A Quest for Clean Water in Iraq for Erbil. I still had not found it. But neither did the Swedish NGO Qandil during a similar investigation in 2008. The problem, Qandil discovered, was not with the plant but with the distribution system. Ifraz was built with a “build-operate-transfer” (BOT) contract, which builds a new treatment plant but does “not extend water supply to new users and actually risk diverting public funding away from improving distribution.”

A Quest for Clean Water in Iraq for Erbil

In short, there was a new water treatment plant but no clear plans for safely getting its water to the people. According to Qandil, “This problem is enhanced by the fact that no proper map of the water network pipes exists” and “no particular sewage system exists” in Erbil. Because of this, wastewater was contaminating the groundwater, which was feeding into the city water supply system. “The problems peaked, in particular, with the new water treatment plant coming into operation,” due to the fact that Ifraz water overloaded the system and caused pipe breakages.

In 2008, Qandil concluded there was no clean water in Erbil; it then set a modest goal of providing clean water to one block of the city by 2010. By the time I arrived, residents in a small section of town had received notices that their tap water was now safe to drink. But, according to Halwest, “No one believes it.” It seemed like clean Erbil tap water was a mythological thing some said it existed and others said it did not, and seemingly it could never be found. It was always in some other neighborhood, even as Ifraz was lauded as a near miracle by the Kurdish press and government. But this was the case in much of Iraq, where clean water was perpetually promised and promises were perpetually forgotten.

It was hard to remember where it was supposed to be and when. It could be even harder to find the truth about it. Even the U.S. special inspector general, when he visited Erbil in 2010, concluded, “It is not possible to measure improvement in water and health outcomes.” On one hand, a flash poll showed that 88 percent of Erbil residents were satisfied with water quantity and 85 percent with water quality. On the other hand, a 2012 survey by Associates for International Research determined, “Tap water is not potable, even in housing compounds, so the use of large bottles of water is common for drinking and cooking.”

That same year, a cholera outbreak hit the city. Nevertheless, the U.S. inspector general’s report on Ifraz sounds practically utopian compared to the report on Fluor’s Nasiriya plant in the south. There, 76 percent of residents said they were “very dissatisfied” with their water quality, and zero were satisfied. One resident said that “tap water is not [even] good for laundry” and another said that the “water quality is very poor and it is unfit for drinking it has a lot of impurities.”

In fact, 86 percent of residents thought that both purchased water and water from rivers and streams was better than that supplied by Fluor. The report also found significant failures in the water treatment plant, to the point that it was barely functioning. The computer system that monitored plant function was said to have “never worked.”

One possible reason for the vast discrepancy in how these two water plants are perceived is their location. Any U.S. government agency survey undertaken in Kurdistan might be likely to receive more positive results than a similar survey in the south. This can be surmised from the effusive pro-American responses on the Kurdish survey: “Thank the United States of America for having funded the project,” or “[This] is one of the most important projects in the city that was established with American aid.”

Even someone who did not get water said, “[Though] I do not benefit from the water from this project, I think we should thank America for constructing and financing the Ifraz project.” In contrast, attitudes about Americans are strikingly different in the south. When the survey asked what people thought about the United States funding a water treatment plant in the area, one woman replied, “I do not have love or favor towards the U.S. government.”

Another major difference between the two regions is that Erbil already had a vast underground water aquifer before Ifraz was built. Unfortunately, as more people tap into the aquifer, it is quickly dropping and may soon be inaccessible. But in the south, water is available only from brackish and polluted rivers that are beginning to run dry. So the quality and quantity of water would have been much better in the north before the treatment plant came online. For this reason, as the inspector general admitted, “It is not possible to measure improvement in water and health outcomes.”

It may well be that all the U.S. survey discovered was that Kurdish Iraqis like Americans better than do Arab Iraqis. If an American interviewer is told there is clean water, it may have more to do with the kind of relationship the respondent wants to establish with the interviewer than with the actual quality of the water.

In either case, it is In Halabja, a polluted water tank still supplies the city. clear that there is still no clean water in Erbil. That said, it is still far better off than most places in southern Iraq, and even most places in Kurdistan.

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