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Published: March 16th 2014
After my 2011 trip to Kenya, I had another opportunity to volunteer for HWB (Hydrogeologists Without Borders), this time in Myanmar at an IDP camp run by Oxfam. The camp is located in the western Rakhine State and houses about 1500 Muslims who were displaced after their homes were burned down during the 2012 riots. The camp is guarded by the military, and the residents can only go into town with a police escort. The situation is more tense further north where the Muslim population is larger.
My involvement with this project started in the fall when HWB was approached by Oxfam for help with their water wells. These drilled wells supply drinking water to the camp but the water but was turning salty, and their other water sources (springs and shallow hand dug wells) eventually go dry during the long dry season (Oct - April). So I worked on a report to provide some recommendations for a field investigation to understand the problem and come up with some solutions. After Oxfam received the report, they asked for a hydrogeologist to travel to Myanmar ASAP to conduct the field investigation. I was offered this opportunity having worked on the report,
which I gladly accepted although I could only commit to a couple of weeks on short notice.
It was a long trip, 4 flights from Edmonton to Yangon with a brief overnight stay in Bangkok. I spent a couple of days in Yangon settling in and meeting with the Oxfam folks. I walked the area around my downtown hotel - colonial style buildings from the British era (mostly run down), lively street life with crowded sidewalks, vendors, traffic, etc. Despite all crowds, I didn't get bothered too much which made it more relaxing. Everything was very cheap - except at my hotel where they charged western prices.
On the Sunday afternoon, I came across an anti-government rally near the city hall. I watched for a while from the periphery then walking back an older man started talking to me and insisted on bringing me in so he forced his way through the crowd with me following in his wake. I wasn't sure what he was up to but he was very insistent. Turns out he wanted me to take pictures and share to the world what is going on in Myanmar. He even translated the speakers words for
Maha Bandoola Garden
High court building and Independence Monument in background
me, who was a well-known activist that had come out of exile. I noticed a handful of policemen off to the side. Having read about how violently these rallies have been stopped in the past, I was a bit wary. But I was told this was a sanctioned event and the police wouldn't interfere which they didn't. I suppose that's a sign of progress.
After a couple days in Yanton, it was on to the task at hand. A 1-hour flight got me to the town of Kyauk Phyu on the Bay of Bengal where I spent about 10 days. This is not a tourist area so I needed a permit from the government of Myanmar to travel there, which I had to keep with me at all times. Considering the lack of tourists my hotel was brand new and quite nice as there is some offshore oil production in the area. Everything was close by, the Oxfam field office and airport within 5 minutes and the camp was about 15 minute drive away on the edge of town.
The camp is elongated and narrow, squeezed between a tall sandstone ridge that forms a natural boundary and paddy
fields which flood during the wet season. Military guard posts are on both ends of the camp. On the opposite side of the ridge, a Buddhist temple is built into the rock. The people live in pretty basic conditions with makeshift huts.
There was a lot to do so I was quite busy during my time there. In the end I was happy with what we got done - drilled 4 new wells, surveying, testing, well development (clean-up), and refitted some surface plumbing. The support from Oxfam was great, otherwise it could have been a fairly unproductive trip. I was always accompanied by an Oxfam rep who could translate and the camp technicians were always there to help. I was able to get a pretty good understanding of the problem and share some learnings. It turns out the saltwater is not coming from the direction of the coastline, but from the paddy fields which have often flooded with saltwater from a saline river. The problem isn't solved yet but now that it's understood better we can work towards some solutions.
I spent a couple more days in Yangon at the end of the trip and was able to
see a bit more of the city including a walk around Kandawgyi Lake and an evening visit to the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda and dinner with some new acquaintances. A nice way to wind down before traveling back home to my wife and 5-month old daugher.
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