Robot Video from Iraq
-Patrick S Lasswell
Fresh from the Factory. Zara Company's WAN Water made in Suliamaniya, Iraq
Last week I spotted something amazing, formed into the base of my water bottle was a bold announcement: the bottle was made in Iraq. Previously, all the water we bought in Iraqi Kurdistan was from Turkey and Iran, and since I drink a lot of water, I noticed that. The first time I drank water from Iran, it was more than a little odd, then a little triumphant because I wasn't a hostage. But this water was not only made here, it was good, and the bottle was different, too. Instead of the standard 500ml, it was 600ml and beautifully formed, clear, and excellently labeled. This wasn't “attempted in Iraq”, this was proudly Made in Iraq.
I pointed out the bottle to Michael and it took him a while to get it. It takes a lot of handshakes and a lot of effort to make this good a product someplace where power is available two hours a day and manufacturing has been stifled since before there were automobiles. Especially after decades of Saddam Hussein doing everything in his power to eliminate productivity for the Kurds, including Stalinist governmental controls, concentration camps without industries, trade destroying sanctions, and genocide. Iraqi Kurdistan used to be incredibly productive, and now it is largely a consumer society, dependent on government money from oil sales. The post-invasion freedoms are producing a boom, but sustaining that growth depends on building things here that are globally competitive. This water was as pretty as the bottles of Evian I got in London last year and tasted better besides.
I think the war has atrophied the journalist's mental process, for too long all they've been doing is waiting for the next car bomb to write their stories. Here was a real factory, not a car bomb factory, in someplace where factories are unheard of. The phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads” has imposed a kind of retardation on journalist mentality and initiative. Instead of reporting important things that change people's lives and accomplishments that matter, they wait for the next fireworks show and tell us they aren't really death cult paparazzi.
We got in touch with our fixer and he arranged things so that a few days after noticing the imprint, we were standing next to the machine making them and the man who got things working in Iraq, Salar Fakhri. The factory Salar built was unremarkable to me at first because everything seemed perfectly in order. Then I remembered that my personal standard for factories is my experience at Intel circuit board and computer production plants in Oregon. Salar has brought high technology standards to Iraq. People moved around the machinery in lab smocks taking care to keep the line moving smoothly. There was no yelling over the equipment noise, no frantic action to avert disaster at the last minute, no hint of grime on the equipment, and nothing to suggest that this was anything but a modern industrial plant.
Salar was open in sharing his story with us on video. One of the many Kurdish refugees from the 1976 Saddam-Shah-Kissinger diaspora, he found a home in the United Kingdom where he pursued his engineering studies. He found work in a variety of computer engineering positions including Apple. When it became apparent in late 2002 that this President Bush was serious about getting rid of Saddam for good, Salar decided to commit to making Iraq work. Noting the critical shortage of bottled water production capacity in his old homeland, he decided to become an expert in the field. The rapid pace of the high technology world produces people who can learn new skills with incredible speed, and before long Salar had a clear idea of what would produce the most competitive product. Then began a four year odyssey to get a factory up and running with his life savings.
Mountains Behind WAN Plant, Source of the Water.
Transportation of the first equipment load to Iraq went smoothly from Aqabah, Jordan up to Iraqi Kurdistan, but then bandits and terrorists closed that route. The second load waited on the dock for several months before coming in from Turkey. With all the equipment in place, struggling with the local government for a place to set up the factory took years of delays. Eventually, an abandoned Pepsi plant was made available. After that, the problem of getting the Taiwanese engineers to come to Iraq was the roadblock. It was difficult to convince the engineers that the Kurdistan region was the safe part of Iraq. Then power availability dropped to two hours a day while fuel prices for the generator skyrocketed. Next came training people with no manufacturing experience how to operate precision machinery in extreme aseptic conditions and instill in them a genuine appreciation of quality production. With production underway, actually selling the water in competition with Iranian product that does not face any quality standards for importation or sale. Teaching Iraqi consumers about the importance of quality water is Salar's next challenge.
A lot of people in America and around the world don't think that Iraqi's are doing anything for themselves. I've had the privilege of getting to know Salar and others who are working just as hard to make their homes a better place. It is not easy, but it is getting done. Seven months ago, all there was to drink here in Iraq was imported water. Now I know of five water bottling operations, four of them in Suliamaniya province alone. Iraq will never be as smooth running as Salar's machines, but don't say that nobody is making the effort.
WAN Water Bottling Plant in Operation in Iraq.