Civil engineers are playing a crucial role in getting Afghanistan back on its feet. Jo Stimpson reports on the Stabilisation Unit’s work in Helmand province.
When news from Helmand province in Afghanistan flashes across screens, it is rarely good. British soldiers continue to be killed and wounded as they fight to bring security to the country and ensure it cannot once more become a failed state.
Working with the troops is a little-known government outfit that specialises in post-conflict reconstruction, which is the key reason for Nato’s fight with the Taliban.
The Stabilisation Unit is jointly owned, funded and staffed by the Department for International Development (DFID), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD). It was established in 2004 and focuses on restoring political and economic systems as well as reconstructing buildings and infrastructure.
“We are the centre of expertise for the government on stability,” explains the unit’s head Sheelagh Stewart. “Civil engineering plays an absolutely critical role when it’s needed.”
The unit works alongside the military and has recently been active in Iraq and Sudan. The unit has also been to post-earthquake Haiti, where its work has included rebuilding damaged prisons. But its strongest presence is currently in Afghanistan’s Helmand province where it works through the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).
Helmand’s roads and bridges are invaluable to keep the local economy moving, and hydropower projects offer energy security. There are also smaller projects in the province’s district centres including government buildings, schools, clinics, solarpowered street lighting and the rebuilding of the bazaars that are central to local commerce.
Behind it all is a dedicated team of engineers enlisted by the Stabilisation Unit. “We get really good people like Mark out to the places when they’re needed,” says Stewart.
“Infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight so it’s quite difficult to show results quickly.”
She is referring to Mark Harvey, senior infrastructure adviser in Helmand. A civil engineer by training, he has been in the province for 14 months and is based in the PRT.
He has been involved in numerous projects, ranging from roads, power and water infrastructure to municipal structures such as police stations, courts and administrative buildings for local government use.
“In four or five small market towns we’ve upgraded the road surface and improved drainage,” he says. “We’ve put in solar-powered street lights and are helping to improve the electricity supply.”
Road work is especially important. The PRT aims to help the provincial government take a number of disparate district centres with their own main roads and join them up with each other, creating an allimportant transport network.
Travel between districts is currently threatened by badly maintained tracks, roadside bombs and unofficial tax points run by insurgents. “We will be able to help government work on those roads, upgrade and improve them,” says Harvey. “The core of the campaign is freedom of movement.”
The team is now reaching the end of the design phase of a 48km road linking the provincial capital Lashkar Gah to a nearby commercial town. Construction will start in mid-2010. Work will also begin later this year on the rehabilitation of a major hydroelectric power station.
The PRT’s projects are of necessity a slow climb towards improvement. “Infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight so it’s quite difficult to show results quickly,” says Harvey.
Security is also a major obstacle. In the volatile political climate of Helmand the PRT cannot carry out their work quite as they would at home. The military protection that keeps the engineers safe unfortunately restricts their movement, making it harder for them to get a grip on their projects.
“Being civilians, we come under a FCO duty of care,” says Harvey. “We are extremely well protected and looked after. The challenge is talking to Afghans and finding out what they want.
“There’s an extremely limited amount of time to get out to a place and look around and see how it works and what it needs.”
Another challenge is a lack of manpower meaning the teams cannot always spend their time efficiently. “The technical and specialist expertise is there,” says Harvey, “but we probably don’t have enough lower level staff”.
“There’s good evidence of progress. It’s not always visible when you look at it from a big picture perspective”
The poor local economy also means there is little choice when it comes to the supply chain − “there’s not a huge field of contractors to choose from,” says Harvey − but military help is available. “We have a team of the Royal
Engineers purely working on civilian projects,” Harvey explains. The Royal Engineers have a more relaxed duty of care, so they can get out and about in a way that civilians cannot.
At least the situation is improving as the economy recovers and local engineers emerge to take up the baton.
“Slowly they are building the capacity of local contractors,” says Harvey. “In the next year or two we will be doing less of the project management and handing that over more.”
The positive effects of the PRT’s often tightly localised work can be hard to see − but it does make a dramatic difference to the citizens it serves.
“There’s good evidence of progress. It’s not always visible when you look at it from a big picture perspective,” says Stewart. She cites as an example the town of Sangin, whose bazaar was reopened and whose economy was able to improve on the back of it. “The local mayor then raised taxes, which he ploughed back into development,” she says.
Operations and deployments group head Jamie Howard explains that stabilised infrastructure reinforces locals’ belief in a degree of permanence in their community: “That gives them the confidence to want to invest in it further,” he says. The unit’s working members are called up from a large database of experienced engineers as and when they are needed and contract lengths vary depending on personal circumstances.
Stewart is keen to encourage more engineers to join the unit’s database. “We’re always on the lookout for well qualified experts who are up for a real professional challenge,” she says.
Harvey says the work is perfect for civil engineers: “It’s a combination of long-term development and large infrastructure. You can see that you’re contributing to a larger effort.”
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