David Saw Wah: Refugee Camp Environmentalist and Inventor
Photo: Peter Biro/IRC
David Saw Wah is a true environmentalist. Walking through his ecological garden in the Site 1 refugee camp in northwestern Thailand, the middle-aged man explains how saving the environment and making refugees self-sufficient is crucial to the future of his people.
“In a refugee camp like this it is very important that we take care of our resources and teach our children how we used to work the land before we became refugees,” he says, inspecting a row of corn in what he calls his ‘outdoor classroom.’
Nestled on a small hilltop, the office of David’s IRC-supported organization, the Karenni Development Department, is a bamboo hut overlooking the lush foliage of the camp. Nearly 20,000 people live in this settlement only a few kilometers from the Burmese border. Most of them belong to the Karenni ethnic group and worked as subsistence farmers before fleeing from Burma to Thailand.
“We teach people living here traditional, as well as alternative, farming methods,” David continues. “We talk about using organic fertilizers, how to use the land in the best way possible and that almost everything we use day-to-day can be recycled.”
A father of four children, David graduated from the University of Rangoon in Burma before pursuing another degree in mechanical engineering from Bochum University in Germany, where he was awarded a scholarship in the 1980s. Since then, he has taught thousands of people inside the camp and in displaced settlements along the Thailand-Burma border about food security, environmental protection, water conservation and alternative energy sources.
“I never wanted to stay in the cities,” David says. “My experience is much more useful here on the border among my people. I got married in the jungle and my youngest child was born in the camp.”
David teaches special farming techniques that suit the steep mountain slopes of the camp. One of these methods is what he calls ‘guerrilla gardening,’ a technique often used by displaced people inside Burma. The crops are grown around a vertical bamboo frame designed to look like natural foliage so that it blends in with the forest.
David is also specializing in renewable energy, teaching the refugees to use compost waste and dung to produce biogas.
“You mix 100 kilos of pig manure with 100 liters of water here,” David explains, pointing to a large metal container hooked up to a gas burner. “The methane gas that is created can then be used to provide a family with electricity and gas for two months. The manure from three pigs is enough for one family’s daily energy consumption.”
Biogas is only one of David’s many innovative ways to save energy and protect the environment in the camp. The IRC’s medical clinic in the camp, where around a hundred patients are treated each day, is completely generated by hydropower from the camp’s many water streams.
“We lead the water through pipes to a cheap, 200-dollar turbine,” David explains. “This is enough to provide the entire clinic – or 50 light bulbs – with electricity.”
David also teaches camp residents how to use simple solar panels and easily manufacture environment-friendly fuel briquettes.
“Our home-made briquettes are a perfect energy source,” he says enthusiastically. “Instead of cutting down the forest to get firewood or use expensive and polluting charcoal briquettes, we use waste paper and decomposed leaves to make fuel briquettes. The heat capacity is 30 percent less than coal briquettes but they are still perfect for cooking. “
“And if you add some lemongrass to the mix, the briquettes also repel mosquitoes and help protect against malaria.”
David’s overall vision is simple yet inspired. He sums it up as he fills up a bucket of leftover food to feed the two pigs in his backyard pen.
“I want to help people help themselves, while protecting the eco-system. A lot of the people here can’t read or write, but with a little help they can create a relatively good life for themselves in spite of their hardships.”