dark cloud makes it difficult to see a silver lining. But one such bright spot is that the economic austerity, political duress, and severe resource constraints of the border region provide a rigorous “living laboratory” for the development of Green Wizardry techniques aimed at improving health, well-being, and livelihood security through ecological design and appropriate technologies in water, sanitation and hygiene. Furthermore, the difficult and insecure conditions that most locals have grown up in foster a high degree of creativity, resourcefulness, competence, perseverance, not to mention physical skill and endurance among the population.
The local Karen people, our mentors, collaborators, and local liasons, are determined not only to survive in this region, but to thrive. Together, we have developed a portable emergency drinking water treatment system that can provide enough safe, treated water to meet the bare minimum drinking water requirements for 100 people every day. This “nano-sized” drinking water treatment plant is constructed from 100% locally available materials including surplus BPA-free 200-liter HDPE drums and a small number of PVC fittings which can be trekked on foot into remote areas. It uses filter media (gravel, sand, and adsorbent biochar) that can be collected or generated on-site. It costs about US$125 for the hardware, and can treat up to 300 liters of water daily. If villagers are under threat and have to escape to another location or to a remote hiding spot in the jungle, the filter material can be dumped out and the system disconnected and moved. While relocating the system is not easy, it is possible in the demanding circumstances that the Karen people have long endured.
To-date, over twenty of these systems have been installed along the Thailand-Burma border or deeper within Karen state, mostly by locals who have attended one of the workshops that Aqueous Solutions has hosted in collaboration with local partners. In February and March of this year, I visited several new water treatment systems installations, including one that is located at a remote conference center in the mountains. In January 2014, about 20 different ethnic groups from all over Burma gathered there for a unity conference. Their objectives were to increase their collaboration for peace and development, and to advance proposals to the central government for enhanced recognition of indigenous people’s rights. These are amazing developments, and my colleagues and I are proud to have played a tiny support role in the hopeful process for peace and sustainability in Burma.
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