Monday, October 27, 2008
A huge American-financed wastewater treatment plant in the desert city of Falluja, which U.S. troops assaulted twice to root out insurgents in 2004, was supposed to be the centerpiece of an effort to rebuild Iraq, a country smashed by war and neglect, and to bring Western standards of sanitation.
Instead, the project, which has tripled in cost from original plans to $100 million and has fallen about three years behind schedule, has become an example of the failed and often oversold program to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure with U.S. dollars and skill.
The project was so poorly conceived that there is no reliable electricity to run pumps and purification tanks, and no money left to connect homes to the main sewer lines, which now run uselessly beneath Falluja's streets, according to a report by U.S. investigators released Monday.
The report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent federal office led by Stuart Bowen Jr., stops short of saying that officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has primary responsibility for the project, or the U.S. Embassy's own reconstruction bureau, the Iraq Transition Assistance Office, deliberately withheld information on the problems.
But Bowen's investigators determined that senior officials at the embassy and the Army Corps knew of the problems for years without taking them to the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, or including them in any substantial way in the State Department's so-called 2207 reports, which are supposed to inform Congress of the status of taxpayer-financed projects in Iraq.
In fact, when Crocker learned about the problems in July, he asked the investigators to determine why he had never been informed, the report says.
The investigators found that there were systemic barriers to reporting reconstruction failures up the chain of command, possibly helping to explain why senior embassy and military officials often praise projects that later turn out to be flawed or nonfunctional.
And, as if to remove any doubt that the carefully devised public image of the project bears only a passing resemblance to what the investigators observed, the Army Corps has repeatedly promoted the Falluja project as a remarkable success in its constant stream of news releases on Iraq reconstruction.
In April, for example, an Army Corps release said the project had been started in May 2007 and would eventually serve all the homes in Falluja. In fact, investigators found, the project was begun in June 2004 and was originally supposed to have been finished 18 months later.
At the earliest, the project will be partly operational by April 2009, the investigators found. And although the original plan called for the plant to cover the entire city, it has since been downsized to serve at most one-third of the population, or about 9,300 homes.
That means the project would end up costing more than $10,000 per home. But even at that price - and even if additional financing can be found to connect the houses to the sewer lines - the plant may never operate.
When investigators arrived this autumn, they found that the manholes and control valves had been padlocked on a principal sewer line by an irate contractor who had not been paid for a small part of the work that was supposed to have been financed by the Iraqi government.
Some of the bills were two years past due, the investigators found.
"This pipeline is a critical mainline component of the system," the report states. "Ultimately, if this problem is not addressed, wastewater will back up into residents' houses, causing damage and odor."
A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad, DeDe Cordell, pointed out that alongside its criticisms, the inspector general report also praised corps officials for ultimately finding the problems. Cordell said the project, which was begun under the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government after the invasion, did not pass to the Army Corps until May 2006.
The discrepancy with the corps news release must have been the result of a typographical error, Cordell said.
She said that plans for the wastewater plant had changed again and again, sometimes at the request of the Iraqi government in ways the Army Corps had objected to.
"We are not doing these projects 'in a vacuum,"' Cordell wrote in an e-mail message. "This is a partnership with the government of Iraq."
She said that the backbone of the sewer system would be capable of serving the entire city of Falluja but that the Iraqi government would be responsible for connecting much of that system to individual homes.
"Given the extremely volatile security situation previously encountered in Falluja, we are very encouraged to see that this project is nearing completion," Cordell said. "This has been unbelievably challenging and indescribably dangerous, both from a security and a construction safety standpoint. People have died in an effort to bring the city its first wastewater treatment system, a fundamental service, with health and environmental benefits most Americans take for granted."
Still, the inspector general report says that the Iraqi government has not been inclined to pay for the connections to individual homes and, in a bizarre bit of city planning, has proposed that individual homeowners connect their lines. At least one Iraqi, a 16-year-old boy, died of asphyxiation when he was overcome by sewer fumes after his family sent him down to work on the connection
7 months ago