Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Waterworks

August 22
A little over a month into my deployment, I sent a request home for a reference book to help me with a design I was working on. We had conducted our first in a now long list of site visits to water treatment plants throughout Diyala. In most cases these facilities were operational, but the success of their treatment abilities was questionable at best. In the United States water comes clean out of the pipes. The people in Los Angeles may disagree with me, but when you turn on the tap there, you can be assured that what fills your cup, as cloudy, or odorous as it may seem to the naked eye (or nose), will not make you sick when you drink it. I cringe at the thought of Americans purchasing two-dollar bottles of water at Hollywood boutiques, thinking themselves better for it, when the Food and Drug Administration found that the water sold in bottles on our shelves is often less tested, and thus potentially less safe to drink than the tap water available for pennies in our kitchens at home.

The full extent of the situation is laughable. In the United States, a country with some of the cleanest drinking water available on the planet, those who can afford to, turn their noses up at the water available in their homes, choosing instead to drink potentially less-pure water that per gallon can cost more than a gallon of gasoline. Here in the desert, the military treats just enough water to hydrate their civilian personnel and soldiers and cook with. The rest, that which we shower with, wash our hands and clothes with and use to flush our toilets is deemed “un-potable” and therefore safe enough to use for these tasks, but not safe enough to drink. What this means is that here, whether I like it or not, if I want a drink of water, I am reaching for a 1 liter plastic bottle.

After undergoing an intensive (and extremely energy expensive) treatment process, through elaborate purification machines that I have personally seen turn brown pond water into crisp, clean, drinking water, the bottles are bundled, placed on pallets, wrapped in plastic sheeting and left in the sun for days on end. I have been told that this is an important part of the purification process. The additional time in the sun gives the chlorine, added to the water to kill any remaining bacteria, the chance to break down to levels safe enough for the eventual drinkers. Of course, any chemist could tell you that the chlorine in the bottle doesn’t just go away when it’s heated by the scorching midday sun, so I’m not apt to believe this oversimplification and I'll admit that I don't fully understand how it all works. All I know is this water, drawn from underground wells and aquifers, in a country with far fewer environmental protective laws in place than ours, then purified and bottled for my enjoyment, has managed to nourish my body on a daily basis without making me sick thus far, and for that I am grateful. The roughly 400 bottles I will drink and dispose of while I am here are a consequence of, and a reminder that I will not be here permanently. Like it or not, crack another bottle and drink up. It's all you got.

As a boy, I developed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the effort and resources that go into the treatment of water from the moment it falls to the ground as rain, to the moment it touches my lips. I, like so many of the Sesame Street/Mr. Rogers generation, learned this and many other “basics” of how society is put together by simply turning on the television even before I was old enough to go to school. After I had learned to read, The Magic School Bus series, by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, the fantastical adventures of a class of elementary students and their eccentric curly haired, red-headed teacher, aptly named Ms. Frizzle, became another favorite of mine. The series explores the fundamentals of geology, the solar system, and in one of my favorites, the digestive system, in such a simple and fun way that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of my basic understandings of science I maintain to this day can be traced back to those illustrated classics. It was for The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks that I sent an email request home that day early into my deployment. I was searching for a simplified diagrammatic depiction of the water treatment process and naturally the one in the book came to my recollection when I was trying to picture it. I’d recreated a pictorial of the works based on what is in the book just for fun as a kid. After the water is collected, it is sent through filtration tanks, filled with layers of gravel and fine sand meant to strain out dirt and other impurities including some of the bacteria. Then, it is treated with chemicals, chiefly chlorine to kill the rest of the germs present although fluoride is also added in some places in the US. From there it heads through mazes of pipes, pushed onward by pumps and pressure to our taps. If you are familiar with the series, you too can probably close your eyes and picture Ms. Frizzle and the loveable loser Arnold in scuba gear making their way through the tanks and pipes that symbolize the process. In this portion of Iraq there are very few centralized, large, treatment plants like the one depicted in the book. Instead, the process takes place on the local level, consolidated to several small tanks, a few pumps, and several lengths of pipe.

I didn’t take any water treatment courses in college, one rather abstract fluid dynamics course to be exact. Still, it doesn’t take a water expert to look at some of these treatment facilities and “get” that there is something wrong with them. In one case, pictured in a previous post, water was drawn straight from the river into delivery trucks we watched arrive on scene, the long plastic pipes pouring water into their open beds for transport to the nearest town for public consumption while nearby a brand new, United States Army Corps of Engineers water treatment facility sits unused, gathering dust. More commonly, citizens lucky enough to live closer to the treatment plants take matters into their own hands. Inevitably, the number of pipes going into the plant is dwarfed by the number of small hoses and plastic pipes exiting the holding tanks which can be traced to dwellings nearby. Unwilling to wait for the completion of the treatment process, or hoping to circumvent the rationing measures necessary for a country in four years of drought, these people would agree with the boy no older than 15 or 16 who told us he was the manager of the plant we visited most recently: “Any water [even untreated water] is better than no water.”

Back at base, our water experts put their heads together to develop more logical systems for water treatment, storage and distribution. A key addition to their plans are centralized holding tanks, one for each village within a certain distance of the treatment facility to which the treated water can be sent for distribution to homes hopefully discouraging the illegal taps that significantly reduce the facility’s effectiveness and production capacity. While neither expensive nor especially complicated from an engineering perspective, some of the government water officials seem reluctant to take on these measures, seeing the construction of secondary distribution points as a relinquishing of control over the system, power which they wield to both bless and condemn the towns in their areas of responsibility. We spend so much money on the design and construction of these and so many more types of projects. In all seriousness, I wonder how much it would cost us to have At the Waterworks translated into Arabic and handed out to each of these citizens. If nothing else, perhaps then we’d see the illegal taps made after the water’s been treated, at the end of this process, not somewhere in between…

…So much of our base is covered in dust and dry earth that it is difficult to believe that just outside our perimeter, in fact in most places, right up to our fence, local farmers are busy planting next year’s crops. From the air the difference becomes even more apparent.

Our base is a brown and gray square crisscrossed with roads and runways and dotted with buildings. The limits of our greenery are scattered trees and shrubs and one small patch of grass out front of a unit headquarters building fit with “keep off the grass” sign that is kept green year round by sprinklers. Beyond our walls a patchwork of fields stretches out in all directions. A lifeline of canals, an intricate network of irrigation ditches that traces back to the Tigris River, keeps the fields of grapes, corn, dates and cotton fertile year-round. Last week I took a trip up the road along with my boss and two of our Iraqi engineers to meet with some of Balad’s government representatives, tasked with the ever-challenging task of keeping the water flowing.

To call the meeting productive would be a bit of an optimistic assessment. For one, the translators often could not keep up with the back-and-forth banter between our team’s civil engineer and the five canal representatives. It was like watching a tennis match. The words were the ball and the twenty or so military attendees watched the conversation carry back and forth between them eagerly awaiting a clue from the interpreters during the brief lulls as to what was being said and who was winning. It took several hours, but we eventually developed an understanding of the current state of affairs when it comes to water distribution in the province of Salah al Din. At their estimate, 80-90% of the problem has nothing to do with canal deficiencies with engineerable solutions. You can imagine the “so what are we doing heres?” that ran through our minds as we took this all in. In a repeat of conversations, scenarios, and circumstances that undoubtedly have been seen across the country, when faced with a seemingly cut-and-dry issue, a problem for us to fix—in this case not enough water is making it to the people at the end of the chain—the real problem is far more complex than we originally anticipated. It’s political. It can’t just be fixed with a little cash and hard work. Just like we see at all of the water treatment plants we visit, farmers, struggling to make ends meet during the prolonged drought, have turned to illegal taps and unscheduled flooding of their fields to keep their crops from dying, severely hurting their neighbors downstream. The canal monitors do not have enough political backing to put a stop to these behaviors. One of them mentioned a failed attempt to “negotiate” the removal of illegal water taps from one major service canal. When he and two Iraqi policemen visited a village to discuss the matter, they were nearly run down by a mob of 40 angry farmers.

After a less than culturally sensitive American lunch of cold cut sandwiches, fruit, and sodas we broke into groups to take a closer look at the canal maps to see if they could identify any specific problem areas for us to investigate. It was strange to stand there in front of irrigation maps from the 1970s tacked to the wall and go at them with colored markers to identify discrepancies when we are accustomed to having state of the art (digital) maps to work with. It was like going back in time to the days of the pre-calculator, slide-rule engineers. While I think at least one of the maps we were looking at was current as of 10 years ago, the other was probably produced when our team Iraqi engineer was first assisting in the original canal project, almost 30 years ago. Incredibly, he can still remember some of his team's decisions during the early design stages, a reason why he will be so vital to the success of the reconstruction efforts today.

Two hours later we reassembled to out-brief our findings and discuss our “way forward” (as the Army likes to say) for this project. My primary task out of it all will be to lead the team responsible for creating a new living map for the canals in the region. Future visits to the canal sections identified as most in need of repairs will help identify where new construction projects are needed, where trash and vegetation removal efforts will be affective, and where new canals exist that shouldn’t. We’re hoping to hand over an interactive map in a few months that tracks all of the canals and their statuses so the Iraqi managers can have something to add to in the future and reference from in the present. For now this means I am mostly a liaison, carrying information between all parties, a fitting task for a young officer, I suppose. I expect that I will get to see more of the Balad canal network in the near future when I accompany our surveyors out to take measurements. Perhaps I will get to see some of the places where our own jets hit the canals early in the war effort, damages we are still working hard to fix. Or, maybe we’ll get to drive by some of the empty canals, drained or dried up, where insurgents have since stored spare weapons and from which they occasionally lob mortars in our general direction...

...On our way home later that day our convoy was stopped by a few Sons of Iraq manning a checkpoint a few miles from our base. Locals were reporting a suspicious package on the side of the road a little ways up the road. In a place where the ground is everyone's trashcan it is often extremely difficult to tell the difference between a pile of trash and a pile of explosives. Still, taking every precaution seriously, the Army quickly went into action, deploying cameras and robots to investigate. As we sat in our vehicles waiting for the boom, Iraqi men, women, and children all around us went on with their lives. I was not in the lead vehicle, so I didn't get the full picture of what went on until later: kids throwing rocks at the package, stray livestock stepping right next to or over it. People would stop and look at what was going on, but eventually they walked away likely having seen this sort of thing before. No one seemed afraid. It has become a part of life here. Two hours later our trucks lurched back into motion picking up speed past the suspected IED; a backpack full of water bottles.

Where there’s water there’s life. If we can return water to the dry canals maybe we can wash away some of the would be attackers and bring some much needed jobs back to the area. Maybe we can convince people that we, and more importantly that the government of Iraq really are trying to help them. The history of agriculture and civilization itself can be traced back to the same two rivers situated several miles from my front door. And here we are, still trying to make them work for us.


  1. I know just the diagram you're talking about! Sadly, the Magic Schoolbus & Sesame Street still constitute most of what I know about modern infrastructure.

    Also, my dad & siblings & I took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel the other day. According to materials found at the gift shop (which is right above one of the bridge-to-tunnel transition points, in the middle of the bay), it is one of the engineering marvels of the world. I can't personally vouch for how marvelous the bridge-tunnel is, but it got us across the bay without a hitch. You should check it out when you get home.

  2. Not to make you cringe any more, but... the bottles in hollywood are ~$5 these days! :( I'll be willing to drink the tap water there.. but I still can't get over drinking straight up tap water at home!! maybe you'll break me of that habit when we move to ohio. I'm sure things are much cleaner over there.. haha.. :)

  3. What an essay! I'll never mindlessly grab a bottle of water without thinking of all that I learned in this blog. I, too, remember this particular Magic Schoolbus book, read to the girls. And like you and Miriam, I also learned from it. Your essay just took me to the next level of understanding!

  4. Is it safe to drink the water here? None of my colleagues do, but I don't feel like buying a purifier.

  5. I can tell you've read Six Glasses, as I came away with a zeal for water as well. Excellent piece.