OPERATION “WATER BOTTLE”- Firefighters Bring Life to a Strife-Torn Region

OPERATION “WATER BOTTLE”- Firefighters Bring Life to a Strife-Torn Region


Last year in the African nation of Rwanda, bitter hatred exploded into genocide. Thousands of Rwandans were massacred by Rwandans. Seeking refuge, an estimated two million Hutu men, women, and children crossed the border to the nation of Zaire. One of the refugee camps to which they fled would come to be known simply as “K-2,” located outside Goma, a city of one million people.

Displacement from their homeland was but one of the refugees` immediate problems: They had no potable water and little food. Disease was widespread. A cholera epidemic swept through the camps. Cases of measles, malaria, pneumonia, and dysentery were common–and increasing. An estimated 80 percent of the refugee population was HIV-positive.

The plight of the Rwandan refugees drew a multinational humanitarian response, called Operation Support Hope Goma.

It was to this humanitarian effort that the Mountain Fire/Rescue Volunteer Fire Company (MFR) of Calaveras County, California, was sent by presidential order, with the purpose of providing a potable water supply so desperately needed by the hundreds of thousands of refugees occupying the K-2 camp.


At the time of the Rwandan crisis, MFR had been using a unique water supply system known as the Hydrosub® to supply firefighting water to rural Calaveras County during the wildland fire season. It consists of a trailer-mounted diesel engine/hydraulic pump; a portable, high-pressure, high-volume submersible water pump; a hose tender; and a Class A pumper. The portable sub-pump is capable of supplying 1,250 gpm at 120 psi and requires a water depth of only 12 inches to operate. It sits on a float and has a five-inch-diameter discharge valve. The diesel engine drives the hydraulic pump, which in turn powers the sub-pump. Two 460-foot-long, one-inch-diameter high-pressure hydraulic lines, one for intake and one for discharge, extend to and from the sub-pump. The system operates on the same fundamental principle as our well-known hydraulic cutting and spreading tools, allowing the sub-pump to “push” large volumes of water up and over a head of more than 160 feet.

Frank Blackburn, president of Portable Water Supply Systems–or PWSS (which owns and operates the Hydrosub) and at the time MFR assistant chief, had demonstrated the system`s capabilities to U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco. At her urging, President Bill Clinton authorized MFR to join the Goma relief effort.

On July 24, our seven-member MFR crew traveled to Travis Air Force Base, where we would board a C-5 Galaxy aircraft and begin a 22-hour nonstop flight to Goma, Zaire, refueling in flight. Along with the PWSS system, our cargo included a three-quarter-ton pickup truck with axes, shovels, tents, portable radios with battery chargers, ground mats, medical supplies, a tent for use as a first-aid station, a trailer-mounted 10-kilowatt diesel generator set, food and sundries, and eight chlorinator (water purification) units. Our stay in Zaire was to be, we were informed, an undetermined time of longer than 10 days. On the way to the Air Force base, our pumper overheated and broke down. Fortunately, our spare pumper, Engine 466, donated to us by the Independent Hose Company of Frederick, Maryland, was driven to the base by MFR volunteers. Without it, we would not have been able to join the relief effort.

Before boarding the aircraft, we were briefed, interviewed, issued additional supplies, and given shots.


We arrived in Goma. A C-5 pilot/ground guide greeted us, “Welcome to Hell!” The planeload of government and MFR supplies and equipment was offloaded. The Air Force crew gave us 58 cases of root beer, and the flight surgeon wrote prescriptions for drugs we might need. Then we were taken to Lake Kivu. We counted 54 dead bodies along the roadway.

At Lake Kivu, 37 soldiers from the U.S. Army`s 51st Maintenance Battalion, ordinarily stationed in Germany, were hard at work on the only water supply operation underway at that time. Their two reverse-osmosis water-purification units were in full operation. They had constructed nine 3,000-gallon, self-supporting fabric water tanks. They were filled with potable water.

Our primary job was to establish a high-volume water supply out of Lake Kivu, run it through our chlorination units, and store the purified water in vessels that could be transferred to water tenders (as yet unavailable). The K-2 refugee camp was situated 15 miles from the lake, in open ground at the base of an active volcano.

Human remains littered our distribution site and floated in the lake. Human waste was everywhere. One of the dead was a woman who had been in the process of giving birth. We removed the bodies from the lake. Four of the dead in our immediate area were children. We covered the bodies, which would later be removed to a mass grave.

We placed razor wire around our distribution site–the site would soon become known as “Water Bottle”–to prevent locals from wandering into our operation, and cleaned up and washed down the area. During the cleanup, we found hand grenades and AK-47s, which were later removed by military personnel. Military protection was required at the Water Bottle site, as we came under occasional sniper attacks by hostile Zairean army regulars.


By 0630 hours on July 26, water production started to increase and soon was in full gear. The water supply operation was comprised of numerous stages and elements (refer to flow schematic on page 110):

Drafting out of Lake Kivu was not possible. There was a 23-foot drop from the edge of the lake to the water`s surface, and our pumper`s intake valve is three feet, four inches from the ground, for a total head of 26 feet, four inches. Subtracting the 20 feet of six-inch hard suction hose available from Engine 466, we were left with six feet, four inches of air between drafting suctions and the surface of Lake Kivu. Fortunately, the Hydrosub setup easily overcame this problem. With the sub-pump pushing water through a five-inch line, adequate flow and pressure were maintained to more than compensate for the head loss.

The five-inch line from the sub-pump supplied two portable distribution hydrants with multiconnection valves, which distributed the lake water through three-inch lines to five operational chlorinators. Each chlorinator produced potable water (five ppm chlorine) at a rate of 3,000 gallons per hour.

The distribution hydrants also fed a 1,500-foot run of five-inch hose supplying lake water to three portable hydrants with pressure-reducing valves, discharging into 212-inch hoselines. These stations could be accessed directly by water tenders; chlorination was performed directly in the tanks.

Potable water was carried via two-inch lines from the chlorinators to four 3,000-gallon bladder containers, used as intermediate storage that could be accessed by water tenders before the water moved on to Engine 466. Once large storage tanks were secured and built, the temporary storage bladders became unnecessary and were removed from the water supply loop.

Three-inch lines from the Army`s reverse-osmosis purification process transferred potable water through siamese connections first to the intermediate storage bladders and later to the large storage tanks by way of two 60-psi portable pumps.

Approximately 10 to 14 days into the operation, OXFAM (a British humanitarian organization) provided two water storage tanks constructed of galvanized corrugated steel, with a plastic liner and cover. One held 29,000 gallons, the other 19,000 gallons. They were supplied potable water via three-inch lines from both the chlorination and reverse-osmosis processes.

Engine 466 received two three-inch supply lines from the storage source (first bladders, then tanks) and pumped to two primary locations: to a tanker filling station utilized by French and United Nations tenders through a series of three-inch to 112-inch reducers (reduced to accommodate French tanker hardware) and to an 18-faucet water station via a 3,000-foot three-inch-to-five-inch hoseline stretch. In addition, the pumper supplied water through small lines for two showers, a laundry, and a field kitchen.

On two occasions, water demand depleted the storage supply, resulting in riots at the faucet water station. A backup supply line was established between the Army`s pumps and Engine 466 to ensure a constant 18-hour supply to the faucet location.

This water pumping operation produced more than 300,000 gallons of potable water a day. Personnel at the Water Bottle site, like the volunteers in Goma, worked 18 hours each day, performing numerous functions in addition to water supply. OXFAM; UNICEF; Doctors Without Borders; American and Irish nurses; the U.S. Army; German and Belgian water units; and Israeli, Swiss, and Swedish relief personnel all contributed to Operation Water Bottle.


Initially, we had difficulty securing a sufficient number of tenders to distribute the potable water we were producing. Moreover, some of the tankers we received were petroleum tankers with three or four inches of product on the tank bottoms. A preventive medicine sector was established. This ensured that the tankers were triple-rinsed prior to filling. Furthermore, liquid chlorine at 48-percent solution, in proper proportion to achieve a five-parts-per-million residual, was added directly to tankers filling from the lake water line. No contaminated water would be delivered.

Our distribution network was complete when OXFAM set up several large storage tanks at the K-2 site. They were filled by the tenders, our link between K-2 and Water Bottle. The tanks were monitored by military personnel throughout each day.

As water became more plentiful, the cholera epidemic subsided, and medical personnel concentrated on stemming the numerous other diseases that threatened the health of the Rwandan refugees.

The Rwandan crisis has been characterized by some as the worst man-made disaster ever perpetrated by one group against its own countrymen. It is estimated that as many as 70,000 people died in the refugee camps from disease alone. It is believed that without Operation Water Bottle, hundreds of thousands more may have died. The heroes of our water supply operation, and Operation Support Hope Goma as a whole, are too many to list.

After 32 days in Goma, the United States` role in water production was declared finished, and members of the MFR task force returned to California.

The following illustrations and photographs provide a glimpse of the “human side” of the Rwandan crisis and some of the more technical elements of Operation Water Bottle.

[A] Behind the author is the sea of displaced humanity that comprised K-2. Before MFR arrived in Goma, small children were walking 40 miles, round trip, for water. The author visited the K-2 encampment on his second day in Goma; on the way to K-2, he counted 2,000 bodies before giving up. [B] The refugees queue up for potable water.

[L]: One side of the road was for walking; the other side was for the dead and for necessary bodily functions. The dead were picked up by truck and taken to mass graves. By the third week of Operation Water Bottle, there were hardly any more bodies on the side of the road. [M]: There were more than 10,000 orphans at K-2. Children get a bath at this Irish-run orphanage. [N]: “Main Street” of the Water Bottle site. The camp required military protection, as workers were threatened by Zairean gunfire. [O]: A former presidential summer home near Water Bottle. When MFR arrived, it was occupied by 35 Zairean soldiers and their families. On the second day of Water Bottle, just after dark, a shot was fired at the relief workers from that direction. The next evening, on orders from a Zairean general, a man occupying the building was beaten severely, taken outside at dusk, and shot to death. A body was in the lake near our water intake the following morning. [P]: The author, in his “spare time,” functioned as camp surgeon; here he treats a cut. During the five-week MFR stay, numerous personnel suffered minor injuries. [Q]: The author loaned the MFR pickup truck to Operation Support Hope doctors; this dramatically increased their mobility and effectiveness. One day, Zairean soldiers stopped the pickup at gunpoint and forced the two doctors out of the cab with a hand grenade. The soldiers wanted the doctors to treat their comrade, who had just blown his hand off with a grenade. The doctors transported the victim to a hospital. This one act guaranteed safe passage to the vehicle and its occupants. n

JOHN D. HORNER, a 34-year veteran of the fire service, is chief and founder of the Mountain Fire/Rescue Volunteer Fire Company in Calaveras County, California. He retired as captain from the San Diego (CA) Fire Department in 1979 and has been affiliated with the military special forces for 43 years. Horner has a bachelor`s degree in electronics and holds lifetime teaching credentials in fire science.

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