U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Sustainable Development in Afghanistan
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is constructing billions of dollars of infrastructure throughout Afghanistan. Incorporating green and sustainable solutions within a program of this size would be a challenge anywhere; in Afghanistan, it is even more challenging. Yet USACE has sought and found opportunities to introduce green/sustainable engineering – often in surprising and simple ways. Michael Scarano, P.E., Deputy for Programs and Project Management, Afghanistan Engineer District-South (AED-South), explains: “What we find are two competing points of view – mostly generated by misunderstanding. One point of view maintains ‘we are here to win a war, not to be energy efficient.’ The challenge for those wishing to promote green engineering is to introduce sustainable solutions that meet both requirements. Rather than being a detractor from the military effort, green engineering can actually provide a win-win solution, which saves energy and supports the warfighter.”
AED-South is involved in three major program areas for infrastructure construction in Afghanistan. The first is the Military Construction program to support U.S. troops – barracks, roads, sewage treatment plants, water treatment plants, water wells, airfields, fuel storage and medical facilities. The second major effort is the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) program. The ANSF include the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan National Border Patrol and Afghan Counter-narcotics forces. The ANSF program includes barracks, training ranges, water and sewage treatment facilities, hospitals and clean, sanitary dining facilities. The third major program, according to Scarano, is probably the most volatile in terms of funding and timing yet has huge potential – the Water and Infrastructure (W&I) program, which includes most of the sustainable infrastructure funded by the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP).
“Southern Afghanistan has two major dams that present tremendous opportunity for irrigation, hydropower generation and drinking water for the people – Dahla Dam and Kajaki Dam,” Scarano said. Primary funding for projects involving these two dams would come from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund. A number of projects involving hydropower generation, electrical distribution, water distribution master planning, dam-raising and irrigation are in varying stages of planning and design. Some will be executed by USAID and some by USACE.
AED-South is developing a plan to raise Dahla Dam, located approximately 21 miles northeast of Kandahar City, to replace reservoir capacity lost to years of siltation. This improvement will provide potable water and improve irrigation along the Arghandab River – critically important to the 80 percent of the people in the arid Kandahar Province who rely on agriculture for their livelihood.
“The Kajaki Dam, located in Helmand Province, provides some hydropower to Kandahar City – not nearly enough, though, to satisfy the latent demand,” Scarano explained.
Long-term improvements to Kajaki Dam, to be handled by USAID, would provide three functioning turbines. Power distribution from the dam to points south would be handled by USACE and DABS (the Afghan state-run power company).
“In some cases,” continues the Deputy for Programs and Project Management, “the Corps of Engineers has been involved in construction of smaller, local projects through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). CERP provides local commanders with funding for local projects they determine can help support and protect the Afghan people. The projects provide a positive counterinsurgency (COIN) effect and build support by local Afghans for the Afghanistan national government. Examples of CERP projects include compact water treatment plants for a local village, paving of village roads and local schools.”
AED-South also built two diesel-fired power plants near Kandahar City. Scarano explains: “The Kandahar power plants, while not by any means green or sustainable in their own right, are intended as a bridging solution. They provide critically needed power to Kandahar City now while allowing work on clean, sustainable hydropower from the Kajaki Dam. The latter, at its full potential, will eventually replace the diesel generators with up to 100 megawatts of clean power that could serve the southern part of the country. In the meantime, the power being delivered to the east and west sides of Kandahar City provides a valuable COIN effect. To date, the diesel plants have helped businesses reopen and have alleviated some of the Kandahar City substation power generation burden. Overall, the Kandahar power initiative is critical when one realizes the average Kandahar City resident receives only four hours of power every other day.
“Another ongoing challenge faced by USACE is ensuring we are able to build, given that many areas of Afghanistan are within a combat environment. Contrary to what many believe, AED-South can only construct in secure areas in order to allow for safe and efficient activities. Currently, many areas exist where we would like to move forward on projects, but they’re simply not yet secured.”
Sustainable Initiatives & Ideology
According to Scarano, one of his personal missions is “to educate others on three or four sustainable solutions that are readily available, can be used today and can quickly make a difference.” His hallmark example is the replacement of existing 2.5 gpm (gallons per minute) low-flow showerheads with 0.55 gpm ultra-low-flow showerheads, which can be instituted immediately, cheaply and quickly. This change has a huge impact on water usage and the energy required to heat that water.
Scarano maintains that most people don’t think about all the steps involved in delivering a liter of water – the pumping from wells, expensive treatment, distribution and heating (normally accomplished by electric hot water heaters using diesel generated power). He explains, “If a person can reduce water usage by two-thirds or three-fourths by using an efficient showerhead, he or she has made a tremendous impact on the entire water delivery process.”
The Deputy for Programs and Project Management continues: “The counter to those in the military who say ‘we’re here to win a war, not be worried about energy-efficiency’ is that sustainability (or lack thereof) has a military impact. Much of the oil used to generate electricity – to heat and pump water – comes by convoy. In the course of reducing water usage, we’ve reduced our energy need, which means we’ve made a direct impact on the mission. Fewer truckloads of oil means a lower price paid in terms of military casualties lost to deliver that oil. Since those convoys are often attacked by Taliban and other enemies, anything we do to reduce the need for convoys makes a difference.
“I believe a combination of things prevents engineers from being more proactive in sustainability. As is the case with most people, we do what we know how to do. We do what we’ve done before – what’s worked before. And, when it comes to setting up encampments in war zones, we start from a baseline of doing things the way we’ve always done them. This means chemical toilet port-a-potties instead of the standalone composting toilets that I’ve been trying to push. It means traditional sewage treatment instead of trying to use composting to separate black water from grey water. Even the federal standard for so-called low-flow showerheads is 2.50 gpm. We just do what we’ve always done before.
“I think what needs to happen – and it is happening but just not as quickly as we’d like – is to see an institutionalization, in practical terms, of sustainable engineering practices. I’ve listened to many of the discussions, and we hear a lot about solar panels and wind turbines, but these infrastructure investments aren’t as readily available and doable in Afghanistan. When it comes to a simple solution like a low-flow showerhead or toilet, these are very easy to do. And, they have almost as dramatic an effect on energy consumption as some of the more complex alternatives, which do have a place where applicable.”
Scarano maintains the answer is pilot testing of sustainable solutions that people and battle commanders “can see and say ‘not only does this work, it doesn’t interfere with my ability to prosecute my military operation.’ Then, we can turn this [sustainability] ship in the right direction. It must involve many things happening at once. We need the institutional message from the top that says, ‘We will be sustainable.’ That exists, to some degree, now. Additionally, we’ve got to see the practical application of those policies take hold in day-to-day engineering in the contingency environment. Necessarily, this will take more time since our primary mission has to focus on ‘getting through the day’ by moving forward with the ongoing military operation. The challenge, then, is to show people they can be sustainable without compromising the mission. We’re getting there, but not fast enough for many of us. I think we’ll be much farther along in future engagements.”
Form, Function & Culture
The Corps of Engineers is beginning to take into account sustainability in its facilities construction for Afghans. Scarano continues: “What we’ve found in the past is that we were designing to Western standards, which are entirely unsustainable by the local population. For example, instead of propane kitchen equipment, we’re moving toward wood stoves, which is the way Afghans cook. In addition, we’re not installing air conditioning to Western standards in many of the facilities we build for the Afghans. Instead, we’re installing ceiling fans because of the cost of fuel to power the local generators that operate air conditioners.
“Iraq is different from Afghanistan in terms of culture. In Iraq, we did find a culture that was more technically advanced than in Afghanistan. It goes back to my earlier statement: If you go someplace; you do what you know. We know how to build barracks for U.S. troops. Those first barracks for Afghan troops were very similar to what we would have done for our own troops. Then, gradually, some astute observers said, ‘This isn’t the way they do things. Let’s see if we can do a more austere design that better matches Afghan Army traditions.’ So we moved to a more austere design. It’s what we need to do in all the other areas – learn and implement based on what’s practical for the local population and environment.”
The Deputy for Programs and Project Management wants to compile a list entitled, “Things to Do Today or Tomorrow that Make a Difference without Affecting Quality of Life.” He maintains that “if it’s easy, somebody will do it. If it’s too hard, it won’t be done. If a person starts small and somebody sees a good result, they may say, ‘What else can we do?’ That’s my hope. I’m just a guy trying to make a difference in an inexpensive way that gives an immediate beneficial result, which helps battle commanders and doesn’t impede their ability to engage in their mission.
“One of the items on this ‘to do’ list is LED direct replacement for fluorescent tubes. For example, a standard 36-inch tube used in office lighting, which may be a 35– or 40-watt fluorescent bulb, can be replaced in-kind with an LED tube. What are the advantages? An LED tube will use about one-half the power, 17 watts instead of 35 watts, for instance, which means a savings in electricity. Plus, fluorescent tubing produces hazardous wastes because it contains mercury. LED tubes have no mercury, and they’re very practical since you just take out the old bulb and put in the new one. They last about 10 times longer, put out roughly the same amount of light and consume one-half the electricity.
“In fact, simple, easy and inexpensive sustainable solutions solved a complex problem in our compound at Kandahar Airfield. We were quickly running out of space and had to expand the number of rooms for our people. We were connected to a main sewer line operating at capacity, so we were unable to increase our flow into that line. Adding more units using standard shower heads and other standard flow appurtenances would have required construction of a separate sewage holding tank that would have to be pumped periodically. I demonstrated that by switching the entire compound to low-flow water appurtenances, even with an increased population of about 25 percent, we would be able to significantly reduce our total flow, which allows us to continue using the existing sewer line and avoid more expensive alternatives.
“Our practical, ‘we did it’ initiative was accomplished solely with low-flow showerheads. We took the 2.50+ gpm showerhead down to 0.55 gpm, which translates to an 80 percent reduction in water usage for showers. We still have work to do with the toilets, but one simple, ‘low tech’ solution we used was to fill up water bottles and put them in each toilet tank. By trial and error, we continued to add as many bottles as we could until we noticed deterioration in performance. In those toilets with water bottles, no noticeable change exists in the way they operate. Yet, we’re saving from one-half to one-gallon per flush. Because water bottles displace water, less water is used per flush. It’s an example of one of those practical, easy and inexpensive solutions for anyone who can’t afford a high-tech solution.”
Green Solutions & Opportunities
One push that Scarano has been making but which hasn’t caught on yet is composting toilets. He maintains that “the challenge is overcoming the objections of people who are used to existing technologies. Getting someone who maintains facilities for hundreds or thousands of troops to change is difficult. What I’m trying to do is to look for an opportunity to replace one or two port-a-johns – the chemical toilets we’re used to – to see if people notice a difference. I know from personal experience that the composting toilets are just fabulous. When I tell people there’s zero odor, they ask, ‘Are you sure?’
“One case study I’ve been using to convince others to try the technology is from the 1 World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) now going up in downtown New York City. A Clivus Multrum solution ties six trailers together and, as the building goes up, the trailers go up with the building. It has commodes, sinks and a dining area. The conventional solution would require continually sending chemical toilets up and down with the typical spillage that often goes with it. With the composting solution being used at the World Trade Center (WTC), this trailer goes up with the building, and the composting material won’t have to be withdrawn for the life of the tower’s construction. There’s enough capacity to handle 100 to 200 workers for the project’s duration, which is nearly two years.” (See http://clivusmultrum.com/newsletter/clivus_v04-01_email.htm for more details.)
Scarano’s hope is to use whatever opportunity he can find to do a few sustainable solution pilots. One such pilot will be using wind power in the Herat area. (Please read this issue’s “Winds of Change: Renewable Power in Afghanistan” by USACE Lt. Col. Ken Safe.) He and Lt. Col. Ken Safe hope to succeed in one or two of these pilots and, according to Scarano, “to get some people to see how well it works. And then, through word-of-mouth, get that institutionalized. The challenge for anyone who is an advocate for sustainable engineering in the ‘in-theatre’ military environment is to understand that current practices have continued for a long time. It’s important to recognize this and to say, ‘Yes, the things you do work, but we can do it better. We can show you ways of saving energy; we can show you ways of saving water. And, we can show you ways of doing it better for less and in an environmentally sustainable way. And, we can do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with your ability to do the mission. In fact, we can actually help you save lives by saving energy and fuel, which will allow the military to concentrate on more important things.’
“We’re not going to see wholesale changes, such as the wide use of solar panels and wind power, in this military engagement. But, we do have, right now, opportunities to do a few things today that can be done easily, inexpensively and make an immediate difference in significantly reducing energy. We’re starting to do it here at the Corps of Engineers AED-South, and we’re seeking opportunities to incorporate these processes wherever we can, here in Afghanistan.”