Marines Take Steps to Avoid Costly Bottled Water Resupply

By Fred C. Lash
Potable water supplies are a vital resource on any battlefield. To meet the demand in current wars, the U.S. military purchases huge quantities of commercially bottled water in addition to equipping and using organic water purification units.  

Bottled water has become the preferred option among deployed troops. Within Marine Corps units, it is seen as more convenient and seems to taste better than purified water. Marines are more confident of its quality because each bottle is sealed.

But the cost of delivering bottled water to the troops is rapidly becoming unsustainable. Bottles create large amounts of litter and are far more expensive than the water provided by military purification units. Bottles also have created a security problem in Afghanistan. The convoys needed to truck in bottled water are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, which pose great risks to convoy personnel.  

Raw water sources are available in the Helmand River basin in Afghanistan. But these water sources have both chemical and microbiological contaminants and require treatment before use. Because of the economic costs and risks to life of providing bottled water, the Marine Corps is looking at technology alternatives that can be used to treat indigenous raw water.

Forward operating bases depend heavily on convoys to supply their basic needs. It’s not unusual for a base to be located in an area with no potable water. In these cases, trucks are likely needed to haul in vast quantities of fresh water on a regular basis. According to the Marine Corps Survival Manual, each individual in the field in Afghanistan needs to consume at least 2.6 gallons of water per day in order to remain healthy.

A Defense Department study shows the cost of delivering bottled water to troops in Afghanistan to be $4.69 per gallon. With a daily water demand of 5.2 gallons per marine per day (the amount for all uses), just supplying water to approximately 20,000 troops costs nearly $500,000 a day.

In the southern basin, the Helmand River represents 40 percent of Afghanistan’s surface water and is the main source.

Afghanistan relies on groundwater, which represents the most consistent water source in both rural and urban areas. But a geological study said that 65 percent of protected, closed wells and 90 percent of open wells — the most common drinking water source in many areas — are contaminated with coliform bacteria.

More than 80 percent of Afghanistan’s water resources originate in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The snow accumulates in the winter and melts in the spring. Water pollution from raw sewage is the most significant environmental problem and health threat to deployed personnel. Nationwide, water sources are contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. Coli and Leptospira.

There is equipment available that can purify both freshwater and saltwater. Marines, however, do not have their own well drilling capability.

Company-sized water purification systems are en route to Afghanistan, where larger-scale systems are also getting more use on remote battlefields.

Two key systems are now being employed by the Marine Corps and the Army that will let them transform any water — even salty seawater — into something that’s safe to drink.

The Lightweight Water Purification System, or the LWPS, fits in a Humvee and can produce up to 125 gallons of potable water per hour.  The other method for purifying water is the Tactical Water Purification System (TWPS).  It filters and cleans 1,200 to 1,500 gallons of water an hour, enabling a utilities team to fill large bladders with drinkable water at staged water points. The TWPS is carried on a 7-ton truck, and can be set up by an engineer support unit in approximately 30 minutes. In Afghanistan, there are 21 of these systems. The TWPS more than doubles the production capacity of the older reverse osmosis water purification units that has treated water for a generation of military troops.

Currently, there are 14 Marine Corps water points in the Afghan theater, with 21 TWPS and 25 LWPS units. An additional 14 to 15 LWPS units were recenty delivered.

Col. Robert J. Charette Jr., head of the commandant’s expeditionary energy office, noted: “We’ve cut down a lot of the bottled water use by having alternative systems and other solutions for our commanders. That having been said, local commanders still make the call as to what is in the best interests of their marines.”  

While there is neither a mandate nor policy directive, he added, “We are encouraging commanders to use the LWPS and TWPS. Every time you have to move large amounts of bottled water, we put our marines at risk.” He notes that troops will take some convincing before making the switch to purified water because many still harbor bad memories of poor-tasting water taken from water buffaloes, also known as bulls, and jerry cans.

Col. T.C. Moore is the Marine Corps’ operational liaison to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the team leader for the Marine Corps energy assessment team which was charged by former Commandant Gen. James Conway in 2009 to assess the fully burdened cost of delivering essential supplies in Afghanistan. “Hauling water makes up 51 percent of the logistical burden,” Moore said. His team calculated that a gallon of water at the tactical edge in Afghanistan costs the military $4.78, compared to the assured delivery price of $1.42 per gallon. “The Marine Corps should be focusing on finding solutions at the tactical edge,” said Moore, including using indigenous sources of water wherever possible and making investments in more water-efficient technologies at forward operating bases.

Conway had stated that purifying water in Afghanistan can potentially take 50 trucks off the road.

Bottled water currently is big business in Afghanistan. U.S. forces, foreign government officials and aid workers drink bottled water at an estimated cost of $100 million per year. Several Afghan companies are exploiting the opportunity, including Afghan Beverage Industries (ABI), an Afghan-owned company that opened a bottling plant in Kabul in 2006. The company produces a water brand called Cristal.

The operations director of ABI notes that the expatriate community is the biggest consumer of bottled water, and predicts that the more affluent Afghans will start leaning toward bottled water because of the status it reflects. In 2008, ABI became the first Afghan company to win a contract to supply bottled water to the U.S. military forces. At the company’s $26 million plant on the outskirts of Kabul, ABI can manufacture 13,000 50-centiliter bottles per hour. In addition to about 15 foreign workers, the firm employs about 170 locals.

Another issue is how to deal with empty and discarded plastic bottles. They produce a lot of waste, which is often burned in pits that are located right in the center of bases. This can create toxic emissions. Safety regulations warn that bottles and packaged field water should not be stored in direct sunlight because the light and warmth support bacterial growth in the water. Water should be stored in shaded, well-ventilated areas and in boxes which keep the caps elevated.

If transportation, handling and storage conditions are poor — which they often are in Afghanistan — bottled water may pose a greater risk of illness for consumers than water from quartermaster-operated bulk supply systems.  

Several research labs are working on squad-level systems to purify water in streams, pools and irrigation ditches, said Vince Goulding, director of the experiment division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. He led a recent exercise in Hawaii that focused on the water challenge.

“Frankly, one of the big take-aways from the experiment was that we spent an awful lot of time and precious helicopter sorties moving water around in rough terrain,” he said. “And once you resupply [troops] with water, you negatively impact their mobility, because what they don’t drink or put into their CamelBaks, they have to carry.”

The biggest problem right now is the standard for water purification, said Goulding. “The federal fit-for-human-consumption test is very rigorous and a hurdle we need to overcome for tactical water purification. I’m a little concerned about that standard, having been raised in the era of putting an iodine tablet into a canteen and shaking it. But our experiment did demonstrate how we need to reduce our dependency on moving bottled water around the battlefield and putting marines at risk in convoys and helicopters delivering it when [units] are co-located with local water sources.”

At Marine Corps Base Quantico last year, representatives of Shift Power Solutions, of Encinitas, Calif., demonstrated a reverse-osmosis water purifier that produces approximately 2,500 gallons of potable water a day. Four of the suitcase-size units were used in Haiti during humanitarian assistance operations for earthquake-relief. The large water-filtration systems currently used in the field, which are some 60-feet long, are not good options for a platoon on the move. Small units need portable equipment that can be quickly set up, so troops can filter enough water to fill their hydration packs within a few minutes, or shower, and then keep moving.

There is little guidance or regulations for water testing. It’s frequently not clear in combat zones just who determines if the water is safe. The Army often prefers to buy National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)-certified water purification systems, but those are far more expensive. The portable Shift Power Solutions unit is not NSF certified, but all the components that make up the system are. Water purification systems can cost as much as $200,000 for the large units, but portable ones are less than half of that. The Army reportedly plans to begin testing Shift’s reverse-osmosis devices at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.  

In Afghanistan, said Charette, “One of the biggest problems regarding water storage and distribution is that marines have grown accustomed to bottled water, and more than half of the weight they carry on patrol is bottled water though it is not proven to be any cleaner than locally purified water.” Although there is plenty of water to purify on the battlefield, he said, troops are not familiar, nor comfortable with purifying water. “The bottom line is that we have become a bit spoiled, and therefore heavy and less mobile,” he said. “We have to convince unit commanders and leadership that solutions are available now, and that we need to do everything that we can to reduce this tremendous burden and decrease our dependence on bottled water.”

Gunnery Sgt. Jason Parrish, who works at the engineers office at the Marine Corps Systems Command, said that utilities and water specialists are ready to accept the challenge of providing water purification in Afghanistan and reducing the reliance on bottled water. “As more unit commanders evaluate the problem and begin submitting urgent universal needs statements (UUNS), we’ll be able to provide our 1171s, or water support technicians, and the types of water purification units we now have available.”  

The more unit commanders see the water purification demonstrations and understand what they can do, the more they will become advocates for the technology, Parrish said. “We have the capability and we are confident that we can do the job,” he said. “Water guys don’t drink bottled water. They drink the water that comes out of our systems, because it’s better than bottled water.”  

He believes that the turning point, when marines begin using more local, purified water than the bottled variety, will come after one of the UUNS statements that requests a small unit water purification system (for platoon-size elements) becomes an official “requirement and can become a program of record.”

There is much optimism at many levels of command that solutions are on their way, and they couldn’t come sooner, especially for fighting forces in Afghanistan.                                 

Fred C. Lash is a communication and outreach officer at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Quantico, Va.

Topics: Energy, Science and Engineering Technology

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