Working out of Lashkar Ghar, the capital city of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, Captain Steve Crosby Jones of 519 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE) is the officer commanding the operation to repair and improve the region’s vital network of canals.
Lashkar Ghar, historically called Bost, has a population of over 200,000 and was developed in the 1950s when it was used as a headquarters for United States Army Corps of Engineers working on the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) irrigation project. As such it is modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority ideas and built to US design standards, with broad tree-lined streets, brick houses and with no walls to separate them from the street.
All changed first with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and then the long Taliban war that followed. The trees came down and walls went up. But the US-constructed canals remain.
These canals are the result of the Helmand irrigation project carried out between the 1950s and 1970s to create one of the most extensive farming zones in southern Afghanistan. By providing a constant water supply they opened up many thousands of hectares of desert to human cultivation and habitation.
It has required great skill and engineering ingenuity from the Royal Engineers to support local contractors and help them work effectively and in safety
This project focused on three large canals: the Boghra, Shamalan, and Darweshan. Under an accord signed between Iran and Afghanistan in 1972, Afghanistan is obliged to release water at a rate of at least 25.7m3 per second.
Every winter the canals are shut down for essential maintenance. This year works were carried out on the Nahr-e- Boghra canal and included the re-forming of canal sections, silt clearance and removal, bank strengthening, scour protection, repair of concrete regulating structures and the replacement or repair of turnout gates and their concrete headwalls.
It is a big job and no mean feat at the best of times. But given that the area is still very much considered a war zone, it has required great skill and engineering ingenuity from the Royal Engineers to support the local contractors and help them to work effectively and in safety.
“There are a number of issues such as allowing the water to flow too fast and causing bank erosion,” explains Crosby Jones. “Also, having a hydroelectric plant on the canal causes water flow issues.”
Operation Tethys is designed to tackle the engineering challenges and help build up local skills. It is a Department for International Development funded project, organised by the UK-led Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, designed by Mott MacDonald and managed by the STRE.
After 30-odd years of war the lack of education has eroded the ability of the Afghan contractors to provide a skilled workforce. Similarly the HVA is inexperienced and still working hard to develop water management processes.
Going out to tender to local contractors has been problematic, not least since finding local firms with the right skill set is difficult. The lack of plant, concrete and other essential materials means the solutions have to be low tech. Even simple items such as finding galvanised coated wire can be challenging for the local contractors.
Crosby Jones and his colleagues have their challenges too. Getting out on the ground can be difficult as the Nahr-e-Boghra canal runs close to the edge of the desert and, although the security is much better today, there is always a risk that insurgents may target them.
An accompaniment of armoured vehicles watches over as the engineers climb down into the drained canals to examine the standard of the contractors’ work.
That means that site inspections require full personal protective equipment, which includes body armour, helmets and weapons. An accompaniment of armoured vehicles watches over as the engineers climb down into the drained canals to examine the standard of the contractors’ work.
While checking the detailed work is difficult, knowing whether the contractors are on site or not is a little easier. The network of patrol bases helps, but patrolling the length of the canal in a helicopter makes life a little easier - and faster.
Bridging the skills and equipment gap
Like so much of the Royal Engineers’ (RE) work, the key to success on Operation Tethys was being able to quickly address the challenges thrown up by the environment. Here the RE and Mott MacDonald tackled a concrete shortage by simply reverting to tried and tested methods. Designing and utilising a gabion mattress to shore up the bank erosion has proved to be a successful and deliverable solution.
For the longer term the RE is also working hard to help bridge the engineering skills gap as Afghanistan recovers from conflict. This means working with contractors to teach them, where appropriate, modern methods of construction and sharing their skills.
In another Department for International Development-funded programme in the region, the RE delivered 147 ours of “train the trainers” to instruct 12 staff from the Afghanistan Vocational Training Institute (ATVI) in Helmand on project management and supervision of road and canal operations.
In turn, these ATVI trainers have been able to cascade their skills to deliver 266 hours of training to 75 public servants from 11 local government departments in a range of areas including procurement, computer skills, basic maths and English, design drawing, surveying, including road and canal maintenance.
For the RE it is important that the country is able to continue the work started by the international community and the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team after they leave the region. The challenge for Afghanistan will be to persevere with efforts to build construction and engineering capacity - a process likely to be slow and almost certainly painful. Experience shows that post-conflict countries often experience a boom in construction as they jump start their efforts to return their country to its original state.
And in this case the military has created that boom for regional contractors.
However, it is clear that this boom will diminish with the redeployment of British troops out of Afghanistan.
Projects such as Operation Tethys demonstrate how the “stabilisation” delivered by the soldiers of the British Army in Helmand and the part played by the RE in building the infrastructure to give the people the freedom of movement that is necessary for economic growth, remains the untold story of the war in Afghanistan.
Stabilisation will now turn into regeneration as the international community supports the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure.
As this project highlights, many obstacles have still to be addressed, including the lack of construction equipment and a skilled workforce. Because of these two shortfalls, most major projects are awarded to international firms which have expert engineers, machinery, management and materials.