Official Report details missteps in costly US-backed sewage project in Fallujah
October 27, 2008, Baghdad, Iraq – Stinking sewage runs through rutted and pocked streets in the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
It was four years and nearly $100 million ago that Americans promised to take care of the problem, in perhaps one of the most wrong-headed rebuilding projects ever attempted in Iraq.
Now the planned sewage treatment system for the city of some 400,000 people is expected to open next April at the earliest, making it more than three years late and triple the original cost for roughly one-third of the system promised, according to a report being released Monday by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
Fallujah is 40 miles west of Baghdad and in the long-volatile Anbar province. The Americans destroyed the city, then committed to rebuilding it, in a bid to win hearts and minds after a major counterinsurgency offensive in late 2004, the worst urban combat of the Iraq conflict.
The investigation into what went wrong with the wastewater project reads like a catalog of failings that have become habitual in the multibillion-dollar U.S. reconstruction effort across Iraq: staggering waste, endless delays, U.S. and Iraqi incompetence in contracting and administering the job, suspected sectarian discrimination and worse-than-poor contractor performance. Intense violence overlaid it all.
The report specifically blamed unrealistic U.S expectations from the start, repeated redesigns of the project, financial and contracting problems, and lack of a good contractors to draw from.
“They all weighed on … this project,” said Brian Flynn, assistant inspector general for inspections. “It would be hard to say” which hurt the most.
Certainly high on the list of misjudgments was doing the project at all while Fallujah was convulsing and crumbling in 2004.
“You wouldn’t start a Marshall Plan until World War II was over,” Flynn said of the rebuilding plan for devastated Europe after that war.
“This has to be the classic example of doing reconstruction while hostilities are still going on,” he said by telephone from Baghdad. “We’ve not done (another) one where security was so bad.”
The contract was issued only three months after four private security contractors were savagely beaten and burned in Fallujah in March 2004 while escorting a convoy. The mutilated remains of two of them were later strung from a bridge.
Marines laid siege to Fallujah that April, but pulled back. Then in that November the U.S. military launched a searing offensive with aerial bombings, tanks and artillery that left the city a rubble-strewn ruin and meant any construction would have to start with the removal of debris, the report said.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker asked in July for the auditor’s review because the project had “gone so far off track and for so long.”
Major reasons the project fell so far behind schedule and costs soared were:
—The fighting raged on.
—The project was redesigned twice. Once was because Iraqi officials refused to accept a lagoon-style facility they said was “for Third World countries” and would give off a “stinking odor.” A second redesign was to use generators to make up for the fact that electricity in Iraq is not reliable enough to operate the mechanized system Iraqis wanted.
—Fallujans rejected the use of contractors who were “foreigners,” meaning Iraqis from outside their city. Local contractors had never built a wastewater treatment plant and it was hard to find ones that could do quality work.
—Contractors would not follow labor safety rules, resulting in a number of work-site deaths.
—Money became a tangle. Costs ballooned and officials sought to pay for the work from several different pots of reconstruction money, including $17.5 million in Iraqi money approved by the Ministry of Finance, U.S. congressionally budgeted money and emergency U.S. funds controlled by ground commanders.
The Iraqi government that took over in May 2006 changed payment “requirements” for its portion of the contracted work, paying some contractors but refusing to pay others, raising suspicions the Shiite-dominated government was trying to deny help to the Sunni area.
The report describes U.S. Embassy officials frozen in “indecision” over how to finish and pay for the project. Last Nov. 2, “after more than 15 months of meetings, briefing charts, official memorandums, and countless e-mail exchanges,” the report says, the officials decided to terminate outstanding contracts that were to be paid for by Iraqis and complete the remaining work with U.S. money, but make the project smaller.
The embassy has continued to press for action on old unpaid bills. As recently as August, diplomats hand-delivered outstanding invoices from contractors directly to the Ministry of Finance. Still, a contractor not paid since 2006 has put locks on manhole covers to deny the government use of them until he gets his money, the report said.
“Many problems came out during the period of implementing the project,” said Abdul-Illah al-Allaq, director-general of sewage issues in the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works. “All these problems were dealt with.”
The project to build Fallujah a treatment plant, pipelines, pumping stations and related facilities originally was to cost $32.5 million, a price now at $98 million. Started in July 2004, it was to completed in 18 months, by January 2006, and serve the entire city. The report by Inspector General Stuart Bowen said it now will take some 56 months in all and serve only 9,300 homes of the planned 24,400, or about 38 percent of Fallujah’s residents.
It will not work at all without more contracts and more money.
Pipes for the system only run to property lines and there is no money set aside to connect the system to people’s houses, as Bowen recommends.
The new design Iraqis wanted — a mechanized system as opposed to open lagoons — will be powered by generators that take 6,000 gallons of fuel a day. No money is committed now to buying the fuel, a shortfall Bowen wants addressed.
For Fallujah, the scene of some of the war’s greatest brutality, the project has brought more miseries.
One teenager died of asphyxiation from fumes in an accident during the construction. Families are forced to leave their homes and stay with relatives elsewhere in the rainy season, when floods bring sewage into their houses.
Ahmed Khudir is looking forward to the day the new system operates. He said his 3-year-old son, Mohammed, died after falling into the cesspool at their house because the lid was missing.
Jumaa Hussein, 38, complains that unfinished digging for the system has prevented the city from paving streets, now left with sewage-filled potholes. People lay bricks across roads to make stepping paths, essentially forming speed-bump-like barriers and jamming traffic.
The Public Works Ministry’s al-Allaq said that with the opening of the wastewater project, roads and other reconstruction projects will be able to move forward. The new treatment plant would be the first for wastewater in Fallujah, where residents put sanitary waste into septic tanks that are then emptied by truck or flushed through the storm water system into the Euphrates River.
American authorities who ran Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion saw the project as a priority, hoping to wrest support of the mainly Sunni Arab residents from the insurgency. They also sought to promote reconciliation by building something to benefit Sunnis. The once-dominant minority was disenfranchised after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the country’s long-repressed Shiite majority.
Fallujah has been relatively peaceful since Sunni tribes in Anbar province joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq last year. The city essentially has been sealed off; entrance is only possible via checkpoints.
The market is thriving. Several reconstruction projects are under way with the improved security, though few have been finished. A new maternity hospital has opened and a college of medicine is under construction. Schools are being built.
But the report questions why the waste treatment system was attempted in late June 2004. That was when an agreement was made for FluorAMEC of Greenville, S.C., to design and build it.
“It was unrealistic for the Coalition Provisional Authority to believe FluorAMEC could even begin construction, let alone complete the project, while fierce fighting occurred daily,” the report said, adding that was something “the CPA should have realized.”
The company’s contract was terminated after a year and work broken into 45 contracts.
Aside from ground combat and air strikes, workers faced unexploded ordnance, threats, intimidation, murder, assassinations, and periods of city lockdown by the U.S. military, the report said.
Workers dug trenches and laid pipes, then insurgents planted homemade bombs in them and collapsed the trenches and ruined the pipes.
Though the project did mean hundreds of jobs for city residents, the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. contracting officials have said the expense came at a time when Iraqis more desperately needed essentials such as drinking water, food and electricity.
“The project file lacked any documentation to support that the provisional Iraqi government wanted this project in the first place,” Bowen’s report said. Rather, it appears that occupation authorities conceived of this project “for the Iraqis.”
On the Net: Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction: http://www.sigir.mil