AAAS Fellow Krista Donaldson Returns to Power-Grid Work in Iraq
Two years after the United States-led invasion of Iraq, AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Krista Donaldson is returning to the troubled country to work on one of its most persistent problems: the shortage of electrical power.
Donaldson, a Stanford-educated mechanical engineer, spent a month in Iraq between mid-December 2004 and mid-January 2005, specializing in restoration of the electrical grid while assigned to the U.S. State Department's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office. She was expected to fly back to the Middle East during the week that marks the anniversary of the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and set Iraq on a halting and uncertain course toward liberation.
In those two years, the electricity shortagesand Iraqi frustrations that have deepened as a resultoften have been used as yardstick to measure the success of the occupation by U.S. and allied military forces. In an interview before her return to Baghdad, Donaldson acknowledged the stubbornness of the problem, blaming old and poorly maintained equipment and the continuing problems posed by insurgent forces that sabotage equipment and keep repair crews at bay.
In fact, she said, electrical capacity is increasing. But in Iraq's new climate of economic freedom and development, demand for electricity is going up so quickly that stabilization and reconstruction of the grid isn't keeping up.
"There will definitely be more power," she said in the email interview, "but…there will definitely be a lot more fans and AC [air conditioning] units, too. According to the minister of electricity, Ayham al-Sammarai, $25 billion is needed to fully modernize the sector and train the work forceso nothing will be 'fixed' in the immediate term.
"Iraq however is making good progressthe ministry is working with its counterparts in neighboring countries to increase electricity imports. Work continues, but the main aim…is strengthening the operations and maintenance skills so that the machines can run efficiently" for the long term.
The challenge of restoring electrical power is frequently cited in news accounts as a daily frustration for Iraqis and a source of dissatisfaction with occupying forces.
A November 2004 U.S. Department of Energy briefing detailed the difficulties of bringing Iraq's electrical generation system up to capacity. Production was still falling about a third short of demand, the briefing said; Iraqi and U.S. workers were unlikely to meet their near-term goals in increasing power production and generating capacity. Al-Sammarai has a list of 200 power projects that he hopes to start by 2006, at a cost of $6 billion, the briefing said.
Donaldson, 31, received her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Stanford University last year. Before she was accepted as a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow, Donaldson also did extensive research in Kenya, focusing on ways to increase manufacturing capacity.
"I was attracted to the AAAS Diplomacy Fellowship because it offered a fantastic mix of all the things I was interested in from my research and professional interestsscience, technology, foreign relations, policy, government and development," she said. "I was also interested to see how the government worked."
What she found was that her job in IRMO was like working for a private-sector start-upthere's so much work to be done, and the staff is so small, that each staffer must be adept at multi-tasking across job categoriesand across cultures.
But she said she was surprised and encouraged by the warm reception given to her by many Iraqis, and by their commitment to rebuilding their society. Iraqi scientists and engineers play a central role in that reconstruction effort. Of the 36 members of the Iraqi Interim Government, she said, 22 have a scientific or technical background.
"Scientists and engineers are literally leading Iraq," she said. And, she added: "Iraqi scientists and engineers are obviously the experts on Iraqi needs and many are hard at work on various issues despite the working and living conditions. They lack the necessary resources to be fully effective and take great risks even coming to work every day. This is where ideally the U.S. government provides assistance."
Donaldson sees "a lot of potential for collaboration and support" between scientists and engineers in the West and those in Iraq.
"My impression is that Iraqi scientists and engineers would welcome partnerships, particularly given their long isolation," she said. "Members of the foreign S&T community, however, need to be mindful of what Iraqis want and need. In too many casesand this isn't just in Iraqexperts from 'more developed' economies decide how a country needs to be supported with inadequate input from the country."
Donaldson's work, undertaken under the most difficult conditions, is emblematic of the importance of the Diplomacy Fellowship, said Al Teich, head of Science and Policy at AAAS.
"Consistently throughout the 25 years since it was established, the Diplomacy Fellowship Program has drawn talented, energetic, broad-gauged individuals who have been willing to take on challengingsometimes dangerousassignments in far-flung corners of the world," Teich said. "In very tangible ways, they show how AAAS's members and staff are truly advancing science and serving society."
[Read the full transcript of the interview with Krista Donaldson here.]
Edward W. Lempinen
22 March 2005