Friday, April 04, 2008

Glass Half Empty

April 3, 2008

Water is one thing our soldiers generally have plenty of. At Patrol Base(PB) Woodcock, located south of COB Speicher, there may not always be hot water for showers, or running water for toilets (I don’t want to talk about it), but there is bottled water which, as the temperatures begin to climb into the nineties and higher, is as important as a loaded weapon.
Living in a desert climate obviously presents challenges, but thanks in large part to the Tigris River, the Iraqi people have access to a steady water supply. Or they should. Sergeant Jose Torres and the soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company discovered the well had run dry for at least some of the people in their sector.
The convoy left PB Woodcock and rolled through the countryside in search of people to talk to. Near Woodcock, farmland is punctuated by small houses. Cows graze peacefully. Green fields are a welcomed surprise. Gradually, though, the palette loses its intensity, and rich greens and browns give way to the dust color that prevails in Iraq.
The trucks parked near a squat mud and straw hut, a modest dwelling, where there were signs of life, signs of a hard life. There was evidence of a water pump system, and an irrigation ditch, but any traces of water were contaminated and quickly vanishing into the parched ground. Within the walls of the hut lived a family of six, and another room sealed off from the living quarters contained sheep and goats noisily protesting their confinement, or maybe complaining that they had no lush fields to graze in.
Sergeant Torres sat on the floor of the living room with the family and listened while they talked. This may have been the first opportunity the family had been given to talk to the Americans, so they were making the most of it. Sergeant Torres wanted to know if there had been suspicious traffic in the area. According to the man of the house, the Iraqi Police were possibly the biggest threat to local security, which was of course discouraging news.
The conversation moved outside as Sergeant Torres examined the water pump, and the homeowner continued to talk as though afraid if he stopped the Americans would leave, and he didn’t want them to go. Sergeant Torres asked what the family did for water, and the man said he had to pay to have it delivered, an expense that must have been difficult to meet. His wife and children stood by the entrance to the house, and she held my hand and asked if we could stay for lunch, though it was hard to imagine there was enough food for the family, let alone a group of unexpected visitors.
We could not stay to lunch, but the soldiers removed cases of food and bottles of water from the trucks and carried them into the house.
The convoy moved on to another house in the area. This one seemed more thoroughly maintained, but a conversation with the owners indicated that water was a problem for them too, that they were paying to have it delivered also. This was not supposed to happen. Iraq was still working through a long list of problems, but people were not supposed to have to pay to have water delivered.
The Americans had worked hard to build water treatment plants throughout the country, so that Iraqis not only had water, but clean water. And in areas beyond the reach of treatment plants, the local government was still responsible for seeing that the people in these areas had water. The soldiers were frustrated by the lack of services being provided, and the people who were affected clearly had no power to change the situation.
A few days later, we visited one of the water treatment plants the Americans had been working to open in the area, and their frustrations only grew.
Crates of new parts lay in front of the water tanks, unopened. The contractor in charge of making the plant operational gestured to the crates and explained that he had ordered the best parts he could find. But the soldiers wanted to know why they were still in the crates. A fast-talking man in a suit stepped forward, and identified himself as an inspector sent by the city to make sure the system was safe and properly maintained. Again, the soldiers wanted to know why no work was being done, why everything was in the same state of disrepair it had been in when they last visited. The inspector said he couldn’t approve the project yet. But why did he need to approve it now, when it was just beginning, and not later, when there was actually water that could be tested?
It didn’t take an interpreter to know the inspector had expected some sort of pay off from the contractor by now, and was digging his heels in until he had been properly thanked for his time. To justify his continued presence at the meeting, he launched into a never-ending speech about the importance of completing one part of the process before beginning another, but nothing was beginning here except a migraine for everyone involved.
The soldiers were finally able to extract a promise that some kind of activity would be taking place the following Monday, but no one was holding his breath.
The soldiers at Patrol Base Woodcock are no strangers to adversity. When they arrived at the base in 2007, there was no running water, no heat, no showers. Now they have all three, most of the time. They know it is possible to adapt to one’s living conditions, but it is also possible to improve them. They are trying to help the Iraqi people improve their living conditions too, so they are less vulnerable, which is hard enough in the desert, but even harder when their opportunistic countrymen put a price on everything, including water. Only dust is free in Iraq.


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