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‘Water Guy’ Is Vital in Afghanistan

June 17, 2002

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ For U.S.-led coalition troops stationed in the southern desert flats of Afghanistan, there is one enemy more merciless than the al-Qaida and Taliban they are seeking.

``Dehydration is the big problem. You can’t do anything without water,″ said Canadian Sgt. Mark Pennie.

In Afghanistan’s drought-plagued southern regions, water is a commodity so precious that the lives of more than 5,000 coalition troops stationed in and around Kandahar air base constantly revolve around it. In the tents of combat troops, water containers vie with weapons and ammunition boxes for space.

In the dusty lanes and tent cities where officers and sergeants are known by names such as the ``devil″, the ``rock″ or ``widow maker,″ the unassuming 36-year-old Pennie is simply known as ``the water guy.″

A Canadian air force water and environmental technician, Pennie came to Afghanistan in February to supply pure drinking water for the 800 men of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group.

He set up what is considered to be the most advanced water purification system in South Asia, a $1 million Canadian-made reverse osmosis purifying machine that supplies 1,300 gallons of pure water an hour, or about 15,850 gallons in the 12 hours that it runs per day. Using huge rubber containers appropriately called ‘bladders,’ he has enough water on stock for three days.

Although U.S. forces with the 101st Airborne’s Task Force Rakassan brought their own water purification systems, they soon broke down _ victims of a variety of ills, including the ever-present dust and sandstorms that wreak daily havoc on the base. Some are now used as generators to pump well water through the Canadian system.

``At first they didn’t know about us. Now we’re the only show in town,″ the 17-year veteran said in a recent interview.

Combat troops need about 2.6 gallons of water per day, he said, to be able to survive and fight effectively in the unforgiving terrain where they operate.

``You are limited by the ammunition you carry. Soldiers need to fight and you don’t realize how much water you need,″ Pennie said.

A former tank driver, Pennie learned his skills in 1992 and has taken them to conflict areas in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

He also tests water purity on the base and checks samples brought to him from surrounding areas.

``I’ve looked at the local water and the tests said it was sewage. The samples would fall into the waste water category,″ he said.

When locals assured him it was their best water, Pennie said, ``Holy smokes, if this is good, I don’t want to see what bad looks like.″

Shortly after his arrival, Pennie set up the showers that have become a godsend in a region where temperatures surpass 122 degrees. He also built a sewage system that allows troops to use chemical toilets, which use chemicals rather than water, instead of ``Thunder Boxes″ _ wooden shacks with barrels for human waste.

Pennie said the salt filters on his machine produce water that is more than 96 percent pure from a well next to his facility. Without it, U.S. and coalition forces would have to airlift more than 224,000 pounds of water per day.

He is unsure what will happen to troops from the U.S. 82nd Airborne, who will replace the 101st and Canadians next month and swell the base population to about 7,000. Pennie will be taking his miracle machine home when he leaves in mid-July.

``I hope they are thinking about it,″ he said.

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