Royal Engineers are patching up southern Iraq's essential services in an attempt to maintain the region's fragile security and enable economic growth. Alan Sparks reports from Basra.
Last summer the city of Basra was the scene of violent public unrest as locals rose up in anger at worsening living conditions following the second Gulf War. Aware of the vast reconstruction budget, Iraqis were infuriated that none of the billions of dollars was filtering down to them.
'Long term projects are taking off under US prime contractors such as Bechtel. But these projects take time to implement and in the meantime the war had left many worse off than they were under Saddam, ' says Major Alec Hay, officer commanding the British 44 HQ Squadron, 35 Engineer Regiment.
Reacting to the skirmishes, the UK government pledged £127M to improve the Iraqis' lot short term. Much of this fund has been spent through the Royal Engineers on projects focused on delivering immediate improvements in quality of life.
But only this summer will it be known whether they have been successful or not.
'The population is rising all the time. Economic growth is accelerating. In the summer there is an increased demand for power and water as the temperature regularly exceeds 50infinityC, ' explains Hay. 'Meeting these needs is paramount if a repeat of last year's disturbances is to be avoided.'
Work is centred in the areas of water, sewerage, fuel, bridges and power. But the majority of the RE's work is not contracting, Hay explains. 'There are highly skilled Iraqi firms that are more than capable of doing the work themselves. What we are doing is supplying the management expertise and logistics required for these projects to go ahead.'
Work is spread over many smaller projects that have been identified with local ministries as being of key importance. Each pound spent has been targeted at gaining the best value and making the biggest difference to the people of Basra.
By way of example, Hay points to work on improving the liquid petrolium gas (LPG) fuel distribution system. Instead of developing a new production and distribution network, the RE is spending £50,000 on 80,000 new valves for existing LPG canisters. This is a low-tech solution but will increase efficiency of the present network by a third. Again, at Basra oil refinery a new traffic flow system and procurement of two new pumps are expected to increase distribution capacity by 25%.
'The skills and knowledge base is all in place. What we are doing is providing the right piece of machinery here and a small amount of investment there, allied with the right management, ' says Major Alex Hilton, officer commanding 37 Armoured Engineer Squadron, 35 Engineer Regiment.
As well as getting money back into the local economy, the strategy is geared to giving local people management experience: Under Saddam, all decisions were made centrally, leaving a management vacuum after his removal. The REs aim to step back and let departments run themselves, making their own decisions.
This is already starting to happen. 'The people in positions of authority in the ministries are highly capable and are taking over more and more of the workload, ' says Hay. This is essential in preventing the creation of a dependency culture.
'We have had to change the way we work. Instead of coming in and building things that we thought necessary, we have had to engage more and asked ourselves: 'are we doing what's needed or what we've always done?', ' says officer commanding 35 Regiment Nick Baveystock.
'This has been the most demanding tour the RE has been on in the last decade, ' he adds.
But besides a lot of hard work there have been major benefits for the RE involved.
'The technical challenge and the responsibility are huge. We have junior officers running whole utilities sectors - where else could you get experience like that?'
'Power is the number one concern.
Without power you have no water, no fuel and everybody suffers across the board, ' says officer commanding 35 Regiment Nick Baveystock.
'At the moment we have almost 24 hour electricity. This has not been the case in Basra for decades. But with the increased demand in the summer we know that we are going to have power cuts. This is acceptable as long as we can control when they will be and inform the Iraqis why there are outages and what we have done to minimise them.'
Power supply has been increased by 400MW through RE projects, a huge step towards the 1,200MW needed. But the infrastructure is fragile at best and maintaining what already exists is a full time job.
Security of power lines is a key concern and the new 400kV line built by Bechtel from Basra to Baghdad is a recognised target - it is unpopular locally because it drains electricity away from Basra.
Last month saw the first attack on a crude oil pipeline, that locals saw as robbing Basra of energy riches.
Looters have also brought down power lines for their copper and aluminium. 'On one such occasion a 400kV line remained energised and drooped above the toppled pylon. To keep the power switched on a mobile crane was brought in to prop up the line for four days - combat engineering at its very best, ' says Major Alex Hilton, officer commanding 37 Armoured Engineer Squadron, 35 Engineer Regiment.
Reinstating damaged lines is a critical task, but mobile cranes are difficult to obtain. And much of southern Iraq is wetlands, making crane access difficult. 37 Regiment has therefore developed an alternative method: Standard 3t pylons are being airlifted on to footings by an RAF Chinook helicopter. 'We believe this is the first time it's ever been tried in the world and it's certainly the first time British Forces have ever attempted it, ' says Hilton's colleague Captain Roger Walters.
To guide the pylons' feet into place specially developed steel plate funnels are fitted to the foundations. This enables them to be placed with a degree of accuracy not normally possible using a helicopter.
The first heli-lift threatened disaster. The pylon had been constructed on its side, and as the Chinook lifted the top, the legs buckled. Some swift fabrication by Iraqi workers saw new legs bolted on and a rearrangement of temporary bracing members.
Second time around, the legs held firm and when the structure was eventually dropped into position, a combination of pulleys, crowbars and brute force saw legs and foundation plates marry up.
An emergency call in the middle of the night alerted engineers to the plight of Cullingworth pontoon bridge on the Shatt al Arab.
A cement truck had caused the bridge to buckle and the fragile steel pontoons were sinking. In the high tide and strong winds, the first pontoon had filled with water, through uncovered maintenance hatches.
Commanding officer Nick Baveystock tells the story: 'As the pontoons sank they were pulling down the next along and it was only a matter of time before the whole bridge would be lost. To avert the progressive failure, the order was given at 3am for divers to cut the floating section of the bridge free with explosives. But it was a close thing.'
A dozen pontoons were lost and 23 of the bridge's 65 bays were sunk.
Strangely, this was not the first time the bridge had run into trouble. Just one day after it was anchored in place a heavy lorry had caused six of its bays to buckle. These were repaired in a 48 hour shift of constant working.
The 200m long bridge takes traffic from the eastern bank of the Shatt to an central island, where it can transfer to the remaining, western span of a reinforced concrete bridge knocked out during the first Gulf War.
Consultant Mott MacDonald is drawing up a long term repair package for the original box girder structure.
Fourteen sections of the pontoon bridge's Bailey structure bays have so far been retrieved from the water and will be re-used. Some pontoons have been recovered but 10 are being built at a local shipyard. This crossing is vital as the only other route across the Shatt al Arab, the Al Tannumah Bridge, is 10km away.
Cullingworth Bridge is named after staff sergeant Simon Cullingworth of 35 Engineer Regiment who, along with Sapper Luke Allsopp of 33 Engineer Regiment, died in March last year when their military vehicle was attacked in Basra. Both served in Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
Long term, new water treatment plants are essential in Basra. Existing pipelines were patched up during Saddam's reign, but a lack of appropriate spare parts has meant that the whole supply infrastructure is now crumbling.
'When we arrived in November last year, water was the principal area of discontent. Outlying villages often have no access to clean water at all. The RE's job here is to make small scale improvements that will have the biggest impact until the big schemes arrive, ' says commanding officer Nick Baveystock.
Sewerage is also receiving attention. 'The majority of work has been to unblock and repair existing pipes, repair pumps and clear culverts to increase the system's flow. The existing system relies on settlement as the principal method of sewage control.'
Shatt al Arab - the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates - runs through Basra. Despite impressive stocks of fish this is heavily polluted, saline and unsuitable for potable use. Most clean water is derived from the sweet water canal which runs from northern Iraq through the desert. This concrete canal was found to have a hole the size of three double-decker buses meaning all water was seeping into the sand beneath.
'When we discovered the collapse we deliberately left it for 48 hours to see whether the Iraqi authorities that we have been working with were able to cope with this supply crisis.
When we went back it had been fully repaired and supply was back on, ' says Baveystock.
'This proves that the authorities are more than capable of taking over in July.'
Pipelines branch out from the canal, through the city centre to the outskirts.
However, leakage in the weblike network means pressure is lost and some areas rarely receive any water.
'So what we have done is construct new pipelines direct to these areas, missing out the central areas, ' says Major Alec Hay, commanding the British 44 HQ Squadron. 'New reverse osmosis plants have also been installed in the worst hit areas.'
In addition to US grants for reconstruction, 'the Iraqis' own budget will increase in 2004 to £10bn, from just £1bn last year', says Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head of finance Andrew Alderson.
'The big money is just starting to appear as investors react to the improved security, banking and political climate.'
Much of Iraq's infrastructure was British built and goodwill remains. The RE has also developed valuable relationships with Iraqi authorities and contractors, which puts British firms in a strong position to win work in what is expected to be a huge market.
Yet, apart from dealings with Mott MacDonald on the CPA contracts, Major Alec Hay of the British 44 HQ Squadron has had no contact with UK firms.
'We have been disappointed not to see any British firms setting up offices here, ' he says. 'Some firms from Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark have entered the market and are already benefiting from that investment.
'To win contracts out here takes time, needs a lot of tea drinking and good personal relationships to be developed with clients. If British firms do not come here soon they could miss out altogether. If I was in charge of a major construction firm I would already be here - without a doubt. The opportunities are vast.'