Preparing to Drill Overseas

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Contractors share their experiences so you can be prepared.

By Mike Price

The water well industry is known for its humanitarian efforts in nations lacking clean drinking water, but working overseas is extremely different than jobs in the United States.

So, when traveling overseas to drill water wells for the first time, it’s good to learn what other contractors have done that made their trip a success. Fortunately, many of these contractors are eager to share what they’ve learned.

Curt King, CWD/PI (on the right)

David Powell, president of Edward Powell Pump & Well in Aston, Pennsylvania, has been drilling in Africa since 2004. Powell has drilled in Morocco, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Ghana.

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Before sending any equipment oversees to drill, Powell says contractors should visit the exact area where they will be working at least once to see the drilling conditions and to be familiar with the geology.

“Too many times people send the wrong equipment for the work that needs to be done,” Powell says. “Sending old equipment can be very problematic when it comes to keeping it running. Parts are hard to come by.

“Get a good, local mechanic on your team as well. They will know where parts might be available. You should also have several locals you can count on and trust. There will be a lot of things that will be very different working in another country that you will need help with. Take your time, don’t be in a rush to start something you may not be able to finish. It can take years to get everything in order to do it right with long-term success.”

Powell advises to always get travel insurance. He shares it’s not expensive if one leaves off the trip cancelation and interruption.

“What’s most important is evacuation insurance in case you need to be airlifted back home for a medical emergency,” he says. “I buy from squaremouth.com. They have a lot of companies on the site to choose from.”

Powell concludes by encouraging contractors to have a flexible schedule because there will undoubtedly be challenges on the trip.

“Getting equipment through customs can be challenging,” Powell says. “Be prepared to spend more money than expected. The most important thing you can do when working in another country is having locals on your team that you can trust.”

Since merging organizations with friend and colleague Ken Wood of Lifetime Well Drilling Co. in Denton, Maryland, 20 months ago, Powell estimates they’ve drilled more than 2000 wells, most of them in Ghana.

Another driller, Curt King, CWD/PI, has focused his drilling efforts in Haiti.

King, field director for Healing Hands International in Nashville, Tennessee, has been drilling in Haiti for 40 years. Known for wearing his Seattle Seahawks hard hat, King is 71 and nearing retirement. King was part of a 2013 documentary of searching for water in La Gonave, Haiti.

Below King lists important points to consider when drilling overseas.

  1. Make sure you have evacuation insurance for medical emergencies, not just payment for in-country treatment. Most non-governmental organizations require it, some will pay for it, or give it to you at a group discount. There may be some countries or conditions that travel insurance will not cover. With the recent violence in Haiti, the alert level was temporarily raised to level 4. Some volunteer trips were canceled because their insurance would not cover travel to level 4 countries.“My satellite phone had an emergency button on it that will initiate a search and rescue operation. But it only covered specific countries and didn’t cover acts of war, etc.,” King says. “Fortunately, my wife and I have never had to be evacuated, so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of how it would actually work.”
  1. As the old saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.” There are many people eager to help you get equipment through customs at a cut-rate price that may or may not be true. Talk to people who have actually shipped equipment recently and rely on their advice.“There are good reliable agencies who work with good honest people in customs,” he says. “Find them and stick with them.”

    Be prepared to pay more than originally quoted. King says in one country they had a letter giving them the customs fees, but when the rig arrived, they were presented with another letter from the same agency with a quote three times higher.

    “Preparing equipment, I’ve welded tool boxes shut, chained and locked everything and still had theft,” King shares. “I once found one of my truck batteries hidden in the mast of the rig and found bolts missing from various places.”

    When it is unloaded it may be moved to a storage location, so have the trucks in drivable condition. He adds to make sure the drill rig jacks are chained in the up position.

    “Many years ago, I was slightly involved with a rig sent overseas; it sat for a while in storage when the customs employees needed to move it,” King says. “The front jack had settled to the pavement, and when they towed the rig, the jack broke off and went under the rig, hitting a gearbox and punching a hole in it. We shipped a 22W to another country; it sat in customs almost a year; when we finally got it, it had a ‘for sale’ sign on it.”

    If possible, arrange to have any containers unloaded and inspected at your facility, not at the customs facility, King says. He says you will have to pay more, but you have a better chance of avoiding theft.

    “Large NGOs and commercial companies usually have arrangements that allow duty-free shipment, which avoid many of these challenges,” he says. “You may be able to bring things through one of these but be very aware of any future favors required. If you put something in someone else’s name for shipping, they may have legal ownership, and you may have challenges in the future. A friend did just that and was never allowed to use his rig once it arrived.”

  2. Make sure all your shots are up to date and start taking anti-malarial medication before you leave. Have your affairs in order, have emergency contact numbers, memorize your passport number, have a copy of it with you, and have anti-diarrheal medication with you. If you require medication, take at least one to two extra weeks worth with you and leave it in prescription bottles with your name on it and make sure it’s not expired. Let your leader know of any allergies or special needs (allergy to bees, seafood, etc.).Like Powell, King says to be flexible because trips rarely go exactly as planned. Flights may be delayed, so make sure your carryon luggage has your necessary medications in case you spend a couple days in an airport.

    “I usually carry a couple protein bars as some airports may not have food your stomach will appreciate,” he says, “and some airports do not have toilet paper.”

  3. King advises to keep multiple copies of well records.
  4. Lastly, King has kept his membership with the National Ground Water Association as an attempt to promote water well drilling as a profession with an obligation to protect groundwater as a precious resource. He stresses maintaining your professionalism. “No matter where we drill, we must protect uncontaminated aquifers.”

Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at mprice@ngwa.org.

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