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Make Solar Light, Not War

It's better to light a single solar-powered streetlight than curse the insurgency.
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In 2004, the streets of the Iraqi city of Fallujah erupted into the worst fear the American forces had: house-to-house fighting. The urban battle resulted in the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war with at least 800 civilians dead, much of the city's infrastructure destroyed or damaged, and a city of more than 200,000 deserted.

As Fallujah's residents returned, they were angry with the occupiers for the carnage, destruction and "collateral damage." To keep the peace, the American military realized guns, grenades and other threats of violence had to give way to improving day-to-day life. Something dramatic and visible had to be done quickly.

The answer, at least in part: solar-powered street lighting.

This wasn't some peacenik's dream.

Word had come from Afghanistan about the turnaround solar had made in a province on the Pakistan border that serves as a funnel for Taliban sympathizers. To win hearts and minds, the U.S. Army tried rebuilding the war-torn town of Orgun-e with improvements ranging from cobblestone streets to solar-powered street lights and audio speakers for the local mosque.

The solar lights in this Afghan town helped develop and maintain strong relations with the local community and local leaders as they viewed the installations as the Combined Forces Command's commitment to the city's development. Commerce quickly improved as a result, and commerce signals increased stability. The Coalition Forces also credited the installation with citizens turning in weapons' caches.

"They can see it. It's visible and it's tangible. It makes them feel like they are getting on with progress or getting on with life," Lt. Col. Chris Toner told Voice of America's Benjamin Sand in 2006. As Sand wrote then, "Inside the American camp in Orgun-E, officials say basic development projects like this one are not just the best way, but probably the only way to beat the insurgency."

Could the experience be replicated at Fallujah? It was worth a try. What could be more visible to the population than street lamps lighting darkened streets and roadways? Of course, wired electricity could have done the job, but both Iraq and Afghanistan lack reliable grids. They do have plenty of sunshine, though. So if a panel of sufficient size is attached to batteries, the lights will burn the whole night through.

It wasn't the first time the Coalition Forces had tapped the sun for a Fallujah infrastructure project. In 2008, U.S. Marines helped install solar water purification units along the Euphrates River to provide clean water to Fallujah. Elsewhere in Iraq, school children also use solar-powered laptops and milk-producers use solar-powered refrigerators, according to the U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the $2.9 million solar lighting project for Fallujah in 2007. Workers dug holes, cemented 30-foot steel poles in concrete and bolted on the solar modules and lights. By January, more than a thousand solar-powered lamps lit 22 miles of streets and roadway.

Employment rose. Coalition forces feel more secure while patrolling at night. People go out after dark. Shops stay open after the sun sets. In addition, Iraqis now run the project. Early on, the Solar Electric Power Company, the Florida-based solar firm that has provided the technology, trained a local electrical contractor in assembling the devices.

Solar street lighting is not just confined to Fallujah. By the end of this year more than 27,000 lights will line the streets and roadway in the rest of Iraq.

When someone shot out two of the lights and their panels, the military learned how much the citizens of Fallujah valued them. A town meeting was called. The people requested their replacement. "We will guard them ourselves," the people promised.

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