Starting in late spring this year, cities and towns in northwestern Iraq began to fall, one by one, into the hands of a violent religious movement, the Islamic State. The group swallowed up areas along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, quickly plunging the region into fierce conflict and a brutal humanitarian nightmare.
Due in part to U.S. airstrikes, the creeping advance appears to be stanched for the moment, and Kurdish forces have reclaimed a small number of towns that had been overrun.
One of Islamic State’s recent prizes is Sinjar, a rural community comprised mainly of minority groups including Yazidis, who practice a syncretic mix of Islam and ancient beliefs that the hardliners consider to be heretical.
According to some reports, hundreds of Yazidis were executed for refusing to convert to Islam. Hundreds of thousands more fled to escape violence and mistreatment, only to face deadly conditions while hiding in nearby mountains.
Before the group seized Sinjar, this community had long suffered from a failing local government and widespread distrust of the regime in Baghdad. Their chief complaint was widespread corruption. In many of its conquests, Islamic State has exploited discontent over corruption, lack of security and poor governance to recruit young fighters to join their campaign.
In late 2013, as Islamic State was building forces to fuel its recent surge of violence, 100Reporters visited Sinjar to investigate allegations of corruption in the district’s essential water systems. Drinking water was making people sick, as untreated groundwater was pumped from wells through leaky pipes and directly into homes. An audit showed that government officials were siphoning money from local budgets meant to fix the problem.
The U.S. government spent millions of dollars to dig wells and pipelines in the area, but allegedly failed to keep tabs on a project that in the end only benefited foreign contractors. A close look at conditions before the fall of Sinjar reveals a city hamstrung by graft and mired in resentment, and paints an early, intimate portrait of how its citizens paid for their government’s shortcomings.
Setting the Table
In 2006, the U.S. State Department funded a project to dig 48 wells across the district of Sinjar. After a call for bids on the project, the government hired a construction company based in Jordan, Civilian Technologies Limited, to take on the job.
A visit to one part of the Sinjar Water Project on the outskirts of the city revealed serious shortcomings. A tank was choked with algae and generators were rusting, while leaky pipes spewed water back into the sand.
This complex of 10 wells was supposed to supply water through a pipeline to two villages more than a dozen miles away, but five years after its completion, the 8,000 families living there had yet to see a drop of clean water for the effort.
Sayeed Khalaf, a 50-something operator who also owns the land on which the wells were built, said the contractor was slow and sloppy.
“The company worked without any pressure, and no supervision,” he said.
Multiple attempts to seek comment from Civilian Technologies by phone and email at their offices in Amman and Baghdad were unsuccessful.
Khalaf recalled talking to a crew from the American military who came to check on progress in 2008. They had heard complaints about the lack of water, and seemed unhappy with the state of the project – asking why it wasn’t working, Khalaf said.
“The problem with the Americans is that they were stubborn and opinionated,” said Dakhil Qassim Hassoun, who served as the mayor of Sinjar from 2003 to 2010, during the bulk of the American reconstruction.
“They wanted to deal with the contractors directly, without checking with the [city] administration or other parties that were involved,” he said.
Hassoun described the project as plagued with problems from the beginning. There wasn’t enough electric capacity to run all of the equipment, transformers failed, and pipes were perpetually leaky, he said. The contractor secured all of the materials for the project, from diesel engines to the plastic pipelines, from overseas suppliers. They hired unskilled local laborers but ignored advice from local geologists, who had taken water samples and warned against digging at some sites because the water wouldn’t be potable, Hassoun said.
“We told them, ‘If you dig one of these wells, the people will never benefit from it.’ They said, ‘We will dig, and you as a local government will go ahead and buy equipment to sweeten the water.’”
He said that the Americans didn’t supervise the project closely, and lacked the authority to enforce deadlines or standards. Asked who did have such powers, Hassoun shrugged.
The picture Hassoun painted matches up with Bowen’s findings. The special inspector general conducted five “asset transfer” audits to track the handover.
“Hundreds of projects were being turned over by the Army Corps of Engineers that the Iraqis did not want. They were simply given to them despite their palpable rejection,” Bowen said in an interview. The audit reports recommended more coordination among all the reconstruction agencies and with locals, but in the end it was “an oversight effort on our part that had insufficient impact,” he said.
Amid the chaos, funds were lost, projects looted for parts, and corruption took hold like a bad infection in a wound.
In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers foresaw the risks in the Sinjar water system’s handoff.
The “future security and economic situation in this region is precarious,” U.S. project engineer Michael Miller was quoted as saying in a press release at the time. “It would be a shame to see their water supply suffer because of neglect.”
“The problem with the Americans is that they were stubborn and opinionated.”
Charles Teifer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore Law School who led a Congressional commission on wartime contracting, said disorganization set the table and left projects open to a feeding frenzy of graft.
“You turn it over to something that was called ‘the Iraqis.’ There’s an authority from Baghdad, and they say ‘We’re the Iraqis,’ and there’s a local authority and they say ‘We’re the Iraqis,’” he said. The State Department “basically couldn’t force the Iraqis to do an orderly handoff.”
In 2012, a small group of Iraq legislators, elected members of the Ninewa council, noticed the lack of progress on water projects. After an investigation, signs of corruption quickly started surfacing.
“You can see it in the quality of the pipeline itself,” said Hassan Omar, a journalist who served as an assistant in the investigation. The 12-mile pipeline was shallow and made of shoddy plastic instead of durable PVC, he said, evidence that the contractors intentionally cut corners to boost profits.
“They didn’t dig down enough, they didn’t cover it with sand, they only dug 20 centimeters, and back-filled with dirt and rocks. And the pipe cracked,” he said.
Perhaps more damning is that while the contractor used shoddy materials to apparently squeeze extra profits out of the project, officials from Sinjar, including the city council and the mayor’s office, approved the project after it was completed. The work fell short of requirements in the original project tender, but the city, which was required to inspect the work, rubber-stamped the project.
“In other places, the wells were dug, they hired a biology firm who said the water was potable, but after digging we discovered that it wasn’t. Yet the Ninewa water department came and signed for the project,” said Hassoun.
He said he sent a letter to the provincial government saying the project was overreaching and would cost too much to run. The province never responded.
Hassoun is convinced that digging wells is an unsustainable solution. The water table is dropping, and the population has outgrown its ability to pull enough water from the ground.
The only way to quench the city’s growing thirst, he said, is to divert the mighty Tigris River, more than 50 miles away.
A Crisis of Thirst
“Our water smells like chlorine and frogs,” said Guli Khalaf, a 45-year-old resident of Sinjar and mother of 11 children.
She cupped the right side of her abdomen, describing searing pain she felt from kidney stones since the age of 18.
“I have just lived with it, doing the things a mother does, like baking bread in a traditional mud oven, even working on a farm,” she said. “But sometimes I would get dizzy. My hands would shake and I would cry out in pain. I couldn’t even walk, so I would crawl.”
U.S. taxpayers paid $60 billion to boost security and rebuild Iraqi infrastructure destroyed during the invasion.
But results have fallen far short of the mark. American auditors found that slack oversight led to shoddy work, and poor planning left a fifth of that money wide open for abuse. Massive investments meant to improve Iraqis’ quality of life have ended up reinforcing a system that works against their best interests.
A few years ago, Khalaf’s doctor discovered that one of her kidneys was packed with dozens of stones. “Do you have a whole mountain in there?” she remembered him joking.
Local doctors said the rate of kidney stones in Sinjar was “fifteen times higher” than in other parts of the province, with 22,000 cases reported in a single year, from a population of 40,000. For comparison, a recent study indicated that about one in 11 people in the United States will develop a kidney stone.
No one is sure what’s behind the unusually high incidence of kidney stones. Tests on well samples from one Iraqi researcher showed that the levels of calcium, magnesium and other minerals exceed international guidelines. But the science underlying the relationship between these minerals and stones is complicated and unsettled. While too much calcium can cause kidney stones, alkaline minerals also detected in Sinjar’s water may have the opposite effect – making stones less likely to form.
But dehydration and a hot climate are known risk factors for kidney stones. When people don’t get enough water to drink – or don’t want to drink the water they have due to its smell or taste – stones are more likely to accrete out of the concentrated urine and collect in the kidneys.
Sinjar sits in one of Iraq’s most water-starved regions, more than 50 miles from the Tigris, one of the country’s two great rivers. Conditions have worsened under two crushing droughts over the last decade, and city officials say the water table is dropping rapidly. The remaining stores are wide open to contamination before reaching households. The city’s sewage system is nonexistent, and the plumbing is falling apart. Leaky pipes run next to open sewers and under pools of fetid grey water. Toilets are p