( After Fred Cuny's emergency water treatment plant was designed, flown into Sarajevo and installed in a tunnel on the east side of the city, he was optimistic that it would be turned on within a matter of days, thus providing water to thousands who otherwise had to fetch it from wells often far from home. But city authorities refused to let him turn on the valves.Cuny wrote the following letter to Morton Abramowitz, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explaining the situation as of late January 1994 and discussing some of the possible reasons for the city's reluctance to provide water to its citizens. ")

After this letter was written, the debate over whether the water was "officially" drinkable lasted for months, even though as "technical" water (water not fit for human consumption) it was flowing through the pipes, off and on, for a few hours almost every day. Sarajevans gradually used more and more of the water, despite the city's warnings.

Finally, in early August 1994, the authorities quietly allowed the water flow 24-hours a day. The following summer, when the Serbs had completely shut down the city's main water source (they had shut it off throughout most of the war), the mayor of Sarajevo - long an opponent of the emergency water treatment plant - declared that "Fred's water" is what kept Sarajevo alive. Unfortunately that praise came too late for Fred. He had disappeared in Chechnya several months earlier.


3rd Floor, UNPROFOR Residency


To: Morton Abramowitz

From: Fred Cuny

Subject: The Soros/IRC emergency water treatment plant

Dear Mort;

As you know, the first water treatment plant funded by George Soros was completed and ready to be put into operation in December. We completed testing according to recognized international emergency water treatment standards for piped water systems under the supervision of the manufacturer's representative on Jan. 3 and the water from the system met and exceeded all WHO standards. However, we have been unable to persuade the city authorities to allow us to turn it on, even during the heavy shelling that occurred in January. At one point, after several people were killed trying to collect water from the taps at the brewery, I ordered the water turned on on my own authority but the authorities intervened and cut it off.

On January 4, I asked for a special meeting with the water authority (Vodovod), the Deputy Mayor Muhammed Zlatar, the president of the city council, Mohammed Kupsevic, and representatives of the Water Institute to try to resolve the problem. At the meeting, the head of Vodovod argued in our favor, as did Mr. Kupsevic. However, the representatives of the Water Institute claimed that the system was unsafe and refused to sign the papers allowing us to proceed. Several days later, the press, who have been following the construction of the system very closely, got wind of the problems and began inquiring about why the city was not willing to turn on the water. The city authorities asked us to reconvene the same group to again discuss the matter and set up a testing program for verifying the safety of the water and procedures for turning on the system. However, at the meeting, the Water Institute launched an attack on the system making a number of claims that are utter nonsense. For example, they claim one reason the system is not safe is because we do not have a first stage settling tank to clean the water before it enters the system. We have explained repeatedly that in a pressure treatment system, it is not needed. They also claim that because the system is manually operated instead of automatic, it is dangerous, yet they cannot define what the danger is. At one point, they told us they would not allow the system to be turned on until we painted the inside of the tunnel but could not explain what relationship that had to water quality. The final blow came when they announced that the system had failed to meet the city's water standards. The head of the Institute solemnly said he was sorry to report that there were too many suspended particles in the water -- however, we subsequently learned that the person who was supposed to take the samples for the Institute had been sick and hadn't even started the tests yet! The meeting ended when the Water Institute members announced that they would require a three month water testing program before they would allow the pumps to be turned on. The testing regime they outlined is, in our opinion, unsafe and is designed to make the system fail. We asked that an independent expert be called in to design a crash testing program; they agreed but to date have not done so.

Immediately thereafter, certain members of the city government launched a campaign against the system, claiming it is unsafe and should never be turned on. The campaign culminated in an interview by Mohammed Zlatar, the deputy mayor, in which he told Oslovijnia that the water that had been tested had three times the permissible amount of suspended solids and that the solids were fecal matter. Again, the agreed testing regime had not even been outlined, much less started.

As we neared completion of the system, I suspected that we might have some problems along these lines. Therefore, I have been sending water samples to Split and to the U.S. Army public health lab in Frankfurt. Every sample that we have sent has passed all the tests for a normal municipal water system, not just an emergency system. In fact, our samples have been consistently cleaner than the water systems used in both locations.

Why then are we being prevented from turning on the water?

On the surface, there are several reasons. First, some of the people in the Water Institute disagree with the design of the system -- despite that they participated in the design process at every stage. Their arguments center around the technology used. They are familiar with filtration systems, but not presse asked for a number of features that we felt were not justified on the basis of costs and which would have added substantially to the size and weight of the modules making them impossible to fly in. Any emergency system is a result of tradeoffs, but the final product -- the water -- is the ultimate test of the design. We have passed the tests with flying colors.

The Institute has continually pressed us to automate the system. We have pointed out that it was too costly, to hard to maintain under war conditions, and really unnecessary given the simplicity of the design. (One of their scientists told me he had no experience with operating valves!) We have demonstrated that two people can easily run the system and have shown that it can be completely turned off in an emergency in less than 20 seconds. In that time period, no amount of water could reach the storage reservoirs 300 meters away, and even if it did it would not be fed directly into the city system for at least 1 hour since we use a two chamber reservoir.

They also asked for an automatic chemical mixer (cost $200,000), we told them one man can mix all the chemicals needed by hand in about an hour. They wanted us to install a 10,000 liter fuel tank; we told them that it was too risky and that since fuel would be delivered daily in barrels that all they needed was a hand pump and a dolly.

The Institute has claimed that they do not want to turn on the water until they have completed studies of the river and developed a series of profiles of its turbidity at different times of the year and at different stream flows. They claim the data is necessary to develop tables to guide the mixing of the chemicals used in the water treatment process. While these are nice and will certainly make the dosing more cost effective, we can proceed now on certain assumptions and can adjust the mixture later when they get the data. Besides, they have had a year to develop the data, why have they waited until now?

Another concern they have is the possibility that the Serbs could pour poisons into the water upstream that the system can't handle. We believe that this is highly unlikely -- it would be a political disaster for them. If they put poisons in the water, it would affect the Serb held areas more than the Bosnian-held areas since the water eventually flows through Serbia and into the Danube. Furthermore, if they wanted to poison the water, they could easily do it at Bacevo, the part of the water system that they control. But even if the Serbs did put poisons in the water, our system could handle many of them. It is designed to neutralize most pesticides. But the ultimate safety feature is the two chamber reservoir where we send the water. It takes about 4 hours to fill each chamber. We can test the water in each chamber before releasing it into the pipes. Since poisons show up instantly, there is no danger that something will slip by. But we also plan to supply some water to the Serb side at Grbavica and have informed the Serbs of that fact. That is probably the best deterrent.

As for all this testing they want to do, we feel it is bunk. With the quality of water that we have now, we should be turning it on. One of the major problems we have encountered in working in Sarajevo is the inability of the authorities to modify their procedures to meet war and emergency conditions. They simply proceed with business as usual. In what has to be one of the most frustrating and bizarre meetings in my life, our team was pleading with the city government to turn on the water during the heaviest day of shelling in Sarajevo in 6 months. With bullets literally pinging off the window sill and rounds going off in the lot next door, the Water Institute was talking about a long-term testing regime that was more complex than anything we would see in the U.S. They asserted the tests were to ensure that no disease organisms, such a cholera, got into the water. The nearest case of cholera is Mogadishu! At one point, when we were pleading with them to turn on the water so people wouldn't have to go out in the shelling to fetch water, the head of the Institute asked why we were more concerned with the lives of Sarajevans than the government? Good question.

There may be some other, more sinister reasons why we have not been allowed to proceed. They are presented below, going from bad to worse. Some are fact, others are only hearsay.

First, the Water Institute is trying to pressure us into giving them a lot of lab equipment. For example, they told us that they couldn't certify the water unless IRC provided the Institute with a complete water testing laboratory. They claimed that their equipment had been destroyed by shelling and that there was no way they could carry out the tests. We offered to provide them with the type of equipment that is used in the U.S. for testing water under emergency conditions but not the full lab they were asking for (which we estimated at a cost of $100,000). They replied that it was our "obligation" to give them the equipment. (UNICEF had promised to give them one but later dropped it from their budget.) Ultimately we gave them a first rate test stand that actually does all the tests required for the WHO standards, but they are holding out for more.

Second, during the process of selecting a company to build the system, we narrowed the choices down to a U.S. company, FMI, and a French company which Vodovod proposed. The authorities in Sarajevo pressed us hard to select the French company claiming that they had a long standing relationship with them. But the French bid was poorly defined, the design could not be airlifted, was too complex for the conditions, and was 1.2 million dollars higher than FMI. Nonetheless, we were put under tremendous pressure to select the French firm. At one point in the bidding, we discovered that the French were being shown FMI's bid documents and decided to disqualify them immediately. The water authorities demanded that we give the French another chance. When we refused, one of the Institute's senior officials told us that the French had agreed to supply the city with several hundred thousand dollars of spare parts for the water system if they were selected. By then we were convinced that some of the officials were also being offered kick-backs by the French company. We also learned that the French had never worked on the Sarajevo system and that the son of one of the Sarajevo officials was connected to the company. We went ahead with the selection of FMI. I believe that a lot of our problems now are in retaliation for the authorities not getting the payoffs.

Third, we have been told by someone close to Mr. Mohammed Zlatar that the reason that some officials are trying to prevent the water from being turned on is that the officials are engaged in selling water from the brewery and Bacevo. Tankers routinely take water from those sources and deliver it to a number of enterprises, including the Holiday Inn. Some is also sold to households. Water sales are brisk, especially during the winter. Our informant tells us that the city will eventually allow us to turn on the water but only after they have limited the area served (by closing critical valves) and after the winter when the demand and price for water deliveries will drop -- thus, the three month testing regime.

One of the officers in UNPROFOR claims that they have information that some members of government are opposed to turning on the water because it will take away one of the most omnipresent images of suffering in the city. According to that source, the radicals in the government feel they need to offset the negative publicity that the Bosnians have been getting due to their siege of Vitez by with images of Sarajevans carrying water, fuel, etc. under the Serbs' shelling. (I personally discount this theory given all the publicity the system has received, but UNPROFOR thinks it's a possibility.)

Whatever the reasons, we seem to be at an impasse. When Aryeh was here, he brought the matter up to the Prime Minister, Haris Silidjzic as well as the Minister of Health (who said he thought the matter would be resolved in about a week.) I will follow up with a call on Silidjzic in mid week. Ambassador Galbraith said he will put in a call to the Bosnian ambassador in Croatia stating the U.S.'s concern and Vic Jacovic has offered to put in a word. Ultimately, we may need to ask George to call on Izetbegovic, but now is probably a bit premature.

If the government continues to stonewall us, we have several options. I could ask General Rose to simply order us to turn on the system or turn it over to the UN. That may be the easiest and politically, the best way for the Bosnians to deal with it.

I would like to mention that we have a lot of support from various sectors of the government. Mohammed Kupsevic, the president of the city council, has told me that he personally favors turning on the system but has been blocked by "others." (He advised me to take the matter to the press.) The director of Vodovod has spoken out and told the city government that in his opinion the system should be turned on (but was told that he would loose his job if he went public with his support). A number of staff of Vodovod have pleaded with us to just turn it on but the reservoir has been locked.

I feel that we need to get a quick resolution to the matter. The international press has been extremely supportive and has kept the pressure on the government without being critical -- but they are getting restless and several want to blast the government for not taking people out of the line of fire. If this goes longer than another week, I think that they'll start blasting the government. I've stressed to everyone who asks that the holdup is with the Water Institute and the city government, not the national government, but it's beginning to ring hollow.

My main concerns are (1) getting water to the people and (2) not discrediting the government. I also want to preserve what up until now has been an excellent working relationship with all other sectors of the government.

Your advice is sought and would be very welcome.

home .  who killed fred cuny .  map of cuny's world .  from his laptop .  on the life .  his radio interviews .  special reports .  friends & colleagues .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online


Solitary NationApril 22nd