Public Citizen Calls for Investigation of Bechtel’s Failure to Provide Adequate Water Services to Iraqi Citizens

April 5, 2004

Public Citizen Calls for Investigation of Bechtel’s Failure to Provide Adequate Water Services to Iraqi Citizens

 

One Year Later, Bechtel Profits at U.S. Taxpayers’ Expense, While Local Residents Continue to Suffer Without Basic Water Services

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Bechtel Group Inc., one of the lead contractors in the reconstruction of Iraq, has failed its contractual mandate to develop essential water delivery and sewage disposal, according to information Public Citizen forwarded today to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

In a letter to DOD Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz, the public interest organization called for an investigation into why Bechtel has not fulfilled the duties spelled out for the first year of its contract. The letter contains information gathered at Public Citizen’s request by an Iraq-based investigative journalist Dahr Jamail, who traveled widely and interviewed public officials, engineers, and families struggling to deal with the lack of clean water. The information outlines the ongoing problems in several cities in Iraq and documents Bechtel’s broken promises to Iraqis.

“U.S. taxpayers are funding Bechtel’s reconstruction contract without a means to demand accountability,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Water for All campaign. “It is clear that Bechtel’s lucrative contract is not helping the people of Iraq gain access to the water they desperately need to survive. The U.S. government should not subsidize profit-driven corporations that care more about dollars earned than the people served. Water is an essential commodity, not an option.”

On April 17, 2003, Bechtel was awarded a 12-month contract now worth up to $1.03 billion, authorizing the company to oversee the rehabilitation, reconstruction and expansion of key elements of Iraq’s infrastructure, including municipal water delivery and wastewater systems. The contract, which has been extended to December 2005, was part of a limited bidding process that forbade public review and was initially kept secret from Congress.

Independent evaluation of Bechtel’s work in the past year has been nearly impossible, in part due to security precautions and the lack of transparency in the contract process. But the information Jamail gathered details Bechtel’s contractual failures in Hilla, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Sadr City and smaller villages where families face crisis conditions due to the lack of access to clean water.

For example, one of Bechtel’s earliest priorities was to ensure the provision of potable water supplies to the population of southern Iraq in the first 60 days of the program. However, one year later, there is little evidence that this mandate has been achieved; instead, rising epidemics of cholera, kidney stones and diarrhea – all water-borne illnesses – point to the failure of Bechtel’s mission.

Further, the city of Hilla has a water treatment plant and distribution center that is specifically named in Bechtel’s assessment report as one that would be rehabilitated within six months to meet urgent needs for water. The six-month period ended Oct. 17, 2003, but there is little evidence that the company is responding to the water delivery needs of Hilla’s population.

The plant’s manager noted that when the war began, water ran in every house. In the war’s aftermath, looting and a lack of electricity caused the water infrastructure to stop working. Now, despite help from UNICEF, the Red Cross and several nonprofit organizations, the plant is supplying only 50 percent of the needed water for the people of Hilla. The surrounding villages have no water, and they have not been given the pipes they need to access the plant.

While Bechtel fails in its duties, knowledgeable Iraqi engineers and hydrologists are left on the sidelines. Moreover, the U.S.-based company appears to be positioning itself to assume private corporate control over municipal water systems in Iraq if the United States decides to open up systems to privatization. (An order to open all state assets in Iraq except oil to privatization has been put on hold.) Bechtel is one of the 10 most active water privatization firms in the world, with hundreds of contracts globally.

Public Citizen noted in the letter that Bechtel’s track record of supplying running water systems in other countries is not good. In Bolivia, for instance, a popular uprising forced Bechtel out after the company raised rates so high that most Bolivians couldn’t pay their monthly water bills

 

To address the issues raised in the letter, Public Citizen made seven recommendations, including:

  • A broad federal government investigation must be launched to scrutinize Bechtel’s expenditures and actions in Iraq, with the power to impose or seek punitive measures for contract violations and over-expenditure, and to provide oversight, regulation and accountability of Bechtel’s work in the application of its contract. The U.S. Congress should be informed of the findings.
  • Expert Iraqi engineers and workers in the water and wastewater services sector must be allowed to put their skill sets to work immediately.
  • An institutional regime of local Iraqi oversight, which would include a legitimate body of Iraqi experts on essential services and representatives of civil society, must be immediately implemented.
  • Contracts issued on a no-bid basis must immediately be reopened and submitted to a competitive bidding process.
  • Bechtel and the U.S. government should explicitly rule out plans for the privatization of Iraq’s water. Bechtel specifically should not be eligible for privatization contracts.

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