As violence escalates in Iraq, UK engineering companies are turning to private security firms to keep staff chasing reconstruction work out of harm's way. Alan Sparks reports.
In the old days, when British construction companies still marched around the globe to win work in some of its most inhospitable corners, engineers were regularly issued with a theodolite in one hand and a rifle in the other. Times have changed, though. UK firms increasingly steer clear of potential hot spots, and engineers certainly do not carry firearms as a standard tool of the trade.
So how are UK construction firms, hoping to mop up lucrative reconstruction contracts despite Iraq's deteriorating security situation, ensuring the safety of their staff?
'As responsible employers we must ensure that no undue risk to our staff's safety is taken, ' states Halcrow regional director for Iraq, Rab Brown. 'All our engineers who have or could be working in Iraq will have been on an appropriate survival course first. These are specifically tailored to the threats posed in Iraq.'
'We cover specific dangers that can be expected today in Iraq. These include vehicle training, hostage situations, response under gunfire and specific first aid, ' says Paul Rees, managing director of Centurion Risk Assessment Services, which is providing Halcrow with bespoke training and risk assessment.
'There is also general practice to consider such as watching each other's backs, awareness and travelling in groups. This is particularly relevant to Iraq where we have had reports of Western forces being approached from behind, tapped on the shoulder and when they have turned around, had their head blown off - in broad daylight, ' he warns.
There are dozens of security firms similar to Centurion offering ex-special forces teams to protect adventuring engineers.
Checking the CVs of each of your protectors is advised. High quality firms - charging up to ú6,000 per day for a security team of five or six- provide full medical plus ex-special forces personal escort teams, while cheaper firms may offer muscle only.
Engineers who are sent to Iraq are likely to be middle aged or older and so health concerns are at the fore. 'The biggest threat to your wellbeing in Iraq is not necessarily from armed attack, but from medical emergencies, ' explains Sean Keogh, managing director of specialist medical and security firm SecureRetrieve.
There is endemic cholera in Basra and visitors will almost certainly contract it if they spend much time in the city. With no health system to speak of, taking medical care along is essential. 'We were out there last week and the heat was blistering with a number of our party suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Left untreated, these conditions can be fatal, ' says Keogh.
'This is why we place consultant level doctors with all our teams. Our kit can be adapted to meet our clients' specific requirements, which we feel is critical.
What firms looking to visit Iraq must also consider is whether there is an effective evacuation plan in place, ' adds Keogh.
Although the cost of security can be very expensive, getting training and hiring a security team can bring down the cost of insurance for a visit to Iraq.
'We have heard of some people being quoted ú5,000 per week for personal insurance in Iraq.
By taking on a specialist security firm these costs can be brought down by as much as 15%, ' says Rees.
Consultant Black & Veatch has ventured into Iraq in an attempt to re-establish historic contacts.
'Before missions we have invested in security courses. The main lessons learnt concerned what we should do in the event of armed attack. Hiding behind the car door will not protect you from a bullet like it does in the films and it is this kind of awareness that we were well schooled in, ' reports B&V business development manager Jim Wilson.
These courses were provided by Olive Security. Managing director Chris St George says planning an itinerary carefully plays a major role in reducing risk. 'For longer visits we will travel ahead and assess all bases and routes to be taken.'
Security firms are expected to be needed in Iraq for the foreseeable future for any trade mission, as the violence is getting rapidly worse. This is a major obstacle to rebuilding work and is making reconnaissance impossible in some regions.
It is understood that security is better in the UK-controlled areas to the south, but personal escorts remain a prerequisite.
INFOPLUS www. secureretrieve. com www. centurionsafety. net www. olivesecurity. com
Battle for sweet water
British relief engineers were battling as NCEI went to press to restore calm and avert a humanitarian disaster in Baghdad by patching up the city's ramshackle water and sanitation network.
Tempers were fraying as drinking water supplies and electricity needed to power airconditioning units repeatedly faltered and failed in temperatures soaring to 50 Engineers from UNICEF are leading co-ordination of repairs to Iraq's water and sewerage infrastructure. They are supported primarily by the International Committee for the Red Cross, and the United Nations Development and Habitat Programmes, plus other UN agencies.
UN co-ordinator for water and sanitation for Iraq Paul Sherlock is charged with managing the delivery of these vital life support systems between non-governmental organisations (NGOs), US contractor Bechtel which is looking after the US government's aid programme, the interim Iraqi administration and Iraq's two water authorities. One of these authorities is responsible for Baghdad, while the Public Works department handles the rest of the country.
'We have a dozen international engineers working in central and southern Iraq, with a further 15 Iraqi engineers working in Baghdad.
They are assessing the state of the infrastructure and re-establishing treatment works, sewage booster plants and pipelines, ' says Sherlock, who is set to return to Iraq next week.
Sewer blockages are causing sewage to spill into the streets.
And little of the sewage that does reach treatment plants can be processed because power is only available for four hours a day. Booster stations that pump the sewage through the system are working from inadequate back-up generators. With no effective secondary treatment available, it is estimated that 1Mt of raw sewage is released into the city's rivers every day. 'Repairing Baghdad's three main sewage treatment plants is of prime concern, ' Sherlock says.
The rivers also supply the drinking water and as the power is sporadic much of this is also untreated. To combat this, engineers have been dosing the water with chlorine gas, of which there is no shortage in central Baghdad.
Outlying districts are suffering from diarrhoea but cholera has so far been averted.
New pumps are needed to boost capacity throughout the network. These will replace the hodgepodge of make-do kit which has been supplied under the oil for food programme.
But even if all plants were operating at 100% efficiency, Sherlock predicts capacity would still be insufficient, as the capital's population has grown by around 30% since the 1980s when the last water treatment plant was built.
'Smaller NGOs focused in specific locations are struggling to work due to the security situation. This is frustrating, but has not had too great an impact on us.
Although Western engineers are unable to work in some locations, they can visit their local colleagues, ' explains Sherlock.