Sunday, June 08, 2003


This just in:

Debate rages over who will run Iraq's utilities

Privatization vs. public control emerges as key issue in shaping future of country

In Iraq, a country ringed by desert and often seared by 110-degree heat, no commodity matters more than water. Its delivery to homes, businesses and fields used to be the province of Saddam Hussein's government. Now, as U.S. forces rebuild the country, debate is growing over who should control the tap.

Should Iraq's water system remain in public hands as a state-run utility? Or should private companies -- Iraqi or foreign -- run it?

The same questions hang over Iraq's other basic utilities -- its power grid and sewage system. Although San Francisco's Bechtel Corp. is now working to repair them, all will need serious long-term investment for the country to thrive. Some experts see private management as a way to pump money into those utilities.

And yet the thought of privatizing such basic human needs raises fears that the people of Iraq will lose control over their own resources. Much like the debate over oil, arguments about utility privatization reflect fears that Iraq's reconstruction will turn into a great grab -- with a few people or corporations seizing the country's key assets.

Not to worrry.

Federal officials, aware of the emotions this issue stokes, say a decision on Iraq's utilities must wait until an interim Iraqi government takes charge.

Feeling reassured?

Battered by war and stripped by looters, Iraq's utilities are in desperate need of repair


Bechtel's $680 million reconstruction contract covers repairs to the country's electrical grid, water works and sewers. But what happens after those immediate repairs?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already said he wants to see some of Iraq's state-run businesses sold off, although he did not specifically mention the utilities. Conservatives see privatization as a way to dismantle the vestiges of Baath Party power in Iraq, because Hussein's government controlled most every aspect of the economy before the war (my italics)

Isn't that special? Privitization=de-Baathification. Public Ownership=Saddam.

Hired to run the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a Bechtel joint venture saw its contract canceled by the government after protests against price increases turned violent. Bechtel says the hikes averaged 35 percent. Some Cochabamba residents complained their bills doubled before the fee increases were revoked.**


Bechtel insists it has no preference for whether Iraq's utilities stay public or turn private. Company spokesman Jonathan Marshall said protesters have oversimplified a complex situation in Bolivia, a situation he says has nothing to do with Bechtel's job in Iraq.

"Iraqi children are swimming in and drinking raw sewage, and we're trying to fix that," he said.

And don't ask why the children have only raw sewage to drink and swim in, or why Bechtel is there putting the Iraqi infrastructure back together.

I once saw some captured German WW2 newsreels; one showed the heroic efforts of Nazi ground troops as they sprung into action to save the Cathedral of Rouen from a devastating fire that had been caused by, yeah, you probably guessed it, a German bombing raid. Imagine that: the Germans came all the way from Germany to save that Cathedral, from themselves. No, the point here is not to establish a moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and the US of A., only a moral equivalence between propogandists, of any stripe.

Good article, especially because it gives the last word to the invaluable Benjamin Barber, whose "impending" book can be ordered here:"

"If one were to define a core democratic decision a people could make, the treatment of things like water and power and media would be it....It's a pretty basic part of government."

**For more, much more on Bolivia, Bechtel and water, see Now with Bill Moyers and Frontline World; watch the video, read Wm Finnigan's New Yorker article, enjoy the title, "Leasing The Rain": both sites have great links, and this subject of water ain't going away.