|Promoting a sustainable energy future|
Two devastating wars, a decade of debilitating sanctions, a lawless spate of looting, and continued insecurity have left the Iraqi water infrastructure in absolute shambles. As American government and corporate money has poured into the occupied country and its reconstruction effort, a lack of clarity over the future ownership and management of Iraqi water resources has brought the issue of privatization to the fore.
In May 2003, the top American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, stated that Iraq was “open for business.” More than a month before those seemingly salutatory remarks, the controversial corporate giant Bechtel received a no-bid contract from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), worth $680 million over 18 months, for the rehabilitation of various infrastructures, including water; today, the company has contracts in Iraq worth $2.8 billion. The San Francisco-based Bechtel, which boasts privileged and intimate connections to the Bush administration and is working to increase its market as a water privateer, has been implicated in various corporate imbroglios, from its severe mismanagement of the Big Dig project in Boston to corruption involving water contracts in Bulgaria. Rather than concentrating on the company’s violations of human rights, many observers have cried incompetence. Bechtel’s most infamous privatization scheme led to its expulsion from Bolivia after violent protests over elevated and unaffordable water tariffs left several dead. Iraqis worry that Bechtel’s sweetheart deal to repair water utilities will segue into full-blown private control over water. Past experience around the world has proven the difficulty of divesting corporations from the water sector after they have inserted themselves. Now, reconstruction’s trajectory has shifted to include the participation of the World Bank. Under the banner of internationalization, the Bretton Woods institutions have been invited into Iraq by America (not Iraqis) and threaten to bring their legacies of structural adjustment and privatization to bear upon the Iraqi people.
The current water and sanitation situation remains dangerous and bleak. UNICEF and CARE reports from the summer of 2003 indicate that only 19 percent of water treatment plants in southern and central Iraq were in good condition. Gross problems with the electricity grid – whose reconstruction is also managed by Bechtel – and a lack of trained operators are leaving well-repaired yet power-dependent water facilities out of action. Moreover, the general absence of security which has permeated Iraqi society has constrained water-related reconstruction.
The question of water in Iraq, a desert country with temperatures sometimes reaching to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius), is buffeted by highly-charged hydro-geopolitics, the integral part that water plays in the oil industry, and the generally low quality of existing resources. Iraq shares the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates with regional competitors Syria and Turkey. In 1990 Turkey displayed its power over downstream neighbors by cutting off the flow of both rivers for 29 days. The issue of water is also very important to American and corporate-Halliburton efforts to develop the oil industry. It takes one barrel of water to produce one barrel of Iraqi oil. With water constituting a resource which is equally precious to or more precious than oil in the region, it is important for American oil interests to keep water in friendly hands. In addition, water resources in the area are usually brackish and highly saline, and often require expensive and inefficient processing to be fit for consumption or even agriculture.
Today, as corporations and the American occupation authority plot and do their bidding behind closed doors, Iraqis face quotidian water-related struggles, in every sphere of Iraqi society. An August 2003 United Nations report titled, “Iraq: Water – a source of life and death,” says that 70 percent of illnesses in children are linked to contaminated water. Not one principal Baghdad sewage plan, for instance, is operational (as of August 2003), so raw sewage courses through the system and into the rivers without treatment. In most places, where water has not come through the pipes in months, Iraqis procure their water rations directly from the river or from tanker service, which, residents say, often causes diarrhea.
Will the American invasion of arid and oil-rich Iraq result in a strong and representative society where citizens control their most precious resources? The precedent of corporate involvement being set thus far and the records of the involved corporations suggest not. The responsibility for providing thirsty Iraqi citizens with water will be put in the hands of corporations like Bechtel. These companies have only one interest in managing Iraq’s water – profit.
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