Troops in Afghanistan must have their water supply trucked in because they lack purification systems that would make it possible for them to drink from nearby rivers.
On a weekly basis, as many as 50 “jingle trucks” that are contracted by the Defense Department travel from Pakistan to deliver water bottles to key forward operating bases along the Helmand River, said Brig. Gen. David Berger, director of the operations division at Marine Corps Headquarters. Troops then risk their lives in convoys to distribute the bottles to base camps all around the region, he said at NDIA’s Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Panama City, Fla.
Gen. James Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, in mid-November said the service was on the cusp of shipping reverse-osmosis water purification systems to several of its larger bases in Afghanistan. But troops who go out on patrol still have the fundamental problem of carrying enough clean water to last for days-long missions.
They rely upon the jerrycan, a 20-liter plastic container that was invented more than 70 years ago by the Germans. Originally made from pressed steel to hold fuel, the jug is used by militaries around the world to store fluids. Units fill them up with clean water, but the supply lasts for only a few days before the contents must be discarded or sterilized again.
A British company has updated the container with a filtration technology that purifies water on an as-needed basis.
“Our principle is, you store the water dirty,” said Michael Pritchard, inventor and CEO of Lifesaver Systems, headquartered in Ipswich, United Kingdom.
The product debuted at an international defense and security technology exhibition in London, where Pritchard demonstrated how the system works. He dipped a jerrycan into a small pool of dirty-looking liquid. After it filled up, he replaced the lid, which contains a pump that pressurizes the container to allow water to flow through the filtration system and out of a tap on the other side of the can.
Only when one activates the pump does it actually start to sterilize the water. “The water stays dirty until you need to use it,” he said. “It can stand there for weeks.”
The water passes through a membrane with pores that measure 15 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. The smallest bacteria measures 200 nanometers across and the smallest virus is 25 nanometers. Lifesaver’s jerrycan system prevents bacteria, viruses and other microbiological waterborne pathogens from reaching the tap, said Pritchard. It is based on the same technology behind the company’s personal water-filtering bottle. Both systems contain an activated carbon filter that further reduces residues from chemicals and heavy metals.
The new jerrycan is capable of supplying 10 troops with 10 liters of water a day each, for a six-month tour. When the filter expires, a “fail-safe” technology built into the system shuts the tap off.
“You always get clean water or nothing. It will start to slow up, so you get an idea” of when the filter needs to be changed, said Pritchard. Replacing the filter is simple, he added. The entire tap unit pops out to allow easy access to attach a new filter.
Lifesaver’s jerrycan is completing field trials in Afghanistan with soldiers from the British Army, which already has deployed the company’s bottle technology. Prior to testing out the company’s technologies, troops told Pritchard that “patrols going out didn’t run out of bullets — they ran out of water and had to come back,” he recalled.
Pritchard said that the jerrycan development could help save troops’ lives by taking them off of the roads. Half of the convoy traffic in Afghanistan is related to distributing water to all the bases. If less water is needed, that will reduce the traffic, which will mean fewer casualties caused by roadside bombs.
In the long term, the filtration devices also will reduce the need to install power plants and other large infrastructure that modern processing plants require to operate and deliver clean water. “My proposition is very simple,” Pritchard said. “Mother Nature has already done the infrastructure,” by placing rivers, streams and other waterways for use with the systems.
The technology can also benefit local populations in developing countries that do not yet have access to clean water in their homes. One Lifesaver bottle will last a family of four for 18 months, Pritchard said.
“Instead of mothers and families having to walk five miles to a well to get dubiously clean water … now they can take the bottle with the jerrycan, collect water from the river that’s only 10 minutes away, and they can start doing other things,” he said.