Reconstruction amidst violent upheaval in Iraq

Private contractors and international organisations cope with war dangers and difficulties, and make progress in reconstructing water and wastewater infrastructure in Iraq.

Pamela Wolfe

Water and sanitation projects continue to move forward, albeit slowly, despite current violence and upheaval in Iraq.

Unfortunately, Baghdad's three wastewater treatment plants have yet to function, and raw sewage from the city's 3.8 million residents continues to flow into the Tigris River, but the US Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that rehabilitation of these major facilities will be completed by summer 2004. In crisis areas, such as Falluja and Najaf, however, shortages of safe drinking water along with electricity and fuel are also being reported.

Currently, only 60% of Iraq's urban population and 30% or rural residents have access to safe drinking water. Up to 1991, 95% of Iraq's urban population received drinking water, but the lack of maintenance throughout the 1990s caused water and wastewater infrastructure to gradually deteriorate. Before the 2003 Iraq War, 140 water treatment facilities treated 3 million m3/d. Today, these facilities are operating at about 65% of that level, according to the USAID. This significant drop resulted from bomb damage, post-war looting and shortages of chemicals, power, equipment and spare parts. Nationwide, nearly 50% of wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers.

How can these private contractors and international organisations make progress amidst almost-daily bombings, abductions, and killings of foreign workers? In April, the US company General Electric Co. suspended water project operations and Siemans AG of Germany pulled its employees out of Iraq due to escalating violence. On 10 May 2004, the Arab news network Al-Jazeera reported that the Al-Taff Martyrs Brigade threatened all foreign workers, including Kuwaiti, with abduction and killing in Basrah.

The joint venture FluorAMEC, which has just begun mobilising its team to begin assessing water distribution systems, uses security personnel that work closely with US coalition forces. In March 2003, the company won two contracts, totalling US$ 1.1 billion to reconstruct public works and water sector infrastructure in Iraq. "We evaluate the security situation daily and make decisions on an on-going basis. As conditions change, we change," said Jerry Holloway, a spokesperson of Fluor, a company that remains on schedule on all of its power projects since it started working in Iraq last September, he noted.

Luke Zahner, a USAID spokesperson, reported that construction continues on schedule at its major water and wastewater treatment reconstruction projects. "Iraqi subcontractors have been working at all sites with no major delays," he explained, referring to water and wastewater projects. In April, the number of expatriate contractors in Iraq dropped, but more are now returning to Iraq, he added.

USAID is rehabilitating three major wastewater treatment plants in Baghdad — Rustimiyah North, Rustimiyah South and Kerkh; wastewater treatment plants in Najaf, Hillah, Karbala and Diwaniyah; and water treatment plants in Najak, Kirkuk, Mosul, Karbala and Diyala. Construction at all of these facilities will be completed on schedule this summer and fall, Mr. Zahner said.

In Baghdad, the Kerkh plant will be completed by the end of June, and Rustimiyah North and South plants will be operating by August. Minor problems with theft of electrical equipment and security problems on the road to the Kerkh site have occurred, but these problems have not affected its schedule. "In addition, a major expansion of the Sharkh Dijlah water treatment plant in Baghdad will by the end of July add approximately 225,000 m3/d of capacity, significantly expanding safe drinking water availability to eastern Baghdad," Mr. Zahner said.

In April, Bechtel completed the rehabilitation of the Sweet Water Canal reservoir in Al Basrah Governorate. USAID reports that rehabilitation of the approximately 250-km Sweetwater Canal that supplies water from Nasiriyah to Basrah has been completed. This canal system supplies drinking water to 1.75 million residents of Basrah City. Work that started last January 2004 on 14 water treatment plants in the Basrah area is expected to improve water quality and volume by this summer.

The UNDP is funding the rehabilitation of water treatment plants, and sewage and water pumping stations in Baghdad, but Iraqi engineers and workers are implementing the projects. Iraq has an abundance of well-trained professionals and local consulting firms that can perform all fieldwork required, Trygve Olfarnes of UNDP explained. The UN agency is also funding the rehabilitation and connection of the Ghazalia sewage network, serving 600,000 residents in the area of Ghazalia and Shu'ula. No violence against water and wastewater facilities other than petty theft and looting are known to have occurred, he said.

Pamela L. Wolfe, Managing Editor

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