NBC News
Iraqi women gather dried sewage at the Rustamiya plant for use as fertilizer.
By Investigative Unit Producer
NBC News
updated 9/3/2004 11:30:08 AM ET 2004-09-03T15:30:08

A torrent of raw sewage from east Baghdad roars from a giant pipe into a tributary of the Tigris River, not far from a U.S. military base named "Camp Cuervo." With a rancid stench that saturates the area, the stuff has been pouring into Iraq's main waterway since the U.S. military action to oust Saddam Hussein last year.

"People are now basically drinking raw sewage anywhere downstream from Baghdad, which is much of the population," said William Fellows, a senior program officer for UNICEF who also works with the United Nations Development Program. 

The public health dangers range from cholera to minor stomach problems, said Fellows, who is based in Amman, Jordan. “There is more diarrhea, there is more skin disease, there is more eye disease, there are more health problems.”

It wasn't supposed to be that way. The coalition forces and their civilian counterparts were supposed to be fixing the sewage system of Iraq and millions of dollars have been budgeted for the work.

In addition, a massive $18 billion reconstruction package passed by Congress in November of 2003 set aside $675 million in taxpayer funds for sewage projects.

Certainly the unrelenting fury of the insurgency slowed work down on sewage projects, like everything else, as workers found that reconstructing Iraq was like trying to paint a house while it is on fire. Security, however, was only part of the problem.

Tangle of contracts
A dizzying number of agencies have their spoons in the reconstruction stew: new agencies that come and go, with acronyms like PCO, IRMO, PMO and IRRO, as well as established agencies like the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, or the Army Corps of Engineers.

Publicly, the United States says the reconstruction is going well, but some top reconstruction officials said they are exasperated by inefficiency, corruption and missed deadlines.

An examination by NBC of the work on one major sewage project shows a tangle of contracts and confusing lines of authority, clogging up the efforts at reconstruction.

That sewage from East Baghdad pouring into the tributary of the Tigris is bypassing a sewage and wastewater treatment complex known as Rustamiya South.

The sewage treatment plant came to a complete standstill after the 2003 U.S. military action. Iraqis say it had worked until then, although U.S. officials argue that it didn’t.

The U.N.’s William Fellows said that shortly after the U.S. military occupied Iraq, the United Nations attempted to repair the plant, at no cost to U.S. taxpayers. 

But in the summer of 2003, Fellows says, the Coalition Provisional Authority, then in charge of Iraq, asked the U.N. experts to abandon their work.

"When they ask us to leave we have no authority not to leave,” Fellow said. “We have to obey the powers of the ruling government."

Funds processed, not sewage
A year later, even though the sewage is not being processed at Rustamiya, the reconstruction funds have been.

In the summer of 2003 the United States Agency for International Development, known as USAID, assigned its giant contractor Bechtel Corp. to the case.

The financing was as complicated as an electrical wiring chart: $5.75 million came from USAID – American taxpayer funds that is -- for Bechtel to get started on Rustamiya, and another $9 million for another sewage facility named Kerkh in Western Baghdad.

But officials knew that the job would need more funds, so they decided that millions more for the sewage treatment sites should come from Iraqi coffers.

After all, Iraq’s oil revenue was controlled by U.S. administrators at the Coalition Provisional Authority. Then, officials say, USAID government awarded Bechtel an extra $6 million as a fee to oversee any contractors hired by the CPA.

Among the first priorities was cleaning off the crusted, dried sewage that was sometimes several feet thick. Yet after that, little seemed to be happening on the ground.

During an unannounced visit this spring -- eight months after work supposedly started -- there was no heavy equipment, no laborers or replacement parts for the pumps and machinery at the Rustamiya site.

Iraqi government officials said this was the norm, and that little work besides the initial cleanup had been done. They displayed giant valves leading to nothing, electrical switches still torn, and machinery rusting as if the place were a giant ghost town.

Subcontractors told NBC News the work got bogged down early on, failed to meet deadlines and was over budget. One contractor, who asked not to be named, called it a "black hole."

Contractor Raad Kuprulu's company was the recipient of one of the Bechtel subcontracts last year.

In an interview, Kuprulu said his original bid was $400,000, but that Bechtel repeatedly made changes to the work, raising the cost to more than $1 million.

Iraqi engineer Karim Al-Wali, who worked as a manager at the plant in the 1980s, now works for another subcontractor. "It's a mystery," he said, why everything was taking so long. "Certainly it is a mystery."

Lengthy delays
Part of that mystery was that security slowed down the process. But that's not the whole story.

In fact sources told NBC News the work was delayed, once the sites were initially cleaned, because companies were not hired to do the crucial work.

Insiders pointed to inexplicable delays, as contract documents sat unexamined in the Republican Palace in Baghdad's Green Zone.

"We lost four months in the spring," said Sgt. Paul Cobaugh, a civil affairs reservist who reports to the First Cavalry Division and who oversees Bechtel's efforts.

"Those contracts were due out in December,” he said, faulting the Coalition Provisional Authority. "The CPA sat on the job for four months and did not issue the contracts."

NBC has obtained the old contract solicitations, by the CPA and Bechtel, with deadlines that have been missed. For example, by May 15, rusted old equipment was supposed to be refurbished. Another contract called for the contractor to “complete all work” by Aug. 30.

Contracts were finally awarded to several Turkish companies, while Bechtel continued to oversee the work.

Bechtel invited NBC News back to the site last May where this time several dozen men in white hard hats and immaculate blue jumpsuits worked. Aside from a forklift, though, there did not appear to be any heavy equipment on the site.

Instead, a couple of impoverished women dressed all in black wander through the grounds, gathering dried human sludge for fertilizer in their fields.

Sgt. Cobaugh said that after repeated delays, some equipment shipments finally started in July, but key parts, such as the massive mixing devices called "aerators," which are critical to running the plant, have yet to arrive.

At the end of June, the CPA was dissolved as sovereignty was handed to the Iraqi Interim Government, and the CPA now only survives through the contracts it signed.

End of the year?
Technically, the Iraqi-run Baghdad Sewage Authority is overseeing the Rustamiya site, but that doesn’t mean there have been major changes. Bechtel's spokesman Greg Pruett says the company is not even making a profit on the work, and he says the fee will come in under budget.

One positive sign: a sewage plant handling waste from the western part of the city has been partially repaired under Bechtel's oversight, and is operating at a third of its capacity.

But not Rustamiya. And it's unclear when the plant will finally shift into gear. USAID insists a third of it will go online at the end of this month.  Asked about this, Sgt. Cobaugh, the project manager, said he was cautious about making predictions.

He said there is finally real progress at Rustamiya, and he’s confident work at the plant will be completed by the end of the year.

But by then, in the confusing saga of reconstruction, it may not be his problem anymore, as he may return to the United States in the next couple of months.

The sewage, until then, will continue to flow into the Tigris.

Aram Roston, an investigative producer with NBC, recently returned from Iraq


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments