By Roland Watson
February 11, 2010

We have to accept a hard truth now: Walt Ratterman, a man who truly dedicated his life to helping people help themselves, passed away in the Haiti earthquake.

Walt was a great friend of the people of Burma, and of many other societies. He was an alternative energy expert, in solar and micro-hydro power. He brought energy systems to people in remote communities, along with training and spare parts so they could maintain the systems once he had left. This simple introduction of a small amount of electricity had a profound impact, lighting schools and clinics, refrigerating medicines, powering computers and communications gear, and for innumerable other uses.

For Burma, Walt was most active in the war zones in the east of the country. His systems provide electricity for over twenty Karen clinics, and for schools in refugee camps and villages. Walt visited the clinics himself, to install the gear, and on one trip he walked all the way to the Karen National Union’s Third Brigade. He generously gave us his photos, which remain on the Dictator Watch site, of the solar installations as well as the internally displaced persons and other victims of Burma’s military regime that he met along the way (photo essays 62, 59, 52, 45 and 31). Walt was also kind enough to support some of our most aggressive efforts to help free Burma.

A few of my memories of Walt are of being called by BBC Burmese for an interview while I was in his room at the Ambassador Hotel in Bangkok; meeting him at the Mawcheet bus station before he left for the border, with a stack of solar panels for cargo, and wondering how he would get them through the checkpoints; at a training he held at the Backpack Medics facility; and at his Pennsylvania farm, which was off grid – self-powered – and where I had the pleasure to meet his wife Jeanne and daughter Briana. I never met his son Shane, although Walt spoke of him with great pride many times.

Walt was warm, but also gruff and no-nonsense. He had work to do and if you could help you were very welcome. If not, his time was too valuable to waste.

He led a convoy of aid trucks into Northern Afghanistan, immediately after the country was freed. He worked in such places as Rwanda, Haiti, Ecuador, Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, and Basilan and Mindanao in the southern Philippines. As a confirmed travel addict, I used to joke with him that I would be happy to carry his bags if I could accompany him on his trips. He helped a huge number of people, and in the dangerous places that most humanitarians avoid. It is an extraordinary legacy. Would that it could have continued. He will be missed.