Engineers Help to Solve Construction Issues
By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2010 Afghanistan has a lot of building and rebuilding to do in the next few years. Three decades of war in the country has left little to no nationwide infrastructure, which only complicates the urgent need for construction.
Now, as NATO and U.S. forces help to train Afghans to be engineers and build facilities for the growing Afghan security forces, Army Col. Mike Wehr, combined joint engineer director for NATO Training Mission Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, has seen that traditional Afghan construction techniques can help to make a sustainable infrastructure for the nation.
“We are certainly all challenged in a nation that has been war-torn for over 30 years,” Wehr said. “And, quite candidly, it's been a very exciting opportunity in history to help rebuild a nation with the talent that exists within Afghanistan -- truly an untapped resource that is a great opportunity to serve with, shoulder to shoulder.”
Wehr and Air Force Lt. Col. Steven LaCasse, the infrastructure training advisory group director for the training commands, spoke during a “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable yesterday about the continued growth of Afghan infrastructure through construction projects and engineer training.
Most facilities for the Afghan army and the national police are scheduled for construction over the next three to four years, equating to $5.3 billion budgeted in fiscal 2010 and 2011. The pace has picked up recently because of the accelerated growth of the Afghan security forces.
One of Wehr’s top priorities is to train an Afghan corps of engineers to maintain infrastructure and build on what U.S. and NATO engineers have done so far. Simply building barracks and offices for the Afghan forces does not meet the mission requirements, he said. Rather, he said, his job is mainly to build capacity among Afghans who will be the guardians of the infrastructure to ensure that it is sustainable and allows the Afghan government and population to have an infrastructure that allows them to fully develop, Wehr said.
Some of the training provided surprises to the NATO instructors. Modern design and construction methods left a lot of questions open -- things most people take for granted are much more precious when there isn’t a reliable power grid, road system or plumbing system, Wehr explained.
“For cooking, we have been designing some stoves that require propane,” he said. “Of course, that relies upon a very developed distribution system -- filling the tanks [and] a road network to get propane trucked.”
The answers came from Afghans, who have been building and working around these issues for years. They knew the answer to the propane problem was to use wood-burning that can be fueled in even the most austere conditions. Instead of including massive air conditioning systems in buildings, the Afghans added a layer of insulation to the walls.
“I can best describe it as a structural wall with about two to three feet potentially of what may be considered adobe, mud and straw,” Wehr said, “and that technique provides such a great insulation that the need for air conditioners is greatly diminished, reducing the requirement for power.
“It does not look like something we would design,” he added, “but we recognize the incredible insulating factors of local materials, and also the fact that the Afghans have the skill to do that.”
Wehr’s group also is looking to alternative energy sources to keep facilities running. Reliable sources of electricity and water are scarce in many parts of Afghanistan, so Wehr said he’s looking to windmills to fill the gap.
“We have been guilty of designing facilities that require a steady flow of power to provide water pressure through a pump that relies on steady power, and in reality, … [there is] not always a reliable power source available,” he said. “So what we had started to adopt is certainly water storage overhead, but more importantly, some alternative energy sources. For example, windmills have been pumping water for centuries, so we've started to look at using wind energy to elevate water to provide the necessary water pressure. No electricity required for that.”
As he continues his mission, Wehr said, he hopes to see more incorporation of Afghan construction methods and design come into the Afghan security forces’ facilities being built. After all, he said, they’ll be the ones taking care of them and expanding on them.
“It's an exciting time for us to contribute shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans in developing this capability which they have had historically,” Wehr said. “After 30 years of war, there's a lot of repair and recovery that needs to take place. We look forward to the continued development with our Afghan engineers.”