Ifraz water treatment plant in Iraq was built by Fluor as an alternative to well water; the reported cost was $185 million, though this figure seems to vary quite a bit. It is one of the largest water projects funded by the U.S. government in Iraq, behind Fluor’s Nasiriya water treatment plant in southern Iraq (which cost approximately $277 million) and Suez’s Al-Rusafa water treatment plant in Baghdad (approximately $210 million).

Ifraz water treatment plant in Iraq

In 2006, Ifraz was opened with much fanfare and declared a success. At the opening ceremony, Kurdistan’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, said, “I am pleased and privileged to be here today to participate in the opening ceremony of the Ifraz water project.

This water project is one of the largest American projects that has been successfully completed in Iraq, and this fact carries much significance for us all. We thank the United States government for this valuable contribution to the reconstruction of our country.”39 Later that year, the United States awarded Fluor two more major contracts, one to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry and the other to construct U.S. military bases in Iraq. During the Iraq War, Fluor saw a spectacular rise in profits.

From 2010 through 2013, Fluor was ranked number one on the Fortune 500 list of construction companies. Annually, the corporation now makes about $12 billion in profits. So of course I was shocked to be asked to fix “bad water” on a routine visit to Ifraz. Fluor had the billions of dollars, after all. I could barely pay my hotel bill. On the other hand, I knew that water projects had a history of being abandoned in the country, part of a larger reconstruction fiasco in Iraq. It turned out that Fluor had completed only 60 percent of Ifraz, which it called “Stage 1.” It wanted more money to finish the rest.

But by 2012, Iraq had still not been able to secure enough funding to complete Ifraz, though the government was in negotiations with a Japanese bank.40 None of this should have surprised me.

A 2013 report from the U.S. special inspector general concluded, “Because of . . . deficiencies in record keeping, the disposition of billions of dollars for projects remains unknown.” Foreign Policy magazine more succinctly described the problem in a recent front-page piece: “The Democracy Boondoggle in Iraq.”

Due to all the conflicting reports, I was anxious, of course, to finally see Ifraz. “Be sure with Fluor,” the company’s motto had promised.

ccording to the Kurdistan Globe, Erbil’s clean water problem would be solved by the Ifraz water project, which would supply the city with water until 2035. The Kurdish Globe explained, “The capital city shouldn’t have to worry about another water shortage for the next 25 years.  The strategic Ifraz water project, funded by the United States, would treat and pump 10,000 cubic meters of water to Erbil every hour, supplying the whole city.”

So what had gone wrong? Ifraz was difficult to find, located on an unmarked dirt road leading to the Zab River. We got lost, and Halwest became quite worried that we might inadvertently end up in Mosul, a violence-ridden city full of insurgents. But then suddenly he brightened up and said, “Let’s go there now. Why not? I’ll do it!” Since he knew I wanted to see the Mosul Dam, I was afraid he was serious.

I did not want to get killed. “What, are you serious?” I replied, startled from the calm of endless wheat fields. Luckily, the brown Zab River, the main tributary of the Tigris, appeared over the horizon before he could answer. We had found Ifraz. Driving up to the gate, we passed an armed guard in an elevated post. Next, the treatment tanks appeared, which did look state of the art.

Ifraz pumps water from the Zab River, then treats it with a sand and charcoal filter after allowing the turbidity to settle in ponds. When we stopped so I could take some photographs, a man ran out and angrily yelled, “No photos!”

Discovering he was the lead engineer on the project, I started asking about the plant. But he was already mad about the photos. “It works,” he replied curtly, dismissing me. “How does it work?” I asked. “Does it use charcoal or ozone filtration?” He replied: “You know, it has motors and pumps. It works, it works.”

I knew that the plant had been plagued with endless delays, but I could tell I would get no further information on this topic. So I asked instead if water was being pumped from the ground for treatment. He denied this quite vehemently, saying, “No, this will all be connected to Bekhme Dam. That is where the water will come from.” I was shocked.

Bekhme Dam had not been built, as far as I knew, and it had a very controversial history. It was called “Saddam’s Dam” in the region, since it was once intended to flood out insurgent Kurds.

Finally, we arrived at Bekhme Dam, which was nonexistent. There were cuts through the rocks and a spot where it looked like the dam should be, but only heavy rebar stuck out of the stone walls. The river was flowing calmly through the canyon. Nearby, a new housing complex with a mosque and minaret was apparently ready to house the dam construction workers. But the buildings were abandoned. After a four-hour drive in search of a dam that wasn’t there, I was still left wondering where Erbil’s water came from. Leaving Bekhme Dam, our final stop was the reservoir where the treated water from Ifraz was being stored before being sent to Erbil about ten miles away. In one tank, an enormous tomb of water looked fresh and clean. But in the other, there was the brown scum.

“Can I take a picture?” I asked and received a quick “No” from both Halwest and the lieutenant. After a long exchange between them, Halwest said, “His boss would be very mad if he let you take a picture, or even that you saw this. We’re not actually supposed to be here.” As we climbed back down, Halwest translated for the lieutenant: “He wants to know if that is normal, what’s on the surface. Is it supposed to look that way?”

I said it did not look good to me, to which he replied, “Do you know what causes it?” I said, unfortunately, no. “An engineer came and looked at it and said we must throw all this out,” the lieutenant said. “Here, I will show you where we dump the bad water.” Surprised, I followed him out to a grassy area in back of the building. Beneath a small ridge was a large concrete tunnel with a ditch below it that showed signs of recently dumped water.

The ditch looked like it was being extended, which the lieutenant explained: “They are building an artificial river around all of Erbil.” Continuing to translate, Halwest said that Erbil was only 7 percent green and should be 57 percent green like other cities. I wondered where he got these statistics. Then Halwest suddenly exclaimed, “It’s going to run right by my property! I knew I was right to buy it.” He pointed excitedly across the ridge, where he had bought property for next to nothing, hoping the city would eventually reach out here. Realizing he would have riverfront land, he was delighted. I was only baffled.

“Bad water” from Ifraz treatment plant was going to supply a whole new river around the city?

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