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July 5, 2005                                                                                                                                                                                     



PCO Rescues the “Sweet Water Canal”


By Abram McGull

PCO Media Relations

Basrah, IraqRecently the Project and Contracting Office (PCO), which is responsible for managing the $18.4 billion gift from American taxpayers to help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, dispatched its water sector Project And Delivery Team (PDT) to rescue a vanishing source of potable water.  This was the third such trip for PCO water specialists to Iraq’s second largest city in order to keep the region’s drinking water flowing.  Often referred to as the cradle of civilization, the Basrah region is south of the two great rivers in Iraq -- Tigris and Euphrates.  Some two million inhabitants call the port city home.

The water source for the city of Basrah originates 238 kilometers upstream via a canal that meanders through the desert.  This canal, affectionately referred to as the “Sweet Water Canal” (SWC), has been under siege from poor maintenance and improper construction since inception.  Many believe if nothing is done to the repair the deteriorating canal, it will eventually dry up.  “The canal is under attack from the many breaches along the waterway that has slowed the flow of this vital water source,” stated Project and Contracting Office PDT member Robert Thatcher.

The PDT team comprised of water and irrigation specialists boarded a fixed-wing aircraft for the hour long flight from Baghdad to Basrah.  From the air, the team was offered a rarely seen view of the 147 mile channel in this security challenged environment.  Irrigation specialists Nicola Vemmie snapped a few camera shots from the favorable vantage point.  “From what we have seen,” stated the soft spoken Scottish-born irrigation specialist, “…they (Iraq) have done the best they could, but they were overwhelmed with compromised canal embankments that could not contain the needed drinking water.”  Vemmie willingly admitted this is her first time in a war zone.  Although she has traveled to remote places in Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other parts of Africa for water and irrigation causes, this combat setting has prevented her and the team from getting out to project sites as often as they would like.  Despite the travel restriction, however, Vemmie and the PDT team’s zeal to preserve this vital source of drinking water for millions have not diminished.  They all share a common purpose that transcends the many obstacles they have faced in the combat environment.  “To a certain extent, I feel like a part of history here and a part of something larger than us,” she explained.

PCO hired Washington International Inc. to begin the $60 million project to resuscitate and extend the life of the canal for at least another ten years.  “It’s a huge task to keep the Sweet Water Canal flowing,” emphasized Dean Thomason, an employee of Black and Veatch.  Black and Veatch is one of the subcontractors that have boots on the ground in Basrah.  Together, the two firms expect to repair the breaches that have been sucking the life out of the SWC.  Years of poor maintenance, illegal water tapping and the weakening of the concrete lining of the inland waterway have inundated those charged with managing the canal with a sea of problems that can’t be handled without some assistance.  “The canal was built quickly and with poor construction methods,” declared Thomason.  The six-foot tall North Carolinian took center stage with his booming voice at the PDT meeting, where U.S., Iraq and other world water specialists gathered to solve the SWC problems.  Thomason explained to his multi-national audience that gypsum is good for building homes but not for shoring up a waterway.  The gypsum problem is one of the ways the drinking water of Basrah has been escaping its concrete duct and spewing over into the parched desert.  

The Iraqis gathered at the meeting, listened intently to the tall American because they knew the answer to solving the present and future problems of the SWC will be borne by Iraq.

The PCO’s project and delivery team plan is for the contractors along with Iraqis to repair inoperable pumps, supply permanent electricity to pumping stations, replace water inlet screens and remove sand sediments from SWC reservoirs.  In addition, the Iraqis will receive three to five million dollars of equipment such as excavators, backhoes, dump trucks, rollers and the list goes on.   Moreover, the PCO canal reconstruction package includes capacity training for the managers of the SWC.  These combinations of PDT efforts have transformed the once desolate view of the canal success to one of hope.  “Before liberation, we didn’t know what was going on in the outside world,” explained SWC director Ali Sharaf.  That has all changed for this Iraqi, a trained, mechanical engineer of 25 years.  “We weren’t connected to the world, new techniques and training but now we are very optimistic about the future.” 

Iraqi water specialists will be trained on how to operate and manage the canal and the millions of dollars of new equipment they will be given as part of the PCO water reconstruction plan.  “The idea is to give the Iraqis all the tools they need to keep the SWC running smoothly for the next ten years,” stated Robert Thatcher.  How successful the Iraqis will be in maintaining the SWC after the last breach is repaired remains to be seen.  However, some PCO contractors trust they are leaving their work in accomplished hands.  “These are very capable people, added Thomason, “And they will take care of the Sweet Water Canal long after we leave.” 

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The Project and Contracting Office (PCO) is responsible for contract management and execution of approximately $12.1 billion of the $18.4 billion Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund (IRRF) designated by the US Congress to support the reconstruction of the Iraq. The office reports to the US Department of the Army and Department of Defense on matters relating to contracting and project management, and to the US Department of State’s Iraq Reconstruction Management Office on matters relating to project requirements and priorities. For more information please visit our website at:


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