By Erickson Barnes
Middle East District
WINCHESTER, Va. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Middle East District, in conjunction with Iraq's Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, recently oversaw the completion of a new wastewater collection and treatment system for the city of Fallujah in Iraq's Al-Anbar Governate.
Located approximately 70 kilometers west of Baghdad on the banks of the Euphrates River, Plant Fallujah, and the entire wastewater treatment system, serves not only as a reminder of how difficult it can be to build in a warzone, but also how important infrastructure projects are in the country. It took longer and cost more than anyone anticipated when it began in June 2004, according to Gary Clardy, MED's project manager in Iraq. In the end, however, it still achieved the goal of improving quality of life for thousands of Fallujah residents.
Initiated through a partnership between U.S. Forces-Iraq and Department of State early in the conflict, the wastewater treatment system was one of the largest and most expensive construction projects in Iraq, according to a recent report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR). At the time, Fallujah did not have a comprehensive sewage system, and Government of Iraq officials requested assistance in building one. It was part of a broad strategy to improve the country's infrastructure, which was generally in poor condition from decades of neglect.
Following seven years of work, the backbone of that treatment system is now in place. It can serve approximately 70,000 residents, and has the built-in capacity to expand and connect up to 200,000 total residents. The Iraqi government has taken over day-to-day operation of the system and has committed to completing the remaining portions of the work, even signing Iraqi-funded contracts recently to ensure the system is finished. According to Clardy, U.S.-funded grants were issued to help the Iraqis connect the initial 9,000 homes, and about 6,000 are currently hooked into the system. "More are being connected every day," he said.
"We are extremely happy to see the Iraqis have taken on the challenge to complete the work," added Lt. Col. Anthony Mitchell, commander of MED's Iraq Area Office in Baghdad.
It was a learning experience from start to finish, but more than just lessons learned came from the dedicated effort to complete an important infrastructure project, said Clardy.
"The new sewage collection and treatment system was just one of the many improvements undertaken by a combined team of Iraqi and U.S. engineers and builders," said Clardy. "Iraqi and U.S. engineers and builders also constructed major sewer works in Basra, Karmaliya, Abu Ghraib, Oubaidi, Assyria, Baghdad and Husseiniyah. The combined team also constructed potable water systems in several hundred locations."
While falling short of original goals, SIGIR reported that assessing Fallujah's wastewater treatment system solely on its final costs and scaled down results "may not fully realize the nature of its secondary goals and objectives" of enhancing local citizens' faith in their government's ability to deliver essential services, winning the hearts and minds of a critical segment of the Iraqi populace, and stimulating the economy by boosting employment, particularly for young men who could potentially be recruited by the insurgency.
The project began at a time when the city was wracked by violence, and there was a limited understanding about the site and security conditions, availability of a skilled workforce, and the true costs of such a system. Very early on, security conditions rapidly deteriorated and, on several occasions, U.S. combatant commanders had to direct the contractor to stop construction.
Barbara Leaf, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of State, issued a memorandum Oct. 27, 2011, in response to SIGIR's report that acknowledges the difficulties the project experienced, but emphasizes the positive end results.
"While no one disputes the many difficulties of this project, [it] has made progress," she said. "This project turned a corner in 2008. Since then, we partnered with the GOI, worked collaboratively with USACE, developed a plan that was appropriate and achievable and forged ahead -- with the firm objective of making the taxpayers' investment and the efforts of those who worked so diligently on this project worthwhile."
Leaf's memorandum goes on to point out four areas of significant importance and improvement that came from the project:
1. Capacity Development -- Where once there was no Iraqi expertise in this field and no functioning public works sewers department, there is now a functioning sewers department in Fallujah. Additionally, there are new Iraqi-initiated efforts in this area moving forward and using the lessons learned in Fallujah.
2. Healthier Environment -- Before the construction of this system, waste was dumped directly into the Euphrates River. There are significant health and environmental benefits to the public.
3. Interagency Collaboration -- Department of State and USACE worked together to award a grant to the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works that is being used to contract local Iraqis for continued construction on the system.
4. Sustainability -- With help from State, the Government of Iraq awarded a $67 million contract this summer for the design and construction work necessary for the completion of the system throughout the entire city of Fallujah. The award also includes long-term maintenance for the system.
"To those who worked on this project, or to the families of those who lost their lives working on this project, this project was not abandoned, was not allowed to fail, and now represents a partnership between the GOI and U.S. We invested far too much … to walk away," said Leaf. "[This] is a model of how to turn around a project on the verge of failure."
"I take a bit of pride in this project," said Clardy. "When I arrived in Iraq, a major cause of death among children was contaminated water. Things are a lot better today."
Fallujah's wastewater treatment system was one of the many projects handed over to the Middle East District as the Gulf Region District prepared to be inactivated last year.