Water resources healthy again in south Baghdad

At a water purification station in Sekreechet, two Iraqi army soldiers keep an around-the-clock vigil. One of the rooms in the small structure nearby serves as a bedroom. A few meters away, another soldier stands near a sandbag bunker, guarding a concrete-lined canal. Highway 8, one of the most heavily guarded roads in Iraq, runs in the near distance. The guards watch this location because the canal and pump station are part of the most important infrastructure system in Iraq...

By Sgt. David Turner, 2nd Brigade Combat Team 3rd Infantry Division Public Affairs Office

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq -- At a water purification station in Sekreechet, two Iraqi army soldiers keep an around-the-clock vigil. One of the rooms in the small structure nearby serves as a bedroom. A few meters away, another soldier stands near a sandbag bunker, guarding a concrete-lined canal.

Highway 8, one of the most heavily guarded roads in Iraq, runs in the near distance. The guards watch this location because the canal and pump station are part of the most important infrastructure system in Iraq.

Channeling Resources
"(Water) is the basic foundation of a civilized society. It's a basic need. Once those needs are met, people can work on more complex things," said Maj. Douglas Betts, commander of Company A, 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, which works with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, to ensure the area's drinking water is safe.

The East Sekreechet water purification system filters and treats about 1,000 liters of water per hour for local citizens. It is similar to 24 other facilities in the south Baghdad area, which the 2nd BCT took control of in June 2007.

"There were existing water purification sites out there, but the majority were not working due to negligence," said Betts. "In a couple of cases I can remember, the local citizens banded together and bought supplies themselves to keep the site up and running."

"Without irrigation, everything dies -- the crops, economics (and) the people. It's a function of life," 1st Lt. Sam E. Clegg III, advisor to the Baghdad-7 embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, which works with the 2nd BCT to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and economy.

Following the 2003 invasion, irrigation canals went largely unmaintained. The canals require cleaning annually, as vegetation and debris collect in them. Prior to the war, the ministry of water resources maintained the canals regularly.

"(The MoWR) did everything. Irrigation is one of the prime resources. It has to flow, because the further south you go, the economy is focused on agriculture," Clegg said.

"With the collapse of the government, certain services were non-existent. One of them was maintenance and operation of pump stations," said Clegg, a native of Churchville, Va.

Betts said that citizens often had to travel to other towns to get clean water, or do their best to purify water from the rivers or canals. Besides the inconvenience, there are public health issues at stake. Waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera are still ongoing concerns in Iraq.

Though some water purification units are fed by wells, systems like East Sekreechet get their water from the Tigris River, via the canal. The people of ancient Iraq learned to control the annual flooding and harvest the rivers' resources through a vast network of irrigation canals over 5,000 years ago. Today, the 27,000 km of irrigation canals still play a critical role in the lives of Iraqis.

Though oil revenues provide most of the nation's wealth, agriculture accounts for 20 percent of the economy, and one-fifth of the country's land is used for farming. South Baghdad province is mostly agricultural, but due to insurgent activity in recent years, representatives of the MoWR were reluctant to come into the area to oversee and maintain the canals.

None of the six water pumping stations in the area were operational as recently as November. The main challenge for operators was a lack of parts and supplies to keep the pumps running, said Clegg. The primary canals had not been cleaned at all in the past two years. 2nd BCT soldiers took up the task, working with local sheiks and Sons of Iraq to restore this vital resource.

Creating new from old
In the past year, Soldiers of the 2nd BCT built six new water purification systems, while repairing and refurbishing all but one of the existing facilities. Betts said that despite the obvious improvements to Iraq's infrastructure, Soldiers didn't always have assurances the facilities would be taken care of when they left.

"The ministry (of municipalities and public works) put out a letter dated 2006 saying that if the coalition forces didn't cooperate with the proper ministry, the ministry would have nothing to do with that site," Betts said.

Securing and administering funds to maintain their facilities has been a problem for officials in the government of Iraq, Betts said. He's hopeful, though, that now officials at the MoMPW will take ownership of the water purification units.

"(MoMPW representatives) have completed all their inspections of the sites, and they've signed a memo at the qada and nahia level, saying 'We've looked at them and we want to accept them'," Betts said. He said he hoped the GoI would recognize the benefits of increased capacity to serve the citizens of this area.

"This is for the benefit of the people of Iraq. It's not for our benefit or for a few individuals. We're talking about the population of our operational environment having fresh water. It's a staple of life," Betts said.

Betts visited the pump station June 14 to make sure the $60,000 investment to repair and refurbish the facility was well spent.

"The (6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment) reported last week that it was 100 percent complete. As the oversight guys, we go out and take a look at it. We take a look at the scope of work and see what was done," said Betts, of Battle Creek, Mich.

"Now we have a canal cleaning program. It's pro-active; we have maintenance for the pump stations and the canals are getting cleaned," Clegg said. More importantly, he said, the MoWR is stepping in to continue the work. Clegg said the future role of Soldiers will be to provide support and oversight.

"We can step back and watch," he said. "It's like a flower. You pour some water on it and watch it bloom."

A healthy future
In order to help the GoI monitor and maintain the canals, 2nd BCT Soldiers came up with a high-tech solution. In addition to Soldiers performing foot patrols and SoI guarding key points, 2nd BCT Soldiers regularly keep a watch on the canals with unmanned aerial vehicles.

"We've done this with every single canal," Clegg said. "We had (the MoWR) supply us a map, showing the direction of flow. Then we stepped it up with UAV coverage. This actually allowed us to see where the water is flowing."

Clegg says the images are declassified and shown to MoRW officials every week to give them the information they need.

"That opens up a whole new visibility for them. It's building up situational awareness. We're trying to show them this area's safe," Clegg said.

With greater GoI involvement on the ground, Iraqi money is once again flowing back into water projects.

As with more recent water purification unit projects, funding for irrigation pump repairs is now coming from I-CERP, the Iraqi commander's emergency response program.

"That's the wave of the future. We facilitate money and keep everything straight on the books, but they do the work," Clegg said. Instead of using 2nd BCT funds, Iraqi money is spent in this program for Iraqi projects, with Soldiers providing quality assurance and oversight. Additionally, Soldiers are providing the MoWR with training materials to help maintain their investment.

Clegg said he was pleased with the GoI's renewed involvement and the work 2nd BCT Soldiers have done to keep clean water flowing in the area for years to come.

"What we've done is shown the Iraqis we really care," he said.

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