Both soldiers and builders, Royal Engineers recruits fulfil a unique and complex role. Professional Builder talks to warrant officer Peter Egan about his experiences in one of the world’s most challenging environments.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has emerged from years of conflict, and it is here that 36 Engineer Regiment’s Peter Egan, and his team, are constructing lifesaving facilities for locals and UN peacekeepers alike.
“Logistics is always challenging in a place as underdeveloped as the South Sudan, and finding materials can be a real issue,” explains Peter. “The country has virtually no road network, which means most supplies have to be flown in, so in many ways it’s like going back to a much earlier age of local and sustainable building.
“That’s why we aim to make our own adobe bricks from the local clay, for instance, which will dry very quickly when laid out individually in the sun. The buildings we make from these are actually in perfect synergy with their environment in that they are breathable, and will transport moisture and heat from a structure, keeping them much cooler inside. The area is also rich in the limes necessary for mortar, and we’ve been investigating manufacturing these on site using a hot lime mix.”
When you encounter a uniformed member of our armed forces you wouldn’t necessarily think builder, but in the case of the Royal Engineers that’s exactly the role many in the regiment perform – and much more besides, as Peter recounts. “We have every trade you can think of within our ranks, and we were using virtually all of them in Africa, from brickies to carpenters and sparks. Not only that but we’re also the principal designers, contractors and surveyors on our projects, we have our own force protection units in place, and medical teams.”
“Each team will spend a period of six to seven months in the country, and we’ve now erected two hospitals, but the projects we undertake can be incredibly diverse. We’ve installed the water supply to a UN refugee camp, for example, and built roads and accommodation blocks for UN staff. Prior to our deployment we sent one of our Military Plant Foremen to work with the Environment Agency, and by utilising that experience our team designed a weir, which meant we could use the Nile as a hydro power source. It’s because we can be tasked with solving any number of problems that everything we do requires a huge range of skills.”
Prior to its independence South Sudan was trapped in an internecine conflict of more than two decades. At a time when destruction was prized over building the indigenous population lost its construction skills knowledge, and it is Peter’s role to retrain those locals. “It’s about ensuring that the communities we leave behind are self-sufficient, and to do that we need to teach them how they can use their own natural resources – just as we are doing. It’s not just the newest country in the world, but also has the youngest population, with an average age of just 25, which means there’s only a relatively small number of working age people we can employ. In other countries we can sub-contract some tasks to the locals but we simply can’t do that in the South Sudan.” In fact, Peter’s team were working in an area where the last significant works were carried out in the days of empire by the British Army, and ensuring that a trained workforce can deliver its own built environment in the future is a key part of their mission.
What a serving Royal Engineer is required to learn is as diverse as it is highly skilled. Before recruits specialise in a particular trade, for instance, they are required to become combat engineers, which can include everything from demolition, bridge building and mine clearing. Once complete, a City & Guilds Level III or IV education awaits in any one of the mainstream construction disciplines, but qualifications can extend to degree level. All that knowledge is essential because the environments in which they are tasked with practising what they have learnt can prove very challenging indeed and, because they are only building anything when on deployment, it is a skillset that requires constant renewal with additional training through the course of their army career.
South Sudan is presently relatively peaceful, but across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo one of the continent’s worst outbreaks of Ebola is plaguing that country, and considerable vigilance is required as a consequence.
Continues Peter: “A lot of what we do is about improvisation, and using what’s readily available. At one stage there was a real risk that the disease would spread to the South Sudan so we needed to make sure we were ready for an Ebola outbreak, and fabricated isolation units from shipping containers in order to deal with it.
“If we’re going to get anything done we also need to adapt our working methods to the environment. The heat in South Sudan is brutal, which means any mortar or concreting work has to be done at night, otherwise everything just goes off too quickly. At the same time, the area we were working in is prone to flooding, and the only practicable means of transport is the Nile, but that’s often bandit country, and can be a perilous route.”
With 23 years of regimental experience, including postings in Afghanistan and Iraq, Peter is well versed in overcoming the challenge of an extreme climate and conflict zone combined. “Everywhere And Where Right And Glory Lead” reads the Royal Engineers’ motto and, given the vital task they perform in sites across the globe, it is a saying they are putting into practice.