Courageous Operator Helps Clean-Water Initiative in War-Torn Afghanistan

Former regulator and water operator Seth Garrison details his experiences providing clean water in Afghanistan
Courageous Operator Helps Clean-Water Initiative in War-Torn Afghanistan
Water operator Seth Garrison stands fourth from the left with his arms around soldiers. (Contributed Photo)

The explosion that tore apart an SUV and killed four of his co-workers had shaken Seth Garrison and his entire expatriate team. For Garrison, as leader of the team of operators, engineers and construction people in Afghanistan to improve water and sanitation, the tragedy was a sobering reminder of the dangers they faced every day.

It was not only military personnel or local police who might be targeted by insurgents, but anyone affiliated with the government or western interests. Despite the Taliban having been ousted from power, pockets of loosely organized militants still operated freely across the country. While largely disorganized and unskilled, they still managed to inflict harm, keeping the country unsettled. It was like the Wild West. As Garrison sat in his stark, poorly furnished office in Kabul, the burning question was whether to continue the mission or abandon it.

New challenges: From Maine to Afghanistan

About nine months earlier, Garrison received an unusual phone call. It came from a colleague from a major engineering firm informing Garrison that her company had received a $43 million contract from the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) — the development arm of the U.S. State Department — to lead a series of water sector initiatives in Afghanistan.

The firm was assembling a multiskilled team to live and work in the country for the next two years. One of the hardest roles to fill was for an experienced utility manager who could lead the effort and deal with Afghanistan government officials on policy and regulatory matters. The position would help build a water and wastewater regulatory framework in the country while simultaneously coordinating the construction of new urban water systems.

“Do you think you’d be interested?” the colleague asked Garrison.

Garrison was a good fit for the job considering his operator certification, regulatory background and utility-management experience. He also didn’t have a wife or children at the time. While he fully understood that the workload would be onerous and the conditions challenging — in addition to the perils that go along with the job — he thought it was a unique opportunity for a life-changing adventure.

It didn’t hurt that the financial enticements were also substantial: the compensation and benefits package included hazardous duty and overseas pay, discounted room and board and an $80,000 tax break per year. Garrison reasoned that it presented an opportunity to gain unique experience and save a significant amount of money for the future. When else would he have an opportunity to help build a country?

A former regulator

No stranger to formidable challenges, Garrison previously had been a regulator for the State of Maine Drinking Water Program where he was charged with the unenviable job of implementing the recently enacted Surface Water Treatment Rule. It required most of the largest utilities in the state to build entirely new treatment facilities, collectively costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I wasn’t very popular with most utilities to say the least,” Garrison says. After only a couple of years as a regulator and undaunted, he jumped at the chance to take on a different role as the superintendent of the Bath Water District — a struggling regional utility serving roughly 20,000 people in five midcoast Maine communities.

At only 24 when he started, Garrison took on the high-profile task of revitalizing a struggling utility that served two of the state’s largest private employers: the Bath Iron Works U.S. Navy Shipyard and Maine Yankee nuclear power facility.

Most leadership positions at utilities weren’t open to people with only two years' experience, but the district was in a unique situation. The district was struggling with its finances, its infrastructure was crumbling, and it was embroiled in a three-way lawsuit with the engineering firm and construction company that had built its brand new water treatment facility.

The plant failed to meet compliance standards, and the district was hemorrhaging money in the effort to remediate the numerous problems. To make matters more difficult, the political turmoil, staffing difficulties and recent retirement put the previous superintendent under a cloud of public suspicion, and controversy had turned the whole affair into a virtual hornet’s nest that was only enflamed by intense local media coverage.

“It was a unique situation,” Garrison says. “Not many established utility people wanted the job. The district was looking for a political outsider, sort of a neutral party. I didn’t have any political baggage and had an engineering and regulatory background that was helpful, so they took a chance on me.”

Garrison understood the regulatory compliance end of things, but admittedly didn’t know much about people management or the other aspects of running a utility. Through a lot of hard work, investments in good people and strict adherence to sound policies and practices, he progressively managed to turn things around at the district. By the end of nine years, the organization was financially stable and operating in compliance. It had even progressed enough to win a few awards from the EPA and the state drinking water association.

During his time at the district, Garrison became a licensed water treatment plant and distribution system operator. He learned the utility business from both a manager’s perspective as well as that of an operator. As a relatively small utility, he was obliged to achieve a grasp of the ins and outs of human resources, finances, compliance and virtually all of the other aspects of running a utility. This experience wound up serving him well in an even tougher place to work: Afghanistan.

Because in 2003, Garrison accepted the position of Deputy Director of the Afghanistan Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Program (AUWSSP), bound thereafter to live and work in a country that — despite being recently liberated from the Taliban — remained significantly unstable and dangerous for local citizens and westerners, both military and civilian contractors alike.

Afghanistan expatriate

As AUWSSP deputy director, he was responsible for a comprehensive national water sector initiative involving major construction, national-level policy development and capacity building throughout Afghanistan. He led an international staff of over 100 expatriate, local and third-country national personnel of various educational backgrounds and disciplines that spoke 12 different native languages.

He was also responsible for providing institutional capacity building services to the Afghanistan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MUDH), including the provision of policy documents and advising MUDH on policy matters.

Another aspect of the job was helping assess the water and wastewater needs of the 32 provinces in Afghanistan. This part of the job involved meeting with respective governors, tribal chiefs and other political figures. Accompanied by armed security, he traveled all over the country, negotiating face-to-face with warlords and militia, perpetually aware that he was working in a very unsettled and politically volatile country.

Afghanistan’s 245,000 square miles are highly diverse topographically, from the great central ranges of the Hindu Kush Mountains to the largely unpopulated sandy deserts in the southwest. The semi-arid climate means hot-dry summers and very cold winters. Its limited precipitation averages less than 13 inches in the two months of November and May.

The country’s capital and largest city is Kabul, home to about 6 million of the 33 million people living in Afghanistan. Garrison described Kabul as intrinsically beautiful, situated on a vast plain with a stunning backdrop of mountains. “It reminded me of Denver, Colorado,” he says. With an elevation of 5,876 feet, it is where the Kabul River, Logar River and Paghman Stream converge.

Not surprisingly, Afghanistan is a country in which a low percentage of the population has access to improved water sources, making it globally one of the lowest for having access to public water. The situation is only worsened by poorly constructed operations and lack of good maintenance; with the result that even fewer of the country’s population receive reliable clean drinking water — even today.

The lack of safe water is a major contributor to the high infant death rate in Afghanistan. It is also a place short on public sanitation services. Countless poorly drilled groundwater wells abound with coliform bacteria contamination from nearby sanitation facilities that, in reality, are anything but sanitary.

Garrison and his team faced a gauntlet of difficulties in trying to implement the nationwide AUWSSP initiative. To begin with, the surface water throughout much of Afghanistan is unreliable and subject to all sorts of natural and human contamination. Moreover, the technology required to treat surface water is far too complicated and demanding in terms of necessary equipment and chemicals. In fact, despite the river waters near Kabul, groundwater is still the preferred choice because it tends to be of higher quality and requires less rigorous treatment to make it safe to drink. It is also more consistent in terms of quantity.

Afghanistan’s landlocked remoteness and its primitive, nonindustrial status make it extremely difficult to obtain water treatment equipment, machine parts and chemicals such as chlorine to disinfect water. Because there are few internal manufacturing capabilities and thus no local suppliers, all such equipment and chemical supplies must be shipped in through neighboring Pakistan or Iran.

Increasing the degree of difficulty, electricity is also largely unavailable, meaning that water treatment plants need to be run by generators using large quantities of expensive fuel. Of course, the bulky generators must also be imported into the country.

Given these difficulties, each water treatment plant’s water source would need to be groundwater that was accordingly treated with the simplest of processes and chlorination.

Ironically, there was at least one upside to working in Afghanistan. Unlike in the U.S. and other industrialized countries, the absence of manufacturing in the country means that groundwater generally does not become infiltrated by toxic industrial contaminants. And while the groundwater can sometimes naturally carry elements such as boron, arsenic and sodium, they tend to be in such low concentrations that they do not to cause adverse health effects.

Cultural and political challenges

The safety of his people was a constant concern to Garrison. Even the most basic safeguards for workers and citizens against everyday hazards don’t exist in Afghanistan, which had no regulatory agencies like the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or EPA. Building codes were nonexistent. Even basic safety on town streets of towns and cities was an issue.

“When workers were on the roads, they didn’t bother to put up cones or signs, nor would they be easily seen wearing bright-orange vests. It wasn’t unusual to come upon a couple of road workers in a pit with no signage, no bright clothing, or any notice at all,” says Garrison.

“When there were auto accidents, there were no ambulances, firefighters, or paramedics that would show up — there was no 911 to call for emergency help. When people were picked out of an accident, they were taken home for their families to deal with.”

Garrison was constantly aware that if any of his team was injured, they would only be able to get proper medical treatment by rushing him or her to the closest U.S. military base, from where, if the injury was serious enough, the team member might have to be flown to Germany or home to the U.S. “Treatment in any of the local hospitals wasn’t considered to be an option,” he says.

A key component of Garrison and his team’s mission was the construction of four large water treatment systems in four major cities outside of Kabul, each of which would eventually serve between 50,000 and 100,000 people. In each city, Garrison found the support the team received from the local people both extremely gratifying and personally humbling. “It’s unimaginable how appreciative all of these Afghan people were to be getting simple, basic, clean water for drinking and cooking and bathing,” says Garrison. “Something, of course, that we in western countries just take for granted without even having to think about it.”

However, the countryside seethed with opposing indigenous tribal and politically motivated factions. These were typically led by local warlords desiring to keep control of what they regarded as territory belonging to them, or spearheaded by insurgent factions like the Taliban or Al-Qaeda whose only goal, it seemed, was to inflict anarchistic chaos through acts of terroristic sabotage and mayhem on anyone from local Afghan civilians to U.S. military.

They made no distinction nor spared their brand of indiscriminant violence among civilian contractors — also assisted by local Afghan citizens — trying only to build basic infrastructure for the benefit of the people. Garrison’s team required around the clock protection from armed guards virtually everywhere they went.

Intersectional violence could erupt anywhere at any time, and often did, whether it was a bullet-riddling skirmish within one of the cities, an insurgent ambush, or the random explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) used to attack the many truck convoys routinely travelling the cratered highways connecting the cities. The sound of shots fired or even small explosions during the workday wasn’t all that unusual. Garrison and his colleagues would witness such unsettling events as helicopters crashing into mountainsides and deadly traffic accidents. Incredulously through it all, the local population just went about their daily lives.

“On the one hand, it was shocking and sad to realize that for them, all of this upheaval was just a part of daily life,” Garrison says. “On the other hand, you had to admire their determination to go on with their lives. They refused to allow their lives to stop despite the constant threat, even when people close to them were killed.”

It was incontrovertible: Afghanistan at this time was clearly a high-risk, high-reward proposition for just about anyone living or working there.

Violence strikes Garrison’s team

Then came the fateful day when the random violence hit home. The team working at one of the water treatment construction sites heard an explosion that was too close for comfort. It turned out to be the horrific sound of an anti-tank landmine detonating underneath one of their vehicles.

A civilian SUV transporting four of the local security team was blown in half. The force of the explosion was so great it rippled the metal on the vehicle on the thickest metal parts and ripped the sheet metal like a soda can. It was Garrison’s toughest day in Afghanistan — except it got even worse when the time came that he was obliged to make the call back to the states to give people the tragic news.

Here’s what the mine did to the vehicle. It's worth noting that there was no smoke or fire. Mines are designed to produce a targeted shockwave of destruction. The picture shows the vehicle looking from back to front. It was torn in half by the blast. (Contributed Photo)

"When we lost four of our coworkers, it was devastating for everyone, and I knew it was going to be extremely hard to continue,” Garrison says. “We convened the senior staff to try to assess the situation with several of the senior people from the engineering firm on the phone. Some thought we should halt construction at the site where the event had occurred. Although it could have happened in any of the four cities where we were working. We decided with our security and corporate officials to pause work and change precautions.”

They kept going and built full a water system at that location with treatment, storage and distribution systems, as well as three other systems in the other three cities. And in each city, they selected and trained local citizens to operate and maintain each of the systems.

Training operators, even with the help of translators, proved difficult, as many of the locals were illiterate. So Garrison’s team put together sets of instructions made up of a few words with illustrative pictures or pictograms. He found that even illiterate people who had a hard time reading, or could not read at all, could nevertheless quite easily learn to grasp a few words paired with some basic simple diagrams and symbols.

Garrison vividly remembers one man, a kind fellow who was being trained to help run one of the plants, approached him to express his deep gratitude.“He looked like he was in his 50s,” Garrison says. “But he was actually in his early 30s, so ravaged had he been by the environment.”

Garrison would later learn through a translator that the reason this man was so profoundly thankful for the water system they were constructing, tragically, was that he had lost four children to diseases that were likely caused by contaminated drinking water. With the new system, the local man was hopeful that the rest of his children would be healthier, and was also proud that he would have a useful occupation through which he would be better able than ever before to provide for them.

Ultimately, Garrison and his team did go above and beyond the goals of the AUWSSP mission’s objectives. While there were no existing certification requirements for the operators they trained for the four plants, the team helped to establish a regulatory framework similar to the U.S. EPA, and wrote a policy document for the continued safe operations of the water systems.

About the author: Melanie K. Goetz is a Speaker, AWWA author, and consultant, and specializes in helping utilities convey the value of water. Author of AWWA’s two books on Communicating Water’s Value, she is currently writing a third book: Stories from the Field. For more information, email her at


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.