US forces in the Kuwait theater developed a complex infrastructure and logistical operation to provide water support to land- and sea-based units. US Central Command considered an adequate water supply crucial to the success of the operation. A safe and plentiful supply of water was essential for meeting the basic requirements of hydration and hygiene, particularly in the hot climate of the Arabian peninsula. Naturally occurring sources of water to US forces included seawater and ground water from deep wells located in the host nations. The virtual absence of fresh surface water placed special demands on water treatment equipment to remove salt and other dissolved solids from untreated water and necessitated long supply lines.

Production of potable water depended in large part on reverse osmosis technology and distillation from Saudi sources. Significant quantities of processed water were provided in the form of bottled water obtained from a number of sources, including US-produced reverse osmosis purification unit water, and Saudi reverse osmosis, commercially produced water. Water also was transported from production points to ground troops through military and leased tanker trucks, military water trailers, semi-trailer mounted fabric tanks, and existing water pipelines.

A.  Water-Borne Diseases and Contaminants

In addition to the threat of casualties from inadequate water supplies, the other, major, and anticipated threat was the potential for water-borne disease. Water can serve as the vehicle for disease-causing infectious agents, biological and chemical contaminants, and excessive amounts of dissolved solids. In particular, a vast historical record exists of disabling gastrointestinal disease (diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis) caused by bacteria and viruses contaminating water supplies during military operations.[3],[4]

B.   Water Quality Monitoring

Military water policy and doctrine requires that water for human consumption be filtered and disinfected (usually by chlorination or iodinization) before distribution.[5] Procedures in the theater adhered to these policies, although exceptions did occur. Field testing of water quality provided immediate results for levels of chlorine in water. Water producers and preventive medicine personnel routinely monitored water quality in this way. In addition, preventive and veterinary medical personnel took cultures of water for bacterial contamination, which yielded results within 18 to 24 hours. However, cultures were performed much less often than tests for chlorine residuals, which were the mainstay of quality control.[6],[7]

Reverse osmosis processing which incorporated chlorine as the primary disinfectant is the preferred source of water for US troops; the Saudi reverse osmosis processes generally incorporated an ozone-based purification method instead of chlorine, because the taste of chlorine is considered undesirable. Reverse osmosis treatment of raw water removes excessive amounts of dissolved solids, which can cause diarrhea. The seawater and ground water in Saudi Arabia were so salty that the taste of such untreated water would make it difficult—if not dangerous—to consume significant amounts. Chemical contaminants of raw water, potentially present from industrial pollution or deliberate contamination, are largely removed by reverse osmosis process, but the potential exists for small amounts to pass through the treatment process and remain in the finished water due to operator error or equipment problems.[8]

Water quality was monitored for bacteriological contamination and the presence of adequate concentrations of residual chlorine. Such testing was performed at production points, where chlorine was added to the water, and at the distribution points. Medical personnel, mainly preventive medicine technicians, possessed the training, equipment, and supplies to perform such testing. In addition, water production workers often were responsible for testing the water. More sophisticated testing had to be obtained from host nation laboratories, as well as laboratories outside of the theater.[9]

C.   Water Use Plans Were Successful

Efforts to provide sufficient, potable water during the entire operation were an overall success. Although there were documented instances of dehydration and heat injury during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, none can be attributed to failure of the logistical support system to provide sufficient water to military units.[10] This record is a credit to commanders who emphasized a reliable water supply and the use of water to prevent dehydration and to the personnel of combat support and service support units who made maximum use of the available water sources, treatment options, and transportation assets.

The overall result of water operations during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was a reliable supply of water, fit for consumption. There were exceptions to the overall success of water use plans. These included missteps in procedures, equipment problems, shortcomings in quality control capability, and failures to adhere to policy; often a result of the practical realities of supporting large numbers of forces in such a hostile environment. These shortcomings are described to identify lessons to be applied in preparing for, and executing, future operations.

D.  Water Supplies

Supplies of water fit two broad categories: water approved for drinking—potable water—and water designated for other specific or general, non-consumption purposes—non-potable water. The military forces arriving in the Kuwait theater of operations required considerable quantities of both kinds of water, and the pressure to meet the water needs of a rapidly increasing military population required US planners to consider all water resources in the region. Host country water desalinization plants along the Persian Gulf coast were augmented with US-supplied specialized water purification systems known as reverse osmosis water purification units, which had the capability to process salt water, but not always at the rate needed to meet the demands of the influx of troops. Bottled water from commercial sources, and bottled water supplied by the Saudi water processing plants were made available to US troops, although operations planners would have preferred separate US-standardized potable and non-potable water supplies. Given the water demands of US forces across the region, US supplies of non-potable water were occasionally used for drinking and in food preparation.[11],[12]

E.   Chlorinated Water

The reverse osmosis water purification units employed chlorine to kill and protect against the re-growth of water-borne microorganisms. Chlorine was the preferred agent used by US forces theater-wide to eliminate most waterborne organisms. Non-chlorinated water of the host country reverse osmosis and multi stage flash desalinization plants during the Gulf War produced potable water—including bottled water—often through an ozone purification process as opposed to a chlorination process.[13],[14] One significant advantage of chlorine over ozone-purification is that while both processes produce microorganism-free water, chlorine leaves an easily detectable residual marker that serves as a tracing element for long-term water quality assurance.[15] The goal of US Central Command policy covering US-controlled, land-based water resources was for purified water to have a chlorine residual of no-less than five parts per million in order to be considered safe for potable purposes.[16] However, there are some contemporaneous reports that water supplies using this standard chlorine level contributed to diarrhea and stomach distress among some soldiers because the standard levels of chlorine were too high for them to tolerate.[17]

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