Saddam Hussein’s army hid people they had killed. “That was where they dumped the bodies,” Forbes writer Melik Kaylan told me, referring to a concrete reservoir. By then, Saddam had been dead for four years, and the tank was being used as a storage system for Ifraz water treatment plant.
Saddam Hussein’s army hid people they had killed
“Yes, I was told there were lots of dead bodies down there,” he nodded enthusiastically as if discussing lost treasure. As a war correspondent working out of Baghdad for more than five years, Kaylan would know where the bodies were hidden. Yet in his stylish leather jacket and German glasses, he looked like he was going out for a cappuccino in New York City rather than waiting with me for a plane in Iraq. Around us, Iraqis pushed and shoved their way en masse through the airport metal detector as if a prize went to whoever got through first. I wondered if this was a habit for people long used to fleeing war.
But calm prevailed in that Kurdish and American-loving region in 2010. Flying into Erbil, the only clue I had I was in a war zone was that the plane did a steep and terrifying corkscrew spiral dive until we reached the ground. I was told it was to avoid missile strikes. After leaving Iraq, all I could think about were the people who could not get away, millions of people stuck there without clean water to drink.
When I visited the U.S. Fluor–owned reservoir, a nondescript concrete square building in the middle of a dirt field, a lieutenant let me climb up top and lifted the locked metal doors so I could look inside. I was lucky, since the place was fenced and heavily guarded. It turned out this officer, who did not want to be named, had an ulterior motive. Below me, on top of a vast and deadly quiet underground tank of water, was a surface of brown scum. “Bad water,” the lieutenant said. “Can you fix it?” Later, this image would stay with me, symbolizing what water privatization had done for Iraq.
Ten years after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the United Nations reported that water quality and availability had only worsened throughout the country, despite the fact that USAID and the World Bank had spent billions on water system “reconstruction” and despite the fact that Baghdad had been divvied up like war spoils between Veolia and Suez.
In 2003, the U.S. Congress had established the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund with $18 billion, which was used to build 158 water treatment facilities—largely contracted to the U.S.-based construction giant Bechtel, Texas-based Fluor, and Suez.1 This was only the beginning of the spending. In 2009, Baghdad’s mayor, Saber al-Issawi, said Suez and Veolia received another $5 billion to build and run the city’s water supply system. He promised it would be operational in two years.
In total, U.S. taxpayers have spent $63 billion on reconstruction and relief in Iraq; this amount does not include the cost of the war. Yet in 2013, the United Nations reported an “alarming increase in water pollution,” with more than a million cases of waterborne illnesses countrywide in 2011. Another study by the consultant firm Dunia stated, “Iraq’s existing water and sewage infrastructure, including treatment plants and pipe networks, is largely in disrepair.” In Baghdad, the U.N. report noted “almost daily incidents of tension or verbal arguments related to water access.
So why have conditions continued to deteriorate in Iraq? In a 2013 report, Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen euphemistically wrote that much of the money spent in Iraq had “underperformed.” Earlier, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki obliquely said, “There was misspending of money.” Part of the problem was continuing conflict.
After the war “ended,” the country threatened to deteriorate into three autonomous regions—Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish. In this unstable environment, Iraqi politicians could buy votes by promising clean water, signing large contracts as evidence of their commitment, then abandoning or ignoring the projects after winning the election. For U.S. and French corporations working in this war-torn and unregulated environment, accountability was virtually nonexistent.
Money was funneled from U.S. taxpayers to corporations through loans that the United States is still paying back. “We ran that war on a credit card,” said Senator Patrick Leahy. Even more frightening is the possibility that this war may have been started for corporate interests, an idea that has received much speculation in the press. In a 2002 Time magazine article titled “Inside the Secret War Council,” journalist Mark Thompson questioned the membership of a group called the U.S. Defense Policy Board, which he described as a “private think tank” in which “helmets often trump thinking caps.”
Formed to advise the U.S. secretary of defense, the Defense Policy Board included Bechtel’s senior vice president John Sheehan and board of directors member George Shultz. Not surprisingly, these men strongly advised that the United States should invade Iraq, though Bechtel defended them: “Shultz spoke for himself, not for Bechtel, in advocating intervention against the regime of Saddam Hussein.” Also on the Defense Policy Board was hawkish CIA director James Woolsey, whose wife, Suzanne, was influential in claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and arguing for a preemptive strike. Less than a year after the war started, Suzanne was appointed director of one of the five major companies selected for reconstruction work in Iraq—Fluor.
As part of her compensation, she was awarded stock in the company. Finally, army acquisitions officer Kenneth Oscar, who had pushed for no-bid contracts with better “incentives” for corporations, became a vice president at Fluor in 2002. These are only a few of the people with conflicts of interests involved in the buildup to war. One would think if the government at least wanted to avoid the appearance of corruption, these people would have been asked to recuse themselves from decisions about going to war.
Instead, Bechtel was offered the first major contract for reconstruction in April 2003 after what the New York Times called “a heated contest among some of the nation’s most politically connected construction concerns”.
The case of Iraq reveals one of the bleaker ways in which water privatization can be achieved: through force. Before the Iraq War even began, the Heritage Foundation laid out a plan for the country’s reconstruction.
In a report titled “The Road to Economic Prosperity for a Post-Saddam Iraq,” the authors wrote: The new post-Saddam federal government should develop a modern legal system that recognizes property rights and is conducive to privatization; create a public information campaign that prepares the people for structural reforms and privatization; hire expatriates and Western-educated Arabic speakers with financial, legal, and business expertise for key economic positions; deregulate prices, including prices in the utility and energy sectors; prepare state assets in the utility, transportation, pipeline, energy, and other sectors for privatization . . . and launch an effort to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
This was precisely the path that reconstruction followed, with corporatebuilt water supply systems, allegedly funded through “cost recovery.” At the same time, the Iraqi government was confronted with an Islamic majority that viewed water as sacred and a “gift of God” in some places, water commodification was considered tantamount to blasphemy.
A clash of interests was bound to follow. Rather than ask Iraqis to pay for water, Iraqi politicians were more likely to take money from USAID to build water treatment plants but then indefinitely delay the accompanying “water reforms” that would pay back the costs. Instead, costs were covered by the U.S. government that is, us.
As Bechtel was pulling out of Iraq, other companies moved in. In 2004, U.S. Fluor was hired to rehabilitate Baghdad’s Al-Wathba plant for $600 million, due for completion by 2006. (Best known for building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, Fluor has also built refineries and military bases around the world and nuclear power plants in the United States.)
Despite the large amounts of money spent on rehabilitating Baghdad’s water supply, little seemed to show for it. By 2007, the Iraqi Environment Ministry said that 36 percent of Baghdad’s drinking water was still unsafe “in a good month,” and that figure jumped to 90 percent in a “bad month.”29 This was an optimistic estimate, compared to other studies completed the same year.
According to the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, only 32 percent of the Iraqi population had access to clean water, and 60 percent of the population in Baghdad’s suburbs were drinking from rivers.
Baghdad resident Sahira Saleh said, “It is hard to say this but years ago I was praying for the death of Saddam Hussein, but today I wish he could come back to life and was in power again because at least in his time we used to have safe water, good sewage systems, had food to eat and our children never got diarrhea.”
In 2007, cholera spread across the city, as journalist Matthew Schofield reported: “Cholera has hit in the summers; it will come again. m The water is atrocious. And this is in Baghdad. It gets much worse when you get outside. When you go down to Basra, you have stories of worms actually coming out of the tap.”
More than two thousand people were infected and twenty-four died as cholera reached Baghdad. Lacking running water, people drank from rivers or dug up the streets to tap into water pipes, which led to sewage leaking into the pipes that fed people’s taps. Schofield wrote, “The stench of human waste is enough to tell Falah abu Hasan that his drinking water is bad. His infant daughter Fatma’s continuous illnesses and his own constant nausea confirm it.”
At the same time, the World Bank was trying to figure out how to get people to pay for clean water. While billions were being spent by USAID on water treatment plants, the World Bank was funding “water sector reform” in Iraq. In 2003, the Bank established an office in Baghdad to support “its transition to a market economy.”
A Bank report claimed, “The future for a sustainable water sector requires good governance, market based and private-sector led growth, and diversification.” The Bank also said Iraq needed “a new approach to water as an enterprise, with a more important role for the private sector.” It was clear that Iraq had to meet these conditions in order to receive support from the Bank.
Of course, without meters or functioning treatment plants, “water pricing” was difficult to establish. For instance, when the U.S. special inspector general visited Nasiriya, he asked if water fees were being collected. A representative at the Provincial Council said that, because they did not have meters, they calculated water usage based on how often the reservoir had to be filled divided by the number of people in the area. But he then said they hardly ever collected the fees. On the other hand, Nasiriya residents complained they sometimes had to pay for water, but mostly in the form of “bribes.” Those who could not afford the bribes or bottled water simply got sick.