By Fred C. Lash
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.
Col. T.C. Moore is the Marine Corps’
operational liaison to the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
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
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.
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
In the southern basin, the Helmand River represents 40 percent of Afghanistan’s surface water and is the main source.
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
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.
water purification systems are en route to Afghanistan, where
larger-scale systems are also getting more use on remote battlefields.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fred C. Lash is a communication and outreach officer at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Quantico, Va.
Changing the flow of downrange water
New purifiers eliminating need for bottle shipments
bulk-water tank that will purify water siphoned from the Kunar River
could enable Forward Operating Base Bostick to nearly eliminate its
dependence on bottled water, according to Capt. Steve Nachowicz.
Italy — NATO spends about 50 million euro a year to ship approximately
200 million half-liter bottles of water to NATO bases in Afghanistan,
often across long and dangerous supply routes.
stationed at forward bases are purifying their own water — reducing
cost, risk and the need to dispose of those millions of plastic bottles.
Some even say the purified water tastes better.
Tim James, who provided the statistics on the cost of moving the water,
said much of it is shipped from Pakistan via long and dangerous supply
routes that have repeatedly faced insurgent attacks.
“There is a significant effort to increase the amount of water sourced from within Afghanistan,” James said in an email.
to National Defense Magazine, the Marines are using 25 Lightweight
Water Purification Systems. Each can fit in a Humvee and pump out 125
gallons of potable water per hour.
The service has 21 Tactical
Water Purification Systems in place as well, according to the article,
which can filter up to 1,500 gallons an hour.
Marine units are not
mandated to use the systems, but are encouraged to do so, Col. Robert
J. Charette Jr., head of the commandant’s expeditionary energy office,
told National Defense.
“Every time you have to move large amounts of bottled water, we put our Marines at risk,” he said.
to National Defense, a Marine Corps team tasked with figuring out the
full cost of delivering essential supplies to Afghanistan found that
hauling water takes up 51 percent of the logistical burden.
A gallon of water delivered to hot spots in-country costs the military $4.78, according to National Defense.
The U.S. Navy is testing the use of unmanned helicopters to deliver water and other supplies.
NATO commands in the north and southwest draw water from local wells that is purified and bottled for use, James said.
wells are being created across the country, James said, with a large
bottling plant set to open in Kandahar later this year.
Command does not track how many gallons of water are produced annually
by the coalition; many nations don’t report water data, according to
command spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Eric Brown.
The Marine Corps has several efforts under way to wean units off the costly and dangerous-to-deliver bottled water.
the Musa Qala district center in Helmand province, home of 3rd
Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, the ubiquitous pallets of water seen at
bases throughout the war have been replaced by a lightweight
There are six systems in the battalion’s area
of operations — two at battalion headquarters, two at Company K
headquarters in Talibjan, and two in Now Zad. The HQ uses between 400
and 500 gallons of purified water daily.
The majority of water
used by the companies in the battalion, spread across Musa Qala and Now
Zad districts, is now purified by Marines, according to Cpl. Joseph
Laflamme, who oversees water at the district center.
pretty good, actually, in my opinion,” Laflamme said. “I almost would
rather drink the water out of this than bottled water.”
said it tastes better than bottled even after chlorine has been added,
so the water can stand for longer periods before use.
“And I know I made it, or our guys made it,” he said, “so being able to drink what you made is more rewarding.”
Marines have deployed the lightweight systems to 25 locations, and
“tactical” purification systems to larger camps, though they did not
specify a number.
Army Capt. Steve Nachowicz, the support company
commander for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division
stationed at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, plans to
curb his unit’s dependence on bottled water by month’s end.
said the base receives three water shipments a day via helicopter. Each
delivery consists of three pallets holding 120 cases of bottled water,
with a dozen half-liter bottles per case.
Not long after arriving
this spring with the rest of the unit, Nachowicz, of Bolingbrook, Ill.,
found an unused bulk-water tank. The hulking machine can purify 1,500
gallons of water an hour through reverse osmosis.
In simple terms,
the tank removes bacteria and other unwanted microscopic detritus by
pushing water at a high pressure through a ceramic membrane that acts as
When the tank is moved into position sometime in the
next couple of weeks, a large hose will siphon water from the nearby
Kunar River. The purified water will be stored in a 50,000-gallon
container and drawn off into 500-gallon cylinders that can be moved
anywhere on base.
Running the machine two to three hours a day could nearly eliminate the need for bottled water at Bostick.
trying to reduce the cost of having water brought in here,” Nachowicz
said, “and we’re trying to reduce the amount of waste — all the plastic
bottles that have to be burned.”
The U.S. tried something similar
five years ago in Iraq by having the six largest bases produce their own
drinking water to reduce the number of supply convoys on the road.