Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rebuilding Iraq’s Water System In A War Zone

When people think of rebuilding Iraq, the country’s oil and electricity industries usually come to mind. In fact, after the power network, water was appropriated the second largest amount of reconstruction funds initially. The water network in Iraq suffered through many of the same problems that the rest of the U.S. reconstruction effort ran into. Namely, the lack of security shut down many work sites, there were huge delays and cost overruns, Iraqis were hardly included in planning, and often couldn’t run the facilities they were left with. Water therefore, became one of many examples of how the U.S. failed to put Iraq back together.

Originally, Iraq’s water network was a top priority of the Americans. In July 2003, Paul Bremer the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) estimated that the country’s water system would take $16 billion to rebuild (1) over four years. Later in 2003, the U.S. ended up appropriating $4.33 billion for the sector. Only electricity was given more. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was initially put in charge of this task, and contracted Bechtel to do most of the work. When the CPA closed up shop in mid-2004, new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte ordered a review of all of the reconstruction work. That eventually slashed $2.2 billion from water as other things were given priority such as building up Iraq’s security forces. At first, the CPA made water one of the leading issues to be dealt with. Having a dependable supply of water in all of Iraq’s cities for example, was one of the Coalition’s initial benchmarks. As the insurgency took off, and a new leadership came into the country, emphasis was switched to security, and water and sanitation ended up suffering as a result.

Four large American companies were given the task of rebuilding Iraq’s water system. Those were Bechtel, Fluor, Washington Group International, and Black & Veatch. In 2005, Bechtel was given a new contract worth $369 million to rehabilitate 34 water and sanitation facilities. By June, the company finished 18 task orders to fix six sewage facilities, two water treatment plants, and building a water supply system. On the other hand, another dozen projects were delayed. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that security, a gross underestimation of costs, high turnover of personnel, and poor site selection were behind Bechtel not completing its work. Fluor and Washington were given responsibility for potable water, new sewage systems, and water management facilities. Two of Fluor’s projects worth $500 million were cancelled by July 2005 however, because of delays. Another ran into huge cost overruns, the Nasiriyah water supply project in Dhi Qar province. In April 2004, Fluror was given the contract at an estimated cost of $90-$120 million. Work started in August, but then U.S. managers decided that the costs would be too high to complete the job. As a result, in January 2005, the contract was expanded to include two nearby projects, and the cost rose to $172 million. In the next year, the deal was changed five times, raising the price to $244 million. Fluror didn’t complete the job until October 2007, charging a total of $277 million. When completed, the Nasiriyah water project was two years late, and three times more expensive than the original projection. In late-2007, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) found that the Nasiriyah plant was only running at 20% of capacity after it had been turned over to the Iraqis. Back in September 2005, the GOA warned American officials that most of the water projects the U.S. was working on might be beyond the capabilities of the Iraqis to maintain them. That’s because the U.S. was building what it saw fit without consulting with Iraqis about what they could handle. That meant after the U.S. spent millions on contracts many facilities were left idle or only partially used.

The biggest fiasco was the Fallujah Waste Water Treatment Plant. Before the U.S. invasion, the city had no water treatment system. Waste was dumped into the Euphrates or worse, into the streets as a result. After the first battle of Fallujah in 2004, the U.S. Embassy decided that the city needed a hearts and minds campaign, and that was going to be based upon a brand new water system the Americans would build for them. That led Fluror to be awarded a $32.5 million contract in June 2004. The work was supposed to be finished in 18 months. Immediately, security became a major issue. Insurgents repeatedly stopped work at the site lasting all the way until 2009. Then in October, all operations had to be halted in anticipation of the second battle of Fallujah, which began in November. In August 2005, the Public Works Ministry decided that the water system should be changed to use parts that it had bought before the 2003 invasion for a much more sophisticated system. That resulted in three months of talks and delays, until November, when the U.S. agreed to the Iraqi’s demands even though a year had been spent on the original plan. This led to costs going up, and more work being held up, because of the changes. From 2005-2008 the U.S. ended up spending $79.3 million on forty-five contracts for the project, mostly with local companies. Many of these firms were not qualified, because they’d never been involved in water projects before, but they were given deals nonetheless since it would look good for Iraqis to do the work, and the U.S. thought it would help boost the economy. The funding for the project was also not consistent, and often temporarily shut down operations because there was no money available. By 2009, the project was turned over to the Iraqis to complete. In May 2011, an opening ceremony was held, although the water treatment plant was only partially complete. By September, the entire system had cost $107.8 million, over four times more than the original price, and was six years late. It also only served 38,400 Fallujans out of around 100,000 total. It’s estimated that it will take $87 million and several more years for everything to be finished. There’s no guarantee that Baghdad is going to make that type of commitment. Fallujah became a poster child of everything that went wrong when the U.S. tried to rebuild Iraq. Attempting to build a civilian project in the middle of a war zone with no military support was an insane idea. Militants were able to take advantage of this by continuously harassing the contractors for years. The original purpose of the project to win over the population of Fallujah was also lost since it took seven years for the water treatment plan to be opened, and even then it only served around one-third of the city. The time, money, and casualties the Fallujah project cost just didn’t make it worthwhile in the end.

Dealing with Iraq’s water system showed the difficulties the Americans faced in rebuilding the entire country. Fallujah pointed out that security as an overriding concern for all projects. It affected maintaining contractors, work at sites, and getting supplies. In August 2005, General Bill McCoy did a tour of reconstruction work in northern Iraq, and estimated that security was boosting costs 10-25% when the U.S. only set aside an average of 9% in contracts for it. The general believed that security had taken $3 billion out of work on the water system as a result. That was a huge drain on funds. Another major issue was that the U.S. was building projects mostly to their specifications, and not to the Iraqis’. In July 2005, the GAO found that $52 million worth of water and sanitation projects were not operating or were being used below capacity, because the Iraqis could not handle them. This was true for other sectors as well such as electricity. What good was rebuilding a country if the people the facilities were meant for could not run them? This was not all the Americans fault however, as Iraqi ministries when they were involved, often had grand ideas of their own such as the change in plans at Fallujah showed. The overall affect was that the U.S. failed to achieve its goals, and the reconstruction of Iraq was let incomplete.


1. Fram, Alan, “Estimated tab to rebuild Iraq put as high as $600 billion,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/12/03


Baker, David, “U.S. firms work hinges on outcome of Iraq elections,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1/28/05

Fram, Alan, “Estimated tab to rebuild Iraq put as high as $600 billion,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/12/03

Mekay, Emad, “Iraqi reconstruction faltering,” Asia Times, 10/26/05

Murphy, Dan, “Iraqis Thirst for Water and Power,” Christian Science Monitor, 8/11/05

Slevin, Peter and Loeb, Vernon, “Cost to rebuild Iraq soars,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/27/03

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

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