Effective altruism providing safe water to the Karen people in Myanmar

A water tank being transported to its final location in a Karen village. (courtesy of Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar)

In 2016, Fleur Maidment moved to Singapore as a trailing spouse. Whilst her husband worked, she planned to look after their teenage children and explore the sophisticated city-state. Then Fleur met Tha Blay, a former Karen refugee, and they started talking about water filters. Their conversation led to the creation of Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar, a small, effective and agile NGO.

Fleur Maidment in Singapore with one of the water filters destined for Myanmar. (courtesy of Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar)

Liz: That was quite a transformation. Was it always planned? 

Fleur: No, not really, but it seemed like it was meant to be.

I was reading Peter Singer’s, ‘The Most Good You Can Do,’ around that time, and I’d always toyed with the idea of doing relief work.

I am an environmental scientist so I have the technical skills. I have experience in emergency planning. I love working with, and empowering communities and mentoring. It just all fell into place.

Liz: What was the catalyst for starting Safe Water for Every Child?

Fleur: My mother lives in an Australian township of 2,500 people and 10 percent of the population are Karen refugees. One day, Tha Blay, a 24-year-old Karen who had lived in a refugee camp in her teens, attended a local Rotary club workshop and viewed some water filters. She identified a village in Karen state which could benefit from one because she thought people were getting sick from diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases.

I visited my mum shortly after and there was another display of the water filters. That’s when I met Tha Blay. I said, “I'm an environmental scientist. I'm living in Singapore, so next time you are travelling to your home village, let's go together and test the water so we can put some science behind it before we buy one.” She agreed. She also needed to check whether that community was prepared to receive anything of value, because they might be scared of the Myanmar military coming to take it away.

Liz: Why would it do that?

Fleur: Myanmar is engaged in the world’s longest civil war between the military and various ethnic minority groups. The Karens are one of them. They are an indigenous group, mainly comprised of subsistence farmers, who live in bamboo and thatch houses in the heavily forested mountainous strip on the eastern border of Myanmar. Each year, usually in the dry season, the army storms in. It burns down the villages, destroys its stocks and supplies and loots anything of value. Those that aren’t killed or captured, are forced to flee to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, or across the river to the safety of the Thai refugee camps. Once the army’s gone, the villagers return to re-build.

To give you an idea of the scale of this, there are 93,000 people in Thai refugee camps and 300,000 in IDP camps.

Children now have access to safe water on demand (courtesy of Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar)

Liz: What did you do when you visited the village?        

Fleur: We did a basic field test, so it was easy for the community to see the difference between clean and dirty water. We found that it was full of bacteria leading to gastro diseases, diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera. It was pretty obvious what was causing sickness in the community.

I was treated with a degree of suspicion initially, but Tha Blay and I talked to the community, and it decided that it would be happy to receive a water filter. We did some pre-planning and established who would look after it, where it would be positioned, and how it would be constructed.

We returned six months later, and the local farmer had built the tank stands. We put the filter in, attached it all up, and it was ready to go.

Liz: How quickly were the effects seen?

Fleur: Instantly. In fact, when we visited an IDP camp, one of the medics said that he’d noticed an immediate reduction in the number of cases of diarrhoea and cholera.

Word spread among the communities in that area and we started getting requests from different camps and villages for water filters.

Installing a skyhydrant. It will last for about 10 years and supply up to 1,000 people a day with clean drinking water (courtesy of Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar)

Liz: How many people do you help now?

Fleur: Over 35,000 people and we have water filters of different sizes throughout the Karen State. We have also tested the water for over 150 communities.

The filters led to a reduction in the use of plastic bottles and fewer trees were removed because there was no longer a need to boil the water. Being small, we can also respond quickly to other needs. For example, when there was a mice plague, we took sacks of rice to the villages. We noticed there hadn’t been childhood vaccinations for two years, and started an immunisation programme that delivered over 15,000 shots.  We supplied mosquito nets to reduce the number of cases of malaria, dengue and chikungunya.  We provide environmental education and educational materials.

Liz: Has the recent military coup impacted your work?

Fleur: That and Covid. Since the coup, the military has added aerial bombardments to ground attacks, so villagers are constantly on the run, or hiding in bunkers in the forest. As a result, we are providing portable water filters to help small groups of people.

The Thai border is also closed because of Covid so there are more people remaining in danger. The schools are shut, so children’s education has suffered. We are countering this by linking students up with a team of 150 volunteer English tutors from across the world.

Fleur proudly handing over another water filter for a Karen village. (courtesy of Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar)

Liz: You’re 53 now. How long do you think you’ll keep going with Safe Water?

Fleur: I can’t imagine my life without it, so I’ll be here for as long as it takes. I hope that, one day, I’ll be able to transfer it to the local community who will see it as valuable enough to continue.

You can contribute to Safe Water for Every Child, Myanmar at – give2social.com/campaign/safe-water-for-myanmar#/

Asia Media Centre