Steve Palmer's battle: clean water for Baghdad

The engineer struggles to restore derelict treatment plants and stop the flow of sewage into the city's rivers.

There are many things about life here that have gotten worse since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime six months ago, and Iraqis find them easy to spot: much less electricity, for example, and far more crime.

And then there are things that are almost impossible to see, unless you're a man like Steve Palmer, a water and waste-management engineer. Only then would you know that Baghdad's water is 25 percent more polluted than it was before the war. You would realize that an injection of sewage into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers makes the flow of water to the south so dirty that long-forgotten diseases are reemerging.

And you would understand that as more people flow into Baghdad in search of reconstruction-related jobs, pressures on the water system will only increase.

Only then might you think it worthwhile to leave your new wife in Manchester, England, to spend a year in Iraq.

"It could've been considered a hazardous job to take, but I saw it as a chance to help put Iraq back together," says Mr. Palmer, a British national who works for Bechtel, the San Francisco-based company that has won the biggest portion of USAID funds for capital construction in Iraq - $1.03 billion.

Nuts and bolts work

Palmer's days are filled with the nuts and bolts of repairing and rebuilding electricity stations, bridges, highways, schools, hospitals - and the all-important water and waste treatment plants that virtually ceased to function upon the regime's collapse. He and about 160 Bechtel engineers are charged with the frustrating task of trying to rebuild Iraq amid ongoing violence against coalition forces and regular attacks on public facilities.

The war is the primary reason for the steep decline in water quality. Power was cut in some places and damaged by bombing in others, putting many pumping stations out of order. Desperate Iraqis sometimes shot at water mains to puncture them, dangerously weakening the water pressure and quality for people further down the line.

Looting did some of the most serious damage, and even after electricity substations were repaired, some have been hit again by saboteurs, virtual professionals who knew that things like copper wiring and electrical switching equipment could be resold.

"There was a lot of industrial looting," says Palmer as he makes the rounds of this plant, one of three in Baghdad in such disrepair that raw sewage is spilling into the rivers.

On a typical morning, as Palmer leaves the Bechtel camp inside the former Republican Palace, a security firm tucks him and others into mandatory flak jackets and links them up with guards. Several times, Palmer says, shooting in the direction of the plant where he works has forced evacuation.

As Palmer walks into what was a sewage treatment substation, shadowed by a guard holding an assault rifle, Palmer marvels at how this plant has effectively been rendered defunct.

"This site has been looted out of existence," he says. Nearly everything of worth, from electric boards to windows - was taken. "The looting turned what was an [ineffective] plant into not much more than a scrapyard, to be honest."

The real culprit, he says, was lack of maintenance due to sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War that made it nearly impossible for Iraq to buy industrial equipment. The intent was to keep Iraq from obtaining materials for weapons of mass destruction, and to drive the economy into ruin and weaken the regime.

Instead, Hussein and his inner circle continued to profit, but public services and state industries became increasingly derelict. "The intended effect of sanctions is that it would affect Iraqi industry, and it certainly did," says Palmer as he inspects a sludge-treatment station. "The infrastructure is just creaking. That goes for oil and electricity, too. They couldn't get parts to replace things, resulting in a huge loss of capacity in water and water-treatment systems."

Iraqi engineers' mixed feelings

Palmer spends much of his time working with Iraqi engineers, also employed by Bechtel, and about 80 workers employed by the subcontractor, an Iraqi-Turkish joint venture. Eventually, management will be handed to Iraqis.

Zuheir Shaikhli, a chemical and environmental engineer, comes over to show Palmer what looks a big yellow stopwatch. It measures levels of hydrogen-sulfide gas, which has an above-average danger of becoming hazardous in Iraq due to high summer temperatures. Mr. Shaikhli and the other Iraqis working here get on well with Palmer, and they're appreciative of the help they're getting.

But he and the others grapple with a certain tension, a way of relating to visitors that feels unnatural. Despite traditions of Arab hospitality that make them want to invite their foreign friends home for a meal, security policy won't allow Palmer to accept. It's also too dangerous for them to genuinely extend the invitation. Wisam Ambaky, an electrical engineer, doesn't let his neighbors or relatives know he is working for Bechtel because he could be targeted as a "collaborator."

Several Bechtel teams have been harassed by crowds, and at least two contractors with other firms have been killed. "I tell my family, 'Don't tell anyone I work for them. Tell them I work for an Iraqi contractor,' " Mr. Ambaky says.

Palmer, who, it seems, could just as easily have been a science teacher as a warzone repairman, nods sadly. "I tell them not to wear their badges outside. I don't want them to take on more risk."

In fact, Shaikhli says he is willing to work with Palmer and others at Bechtel only because they are civilians. As they dig into a field lunch of sandwiches, potato chips and granola bars, Shaikhli squares with his foreign colleagues. "If the US soldiers came and offered me $10,000 a day, I would not work with them," he says. "I will not work with any soldier in uniform on my soil. Can I stand it when he inspects me, a foreign soldier in my country? I'd rather commit suicide than see foreigners occupying my country."

Particularly since the assassination of Governing Council Member Akila Al-Hashimi, working with any branch of the coalition is increasingly seen as risky. That may make it even more difficult over time for contractors here to do their work, and it contributes the image among average Iraqis that the US is doing very little to repair Iraq's ruined infrastructure.

It wasn't like this on Palmer's last assignment, which took him to rural Peru for about 18 months. During that posting, he met his wife. He tries not to tell her too much about life here - like the fact that the guys occasionally spend evenings watching tracer fire in the sky as if it were fireworks. "She is not too keen on it," he says. "I tell her it's perfectly safe because there's lots of security. The truth is, it's not perfectly safe, but I don't want her to worry."

Last of three parts. Parts 1 and 2 ran Oct. 8 and 9.

Bechtel

• A San Franciso-based engineering firm

• The firm has received $1.03 billion for infrastructure repair, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.• Bechtel is working with 133 US and foreign subcontractors in Iraq.

Source: USAID, Bechtel

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