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Basra up and running

Iraq Reconstruction

After a month of rapid reconstruction, the Royal Engineers were able to hand back operation of Iraq's infrastructure to local engineers. Mark Hansford reports from Basra.

When US and British troops entered Iraq on 21 March few expected peace would be declared just one month later. Fewer still expected that a month further on the country's infrastructure would be well on its way to operating at its pre-war level.

Infrastructure in the capital, Baghdad, still needs much attention. But in Britishcontrolled southern Iraq, water and power were on and back in the hands of Iraqi engineers after some rapid work by the Royal Engineers (REs).

The war was just two days old when Iraq's lights went out and water supply ceased, with Saddam Hussein's forces shutting down power stations and bringing down transmission lines. There were also fears that the Rumaylah oilfield, the source of Iraq's domestic power, would be torched.

The REs moved fast with a team of specialists from the Territorial Army (TA) following the US marines into the oilfields. They succeeded in turning off the wells, although under constant sniper fire and missile attack, says TA warrant officer Keith James, who is a mechanical engineer with Shell in civilian life.

'When the Scuds started flying over our heads the only way to deal with it was to laugh it off, ' he says.

Of the 167 well heads, just seven went up in flames.

With the swift defeat of Iraqi forces in the south, attention soon shifted to restoring power.

Without it water treatment plants and pumping stations were inoperable, making dysentry a real threat to the civilian population.

The port of Umm Qasr was fixed first. Power there is supplied via eight diesel-driven generators installed by the UN in September last year.

Expensive equipment was stripped and hidden during the conflict by the plant engineers in case of looting; a fear that in fact proved largely unfounded. Once local engineers were persuaded to return to work, restarting the plant was relatively easy.

'Our main role was allowing the Iraqi engineers to communicate with each other and to give them the confidence to go back to work, ' says Major Jeremy Holman, who managed much of the power reconstruction.

Restoring power to Basra and the rest of the south depended on restarting the oil refinery.

Workers there had protected the plant from looting by barricading themselves in. They were willing to co-operate in restarting operations.

At the same time, engineers were working on the water distribution network.

Water for Basra, Umm Qasr and the rest of southern Iraq is supplied untreated via a canal from the north, which delivers 350,000m 3/day to nine local treatment plants. These were inoperable without power from the national grid and small standby generators were drafted in. However, these provided insufficient power to treat the volumes of water required and many treatment plants were stripped bare by looters.

To provide enough water, the treated supply has been blended with water abstracted from the relatively saline Shatt al Arab, a river running east of Basra from the confluence of the Euphraties and Tigris to the Gulf Sea.

Much of the REs' involvement has been in providing quick fixes such as bypassing pumps to increase throughput and repairing broken pipes. The challenge of getting the looted treatment plants running has been handed to and resolved by local engineers, with the REs playing a coordinating and facilitating role.

'We started by going round the plants and speaking to the managers, but were soon acting in a liaison role to supply what they needed, ' says TA volunteer Captain Stuart Bage. 'Now we have set up a regular weekly forum for all the plant managers to discuss interlinking problems, or other issues such as site security or pay.'

Wastewater has also been a major problem. Three quarters of Basra is served by a basic sewerage system which could not pump waste away while the power was out. Of equal concern was the remaining quarter of Basra that is served by cesspits.

As soon as water supply was restored the cesspits filled up.

But the trucks usually used to empty them had been stolen. The REs' solution was to arrange for anyone turning up at the sewage treatment plant with a full truck to get paid. Cesspits were soon being emptied again.

Water and wastewater is now back to pre-war levels. Around 40% of the population has access to mains water, although most are unwilling to drink it.

Across the city fountains mark where locals have broken into pipes to get a supply. And it is common for households to fix pumps to the mains supply, which sucks in contaminants.

Improving water and power supply is beyond the remit of the REs, says Bage. 'We have achieved our military mission to get things started again. Now we are in the stage where Bechtel [the US firm heading the civilian reconstruction phase] must take over.'

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