Finding water in a dry land

THE card reads: ``J. Phil Parry, master driller instructor.'' The man: a tall, deliberate Canadian, with blue eyes, black hair, and a solid sense of achievement after drilling about 500 boreholes for water in the last two years.

The assignment: finding water in parched Sudan, for instance, at the immense Wad Sherife refugee camp in eastern Sudan, which in recent months has held up to 115,000 Eritreans who fled from neighboring Ethiopia. Mr. Parry found it -- and a refugee quota of one gallon of water a day per head was relaxed. Trucks no longer had to bring water from the town of Kassala 23 miles away.

John Pitiya is a tall, strapping, Christian African from the Juba area of southern Sudan, setting off with his hard hat in the cloudy dawn in Wad Sherife to drill more boreholes.

Trained by Parry, he is skilled enough now to be able to direct a crew operating a United States drilling rig worth $250,000. Arriving at the truck-mounted rig, he issues a series of orders to activate its complex cables, levers, drill bits, casings, and pumps.

Osman Hamad Muhammad, a Muslim Sudanese from the north, is a quiet hydrologist from the Ministry of Mining in Khartoum. He pores over government geology maps. When drilling is under way, he checks bore samples taken every five feet, records the findings, and makes locator maps and well sketches.

These three men are the new pioneers in Africa's search for water in the middle of the worst Sudano-Sahelian drought of the century. Parry, in particular, plays a pivotal role here in one of Africa's driest countries, whose territory is as big as all of Western Europe and where about 10 million people suffer from hunger and thirst.

For two decades, Parry drilled for commercial drilling companies. In the Arctic's Beaufort Sea he punched through ice for gravel samples for an oil company that wanted to build islands for its rigs in the summer. In Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Peru, at breakneck speed, he sank as many as 150 holes a month.

Life is very different now. Parry works not for profit but for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

``I'd collected money for UNICEF as a 12-year-old,'' he said reflectively, eyes narrowed against the sun during a quick visit to Khartoum.

``But I'd never associated it with water. After 20 years of commercial contracts, I was dissatisfied. There had to be something better. . . .

``Where was I going? Who was I helping?

``I finished one contract and went home to Taber, in southern Alberta, and I was bored.'' He sent a r'esum'e to the Canadian government aid agency, which sent it to the UN. Five months later, UNICEF called. Since then, he has seen water gush up from his wells in the Red Sea hills area where Beja nomads had not seen rain for two years. They danced and shouted for joy. He has drilled amid the civil war in southern Sudan, and also in the northeast.

``Water is life, isn't it?'' he asked. ``And these people need it so badly. There's water to be found -- sometimes we even use `witching' [holding out two steel pipes that cross when water is directly beneath them]. Don't laugh: It works. I don't know why, but it does. . . .''

His other assignment is to train Africans to drill.

``When I've gone,'' he said, ``John Pitiya and the others will be able to go on. That's terribly important. It's helping people help themselves. . . .''

Parry's work might be worthwhile, but it certainly isn't easy.

Communications in the wilds of Sudan vary from poor to nonexistent. Logistics are a nightmare: Drill bits, diesel fuel, and spare parts have to come through Port Sudan. Procuring them can take three months or more.

UNICEF officials are delighted with the success rate of his drilling, which has been as high as 80 percent in some areas. The water is clear and drinkable.

Pitiya, starting another day at 7 a.m. in Wad Sherife, is absorbed in his work.

``The first 40 feet or so are very quick, but then we hit basement rock and it might take two days or more to get down to 80 or 100 feet,'' he said as we bounced in a four-wheel-drive vehicle across to an orange-and-brown US Speedstar drill.

He acknowledged Parry's influence: ``He's tough, but he's had long experience. . . .''

Pitiya's crew of six began to clean off the rig with water, stored in a circular black-rubber tank. Mixed with earth, the water makes mud that lubricates the drill bit. Wells in the area have been producing 1,000 to 2,000 gallons an hour.

``In North America we take water for granted -- 50 gallons for a bath, 20 for a shower,'' says Parry. ``If the Sudan could only get the water we waste. . . .''

Ragged children came running to play in the spray. Water splashed into the intense heat of the morning. Cleaning finished, the drill bit was lowered with a clank into a 41/2-inch-wide borehole.

The search for water in a thirsty continent began again.

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