Live from Baghdad

My adventures in Iraq.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


In an earlier post, I talked at length about the projects we are working on over here. Through infrastructure reconstruction, we hope to improve Iraqi lives to an extent that democracy can take root. That's part of the theory at least.

However, in this environment, it often seems for that every small success we have myriad well-publicized failures. A recent "Atlantic Monthly" article states, "...the war has degenerated to the extent that the construction sites have become nothing more than symbols of the despised American presence." Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. (The article is online but only available for paid subscribers at Atlantic Monthly.)

A more balance article recently appeared in the NY Times looking at USAID infrastructure projects in the southern Iraq city of Basra. Read it here. I actually visited with Tom Rhodes, the USAID representative quoted in the article, while I was in Basra last week. Tom is quoted as saying, "I think we've given the Iraqis the capacity to pump clean water, the capacity to offload grain in the port, the capacity to transmit power. Now the Iraqis themselves have to face the development war." Tom later apologized for that last metaphor, but his point was accurate. We are in the process of handing over responsibility for Iraqi infrastructure to the Iraqi government. This may be celebrated as a success back in Washington but it remains to be seen whether it will reflect a long-term improvement for the Iraqi people.

We're seeing more and more of these new and refurbished plants poorly maintained or abandoned. We have a handful of water and sewer treatment plants south of Baghdad that are completed rehabilitated but they can not be commissioned because they lack electrical power to run the pumps. In these cases, USAID and Bechtel have completed their goal without achieving their objective. The plants are in good working condition but no clean water is being pumped and sewage still flows on the streets. Yet I don't believe it's their fault, no one could have anticipated we would have less electicity on the grid than we did last summer.

Infrastructure also provides the insurgents with an attractive target. Around Basra, they regularly blow the oil pipelines that run to the port of Umm Qasr. If you stand out at the army base for awhile in the evening, you can usually spot a billowing cloud of smoke in the distance marking the most recent hit. I'm told the oil engineers are very efficient at stopping the leaks and repairing the pipes. A couple days ago, insurgents blew a hole in the pipe carrying treated drinking water to the western half of Baghdad. Most of our Iraqi colleagues have been without running water since the attack. More tragically, the infrastructure project also provide a target rich environment in terms of Iraqis willing to work for the Americans and thus considered infidels.

In the end, I believe we'll have some successes. We have a project underway that is bringing potable water to a region of Baghdad whose only source of water came directly from the putrid waters of the Tigris. We're drilling wells and installing treatment plants in rural areas of the country where until now people had to pay exorbitant rates to have bottled water delivered. And we're getting raw sewage flows off the streets. Will this be enough to effect real long-term change in the everyday lives of the Iraqi people? Time will tell, but I have my doubts.