Baghdad faces ‘water crisis’ despite new plant

A young Iraqi girl fills a bucket of potable water from a break in a city water main in Baghdad on Saturday. Obstacles to delivering water to Baghdad residents range from decaying pipes to scavengers.
A young Iraqi girl fills a bucket of potable water from a break in a city water main in Baghdad on Saturday. Obstacles to delivering water to Baghdad residents range from decaying pipes to scavengers. Samir Mizban / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After nearly three years and $45 million, a treatment plant in northern Baghdad is pumping enough drinking water for a quarter of Baghdad’s people. But the trick is getting it to them because of losses to broken pipes and scavengers.

Officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development are preparing to wrap up work in September after restoring one Saddam Hussein-era plant and building another at the Shark Dijlah water treatment facility, which serves 1.5 million people mostly in eastern Baghdad.

“We’ve successfully been providing water for over a year now,” USAID expert Chris Serjak said during a tour Saturday, standing outside the nearly 30-year-old original plant as motors from filtration pools rumbled in the background.

Western and Iraqi reconstruction officials have pinned their hopes on U.S.-funded projects like the improvements at the plant to overcome severe shortages of water and poor sewage systems.

“Basically there is a water crisis,” city spokesman Adel al-Ardawi said by telephone, blaming the shortages on a lack of electricity and violence by insurgents.

Capacity problems
But there is more to the problem than infrastructure.

“You can build a brand new plant and pump tons of water out, but if the lines aren’t there to handle it you’re not getting full volume,” Serjak said.

Desperate Iraqis tap into mains and use generators to pump water to their homes in several areas where water is scarce. That lessens the flow to others.

Shihab Ahmed, a 48-year-old clerk who lives in the southeastern neighborhood of New Baghdad, said he gets up about 3:30 a.m. because his faucets only run at full force for about an hour and he needs to fill plastic bottles for use throughout the day.

“This water is for cooking and drinking, after my wife boils it to purify it,” he said.

Serjak said water also seeps from decayed distribution mains, and that defect can bring health problems.

“The country has broken sewer mains lying alongside broken water lines, and so you get contamination not at the treatment plant but actually at the distribution line,” the 31-year-old Los Angeles native said.

Mending cracks in the line
He said USAID spent $13 million last year to improve water delivery in the city’s crowded Shiite slum of Sadr City, where they replaced 61 miles of old, cracked asbestos pipes with new mains and provided more than 15,000 house connections.

They used local laborers to win the community’s support and avoid security problems.

Serjak said the water infrastructure in Sadr City, which suffered from decades of neglect under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, was in particularly bad shape, with concrete pipes susceptible to cracking buried just below the surface, exposing them to traffic.

In addition, he said, “People were making a lot of illegal taps because of the growth of the area.”

While authorities had looked to public works to build a new Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion, the insurgency has forced the diversion of billions of dollars to security from projects to improve water, sewage and power systems.

Billions shifted to address security
About $2.1 billion of the more than $4 billion initially allocated for water and sanitation projects was shifted in 2005 to address new priorities and security needs, according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Just 49 of the originally planned water and sewer projects will be completed, and 300 of the planned 425 electrical projects will be done, according to a U.S. government audit released in late January.

Saad Salman, general manager of the Shark Dijlah plant, said it had not been attacked, but he worries constantly it could be. Security is provided by the Facility Protection Services, which was recently criticized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for being ineffective and having links to insurgents.

Serjak acknowledged relief officials had to scale back efforts because of spiraling costs and violence.

“When we first came in we put together a wish list,” he said. “And as you go in and further define what can be done, you make tradeoffs, you make decisions. Going back to what’s cost effective.”

The USAID team made the decision to both build a new water plant and expand the old one at Shark Dijlah after discovering they had a head start. The U.N. Development Fund had done designs and ordered equipment for improvements to the plant before the invasion in March 2003.

Serjak said he found it more efficient to work with what is available in Iraq, where transporting equipment safely is difficult.

“There are some plants that are too far gone,” he said. “But where possible, rehabilitation has been quicker and more cost effective.”