DIEGO GARCIA, British Indian Ocean Territory (NNS) -- In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a famous line arose. “Water, water, every where, and all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”
While the story is about an ancient mariner’s story of betrayal at sea and supernatural forces, the line about water is what’s most memorable to many people, and for good reason. Water is what makes life on earth possible. The struggle to find clean drinking water is probably as old as mankind itself. And when Sailors find themselves on a remote island in the British Indian Ocean Territory, having clean drinking water is key to making their stay a healthy and successful one.
That island is Diego Garcia, and it’s home to an airfield and military base called the U.S. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia. Its mission is to provide logistic, service, recreational, and administrative support to U.S. and allied forces forward deployed to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf.
It’s a critical base to the U.S. and British governments. It has been the tip of the spear for the U.S.’s bombing missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in the past, has housed some of the most powerful aircraft in the world.
All of these missions couldn’t be done without that most basic element to life – water.
For many years, the water that flowed from taps and faucets around Diego Garcia was considered non-potable. That all turned around in 2016 when the water treatment plants were upgraded, and the water was tested and proved to be safe to drink.
Since then, service members assigned to Diego Garcia have had the modern luxury of drinkable tap water.
But even though the challenge of mass-produced drinking water had been tackled, water storage was still an issue because the island’s aging water towers needed to be refurbished.
The island produces enough water to run the base efficiently, but excess water has to go to one of two 150,000 gallon elevated water tanks. These big red domed structures look like typical water tanks any small town in America might have.
One of these elevated water tanks is now undergoing renovation because of corrosion caused by the humid, salty tropical conditions on the island. It’s now covered in a 10-story layer of steel scaffolding that’s often populated with workers busy on the project.
Maintenance on base equipment requires skilled workers, proper tools, materials, a budget, and approval from the U.S. Government.
The water tank was built in 1983, and, over the course of 36 years, the tank had minor repair once.
The project was kicked off in June of 2019, with a completion date set for December 2019. Within a few weeks, the scaffolding and safety nets were in place, and the crews went to work.
“We have control measures in place,” said Henry Agustin, the tower repair project manager. “We have complete protective personnel equipment for our workers. We also have scaffolding built into the structure rated at heavy weights, signed off by the engineers.”
The project was due to finish in December 2019 but saw many setbacks. With the corrosion compromising the towers structural integrity, the crew had to fix it as fast and efficiently as possible.
When the crew finally reached the top of the tank, they realized the corrosion was more extensive than they had immediately planned for. Thus the project was forced to be extended to fix the tank properly.
The tropical climate on the island and the abundance of rainfall makes the job harder for the crews because they often have to stop when the weather conditions become dangerous.
“One of the challenges of this project is the weather,” said Andrea Borre, the civilian project manager representative assigned to NSF Diego Garcia. “Since the project is outdoors, if it rains too hard, no work will be accomplished. Another one is the wind speed. Since they are working at great heights, if the wind speed goes up to 25 miles per hour, they have to stop work and go down. Even if the wind speed is about 18 – 20 miles per hour, it is the company’s policy that if the worker is not comfortable working, or doesn’t feel safe, they can come down.”
Most of the repairs to the water tank involve replacing patches of metal plating. To properly repair these spots, the workers first cut away the corroded material. Then they’ll clean and prepare the area for welding. After the weld is done, they grind away any excess material and check for strength before moving on to the next section. It takes a lot of work to get the job done.
While the contractors are up there, the safety manager on the ground is constantly monitoring the crew to ensure their safety. The crew is forced to take regular hydration breaks and complete safety training.
Construction to repair the water tank has been a big project spanning many months. The contracted company and military advisors involved have worked hard to bring the tank to completion. The tank is almost completed and will go back into service to store water for the island within the next few months, ensuring the service members and civilians who work and live on the island will have an excess of clean and drinkable water for many years to come.
For more news from Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia, visit www.navy.mil/local/nsfdg/.