Engineering in conflict areas – an Irish company in Afghanistan
31 July 2014
Author: Pat Moriarty BE, CEng, MIEI, director, CDGA Engineering Consultants Ltd
In September 2010, CDGA Engineering Consultants was awarded a Capacity Building Consultancy contract by Afghanistan Small & Medium Enterprise Development (ASMED) to provide training in a range of construction management skills in areas such as contract management, cost control, project management, health and safety protocols, construction safety and construction quality assurance.
ASMED was managed by the United States Agency for International Development and it was a federally funded initiative to help foster enterprise in Afghanistan. ASMED supported small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the major drivers of Afghanistan’s economic development. Through support for investment, technology, and business development services, ASMED improved private sector productivity by expanding SMEs and increasing employment.
The training recipients for our first course in Kabul were faculty members of engineering and architecture departments of Kabul Polytechnic and Kabul University, post-graduate students as well as a number of construction industry personnel.
When the Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001, they left a city – once a safe, liberal, prosperous and cosmopolitan city – wrecked by years of war. Half the city consisted of rubble and key infrastructure was almost completely destroyed. Over half the population had fled for refuge to neighboring countries, mostly to Iran and Pakistan. As the refugees returned in the early years of this century, the task of rebuilding the city and its infrastructure got under way. In the years that followed, Kabul witnessed a construction boom – largely as a result of funding inflows from western donor countries. This provided a big boost to employment and to the local struggling economy.
FROM CORK TO KABU
Our work began in Cork, devising course content, lesson plans and assessment procedures. A high proportion of the course content was presented using interactive e-learning tools. In late November, the CDGA team travelled from Cork to Kabul. Of the four team members (Pat Moriarty, Joe Whelehan, Michael Radley and John Moriarty), three were former defence forces officers with previous experience in conflict zones.
We flew overnight to United Arab Emirates and, the following day, organised our visas in the Afghan Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Our flight the next morning was from Terminal 2 in Dubai, which is used mostly by airlines to and from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Commonwealth of Independent States countries. This terminal lacked the opulent lounges and array of duty-free shops of Terminals 1 and 3 and was sparse and functional. Few, if any of the passengers, appeared to fall into the ‘leisure’ travel category.
The flight took around two and a half hours. As the plane began its descent, we noticed it making large looping curves as it spiraled down for landing. On a subsequent trip, we learned from a crew member that landing involved ‘initiating a random steep approach in accordance with company task procedures as a result of the airport threat level’! On the ground, there was quite an interesting collection of odd cargo and military planes, old Russian helicopters, UN planes, fighter jets and Ariana Afghan 727s.
As soon as we stepped on to the runway, we were struck by the terrible quality of Kabul’s air, thick with pollution thousands of generators, city traffic and the endless haze of brown dust. It taught us the meaning of ‘Kabul cough’.We were met by arrangement with a driver and an interpreter and driven to our hotel.
The streets bustled with heavy traffic weaving in incomprehensible patterns and a very visible military presence. There were no road markings or traffic lights. At intersections, it was every man for himself with a lot of angry hooting. Occasionally, we would meet a herd of goats. It was apparent from the large number of cranes on the skyline that lots of construction projects were under way.
The training was delivered over an eight-week period – three in November/December 2010 and the remainder in January/February 2011 – in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Kabul. At all times throughout these periods, at least two team members were based in Kabul. It was deeply rewarding working with our Afghan counterparts. They were an intelligent and cultured people, enthusiastic and encouraging, friendly and very welcoming. Many had worked abroad in Europe and in the US and were returning to help rebuild their nation. Many had clear memories of the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979. All had a high degree of fluency in English.
So, what were the day-to-day challenges of spending some working time in Kabul? Situated in the embassy district, our hotel was sparse but adequate and noted for its high level of security. It had the added convenience of a bar, which was a popular venue for ex-pats and a valuable source of local knowledge.
On most days, power outages interrupted the course delivery, often lasting for up to two hours. Daytime temperatures hovered around freezing point and levels of air pollution were very uncomfortable at times. The 8km commute to the university could take up to an hour and a half each way, often as a result of ‘security incidents’. We varied our commute route each day as a security precaution.
Obviously, one of the main challenges was safety and minimising risk. We maintained phone contact with our office in Ireland on a daily basis and they had a series of measures in place should we not report in. We never ventured out without our own driver/security and interpreter. However, on the weekends spent there, we managed to visit many historical sites, markets, shops and restaurants and enjoyed the colour and atmosphere of the city. At no stage did we ever encounter any animosity.
Another practical challenge is money. There were no banklink machines or credit-card facilities in Kabul. All transactions are in cash – US dollars. Visiting Kabul for a ten-day period means bringing around US$3,000 for paying for accommodation, meals, transport. Carrying cash carries dangers and invites unwelcome attention.
Following our initial trip to Afghanistan, we secured a number of smaller training contracts as well as a significant number of contracts for technical and design services in that country. These were mostly related to the construction of buildings for the Afghan National Army. In almost all cases, these facilities were financed and provided by the various members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is made up of NATO members. CDGA designed many facilities as the design provider to a number of local construction companies who were awarded these projects on a design and build basis. The facilities included vehicle maintenance buildings, waste-water treatment plants, accommodation blocks, offices, aircraft hangers, runway lighting and alarm systems and healthcare facilities.
Depending on the source of the funding, these facilities were designed to either American or BS standards. Apart from the variety in applicable codes/standards, a big design challenge was to design these to be uncomplicated regarding maintenance, long lasting and robust and of a nature that allowed them to be easily constructed using mostly unskilled labour.
On most of these projects, design team key personnel from our Cork office spent some time on site for initial surveys and for tie-in’s to existing systems. Generally, the works locations were within the secure ISAF military bases in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in Southern Afghanistan.
ELECTRICITY AND POWER
In 2012, we were awarded a contract by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to undertake a Training Needs Assessment Study for the Ministry of Electricity of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. The Ministry of Electricity operates as the power utility in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region – including generation, transmission and distribution as well as ancillary functions such as finance, billing and HR.
The purpose of the study assignment was to determine what training programmes were needed, the facilities required to implement the programmes, the capital cost for implementation and the schedule for delivering the project.
The CDGA team comprised myself (technical), Joe Whelehan, (soft skills) and John Moriarty (e-learning). The methodology employed involved meeting employees holding various job roles, interviews with management, comparing operations with developed country metrics, viewing existing training facilities and estimating employee efficiency. The final task involved drawing up a detailed report of our findings, which was presented to the Ministry of Electricity, UNDP and World Bank representatives.
Today we are continuing to provide technical advisory services, training services and design services, with much of the work carried out in our Cork offices for clients in Brazil, China, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mozambique, South Sudan and elsewhere.