IRIBA, Chad — Polish army Lt. Col. Marc Gryga has water on his mind.
Col. Gryga is a point man for the European Union peacekeeping force deploying to eastern Chad with a U.N. mandate to protect a quarter-million refugees plus the aid workers who care for them.
The refugees, most of whom fled ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2004, are housed in a dozen large U.N.-administered camps.
Col. Gryga’s zone, centering on the town of Iriba 40 miles from the Sudan border, includes three refugee camps housing around 50,000 people.
Around 500 soldiers from the 4,000-strong EU Force, or EUFOR, are bound for Iriba. But before the soldiers can actually begin patrolling around the camps, an advance guard of 200 Polish, French and Irish troops - with significant diplomatic support - must build the infrastructure, and the local relationships, that make the patrols possible.
For Col. Gryga, that means begging for water.
From a wind-swept, scorpion-infested, temporary camp outside Iriba, Col. Gryga directs teams of Polish engineers and French logistics specialists building a large base with 20-feet-tall earthen walls and a sandbagged ammunition dump. Irish soldiers guard the workers from barbed-wire-ringed watchtowers.
The afternoons are so hot that the soldiers can work only between 6 a.m. and noon, and again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. One Italian military doctor attached to EUFOR recommended every soldier drink seven liters - more than seven quarts - of water per day.
But combined with water used in construction, the current Iriba force’s needs outstrip their ability to supply water by air and road. Col. Gryga says the French cargo planes based at the logistics hub in western Chad are worn out from overuse. And soon Chad’s rainy season will shut down much of the country’s road network, making military ground convoys unreliable.
To make matters worse, the Iriba contingent’s water needs are set to double when the rest of the soldiers arrive by the end of August.
To keep his men hydrated and his cement wet, Col. Gryga has turned to the town of Iriba for help. But Bakhit Abdaraman, Iriba’s top tribal leader, said there simply isn’t enough water to go around.
On June 28, Col. Gryga had help making his case. Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich flew in to accompany Col. Gryga on one of the colonel’s twice-weekly meetings with Mr. Abdaraman and local elected officials.
“We respect you enormously,” Mr. Klich told the Chadians. “We are here to help alleviate your problems.” He hinted at potential civic and reconstruction projects that EUFOR might undertake once it has fully deployed to Iriba.
Col. Gryga has made similar promises in the past, but stresses that his own construction resources are limited. The entire yearlong EUFOR mission is budgeted at just $185 million.
In return for the promised projects, Mr. Klich said, his troops need water.
Mr. Abdaraman shook his head. The water simply wasn’t there. The only way to boost the local supply is to drill new wells. EUFOR has tried that once, without much luck. The new well delivered only a trickle.
Abdoulay Dramon, a Chadian engineer working for aid group CARE International, said that eastern Chad’s underground reservoirs have been shrinking as eastern Chad’s population has swelled with hundreds of thousands of refugees. The EUFOR troops only increase the strain.
Mr. Dramon said there are options for boosting supply. They range from more sophisticated pumps to “reverse pumps” - that is, carefully placed, deep holes in the ground that pipe rainwater underground in order to “recharge” reservoirs.
After much hand-shaking and gift-exchanging - and a quick hop over to an adjacent primary school so Mr. Klich could pass out candy and hats - the June meeting adjourned without a major breakthrough. Mr. Klich’s plane left late after an intense sandstorm drove everyone indoors.
But Col. Gryga was optimistic. Mr. Klich, the defense minister, had seen firsthand the challenges EUFOR faces - and that might mean stronger support from the Polish government.
“Maybe we’ll get more money,” Col. Gryga said.