British army engineers are battling the sands of time to complete the largest construction project in Kabul - without any local materials supply. Alan Sparks reports from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's construction industry has been frozen in time for the past 20 years.
Now, since the Taliban regime was ousted, Royal Engineers are tackling a tough job with inexperienced contractors and supply nightmares to boot.
Camp Souter will house 500 UK servicemen when it is completed - which it must be before the bitter Kabul winter sets in.
Built on the site of a derelict fertiliser plant dating from the period of Soviet control in the 1970s, the US$4.7M camp will eventually become a new national agricultural college. In the short term, however, there are unique challenges to be faced.
'Building it for a fifth of the cost of an equivalent UK scheme to a 15 week programme that would frighten any British contractor is a feat in itself, ' says deputy commander of British forces in Afghanistan and project manager, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Ogden. 'But when you consider that all materials have to be delivered by Hercules plane and some construction techniques are bordering on medieval - then you get an idea of the job we have taken on'.
To ensure they got value for money, the engineers have, in addition to their role as client, had to act as structural engineer, quantity surveyor, construction consultant and project manager - as well as performing all other military briefs.
Derelict is an inadequate word to describe what the RE faced.
During the Taliban's rule, all machinery, windows, doors and fittings - including electric cables - were stripped out. The bare structure has also suffered shell and small arms fire with one building's roof catching fire and collapsing.
Current works include the construction of new build accommodation blocks of concrete slab floors and masonry walls, and the refurbishment of a shell damaged two storey concrete frame warehouse and its conversion into a modern all year camp with dining facilities, messes, shop, fitness rooms and a gym As well as the basic camp structure, the second phase of work will include an emergency road linking the camp to the airfield, a 180m concrete access road around the camp, guard rooms, toilets, a blast resistant entrance and permanent 2MW power services. The access road will use a slipforming technique over its whole length using steel I beams. This method is intended to complete the whole stretch of new road in just 48 hours.
With a team of 170, the REs have already patched up the runway at Kabul airport, laid drains and constructed secure temporary water and electricity supplies for the construction site and temporary camp.
'For the runway patching, a special prepackaged repair concrete was used. This sets hard enough for a Hercules to land on it within 20 minutes, ' says Lieutenant Richard Jones.
As well as the construction work, over 360,000 items of unexploded ordnance have been cleared by the engineers, in what is the fourth most heavily mined country in the world.
Education and training has been ongoing throughout the project and the expertise gleaned is vital if contractors are to succeed in future rebuilding projects. 'Previously, local contractors would complete each stage before advancing to the next. Changing this practice to maximise productivity has been a massive leap, ' says Ogden.
Before work could begin, structures were rebuilt in the centre of Kabul to re-house the fertiliser displaced from the warehouse. Then primary services were needed including secure water and electricity supplies. This meant drilling to a deep aquifer instead of tapping into the shallow, polluted supply used by the city.
Instead of using a temporary portakabin camp during construction, the real threat of missile, car bomb and sniper attack meant something more solid was needed. An initial camp within the old warehouse buildings was the answer.
Due to the lack of a dependable credit system operating in the country, contractors demand cash payment. 'At one point I had $170,000 in notes in my office drawer, ' says works contract officer, Captain Mark Quince. 'At the start of the job, contractors would sit there and count out every single dollar.'
Engineers had only a concept design before arriving on site and have had to take all designs back to first principles, says deputy project manager, Major Bob Stephens. This was essential, as none of the materials available are covered in UK codes.
Local concreting practice demands that a couple of local labourers carry shallow trays containing three shovelfuls of wet mix from the mixer direct to placement. Due to the dry heat, this sets very quickly even though a 28 day cube strength of only 20N/mm 2 was demanded from the design.
'Cold joints were quickly accepted as unavoidable due to this local placement technique.
So we had to ensure that the position of these joints was well managed to minimise the impact on the structure's robustness, ' explains Stephens.
'Some of the older local workers on site have some experience of concreting - but this was over 20 years ago. This inexperience led them to add far too much water to the mix as they liked the workability it afforded them, ' says Quince.
When laying the accommodation blocks' thermally efficient 450mm thick masonry walls, local trades only lay mortar in the horizontal plane. Once the wall is finished, it is rendered with a mortar-like mix.
'Although there is no cavity between the walls there is a degree of insulation provided by the air voids generated by the local bricklaying technique, ' explains Ogden.
Limits on materials meant that although the structures were all designed for earthquake loading, steelwork had to be used frugally, says Stephens.
The very soft timber available for falsework was brought down from the north of the country and most fixtures - including 45t of electrical cable - had to be flown in from Dubai. Finding a reliable strong aggregate was also difficult according to Quince.
Within the existing warehouse the new main building is being formed with rendered brickwork walls supporting 0.7m deep lattice trusses at 2m centres generally spanning 12m.
This will support permanent steel formwork with a concrete roof to provide fire protection.
In the dining room with a 24m clear span, I beams are supported on existing columns. To obtain the required section, two 400mm by 167mm members were placed adjacent to each other with each supporting one of the lattice spans. Connection to the outer walls use sections of the I beams embedded in the wall and welded to the bottom flange of the lattice beam.
Ogden explains this solution.
'A more simple original design incorporated a tied wall plate - but this had to be rejected as the contractor did not have a wall drill!'
Supply difficulties again reared their head in steelwork design. Stephens explains: 'In the original concept design we prescribed lattice beams throughout the concrete frame main building to shore up existing floors. These are cheap and readily available back in the UK, but when we realised that transporting via the 7t capacity Hercules C-130 was the only reliable supply route - a design change was unavoidable.'
To get around this problem lattice members had to be fabricated on site. Using diesel powered generators for the welding torch, 75mm Russian steel equal angle sections were pieced together.
'During the course of this job I think we have exhausted the entire country's supply of 75mm equal angle, ' says Quince.
'In the end we have had to adjust the design to use 63mm sections that were still available.' Additional sheet steel was welded to the centre portion of the flanges, effectively increasing the section, and extra lateral restraint was built in.
Kitchens, incinerators, generators and armoury facilities were imported as units direct from Waterloo Camp in Kosovo which enabled work to start more quickly on the main project.
These standard size containers were airlifted using giant Antonov freight planes, equipped with a gantry crane.
Each flight costs around US$390,000.
Before the Royal Engineers can catch their breath, any spare time has been spent on a succession of self-funded small scale projects including the restoration of orphanages, hospitals and schools.
The combat engineers' brief is to ensure first that this scheme meets its tight 15 week programme. Then, as members of the 20 nation strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the engineers seek to improve as much of Kabul as possible. The Civil Military Co-operation is a part of ISAF and works on a succession of small scale projects such as orphanages, hospitals and schools.
In one charity fundraising event a Kiwi officer was persuaded to shave off his 23 year old handlebar moustache, raising over US$1bn for his stubble.
Busy at Bagram
At the former Soviet air base at Bagram on the Shomali plain, 70km north of Kabul, another similar development is well under way.
Work at Bagram has been in support of the coalition forces, principally preparing camp structures for winter, ablution installation with septic tanks and soakaways and bulk fuel installations. A borrow pit has also been run, plus road construction and mechanical clearance of mines.
A US base is under construction that will support its Enduring Freedom operation to hunt down Al Qaida and Taliban soldiers who are still in hiding. But should UK marines be called back, engineers must ensure their different needs are catered for by the new facilities.
Of the infrastructure, little today remains after the bombing by US forces and the fighting between the warlords and the now deposed regime.
Despite the loss of services and infrastructure. the population has trebled to 3M. But the greatest constraint on any redevelopment is not financial. 'Attracting firms are willing to risk take on a project here appears to be the biggest stumbling block, ' says commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Simon Leavy.
So far UK firms have shied away from potential projects, with the only interest currently coming from the Far East. Local firms have insufficient credit to fund large schemes.
'There is a terrific amount of foreign aid channelled towards infrastructure rebuilding - one mooted scheme is a 400km highway trade link between Kabul and Jalalabad, ' Leavy adds.
The intermediate authority in Afghanistan sees the risk posed to contractors as a real barrier to future development. As an incentive, laws preventing foreign firms from owning Afghan assets and land, and restrictive tariffs, were abolished last month.