Krista Donaldson: The Struggle for Power and Light in Iraq
[The following is the text of an interview with Krista Donaldson, a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow assigned to the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office at the U.S. State Department. Donaldson spent a month in Baghdadfrom mid-December 2004 to mid-January 2005with much of her work focused on Iraq's critical electric power generating system. She has returned to Iraq this week for a second tour of duty. AAAS senior writer Edward W. Lempinen conducted this interview with Donaldson by email before she departed for Baghdad.]
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you study? What is your area of expertise? How did you come to be an AAAS S&T Fellow?
My background is in mechanical engineering and product design. For my Ph.D. I studied engineering design and sustainable development in less industrialized economies, and because of the nature of my research, I spent most of that time in Africa. 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. I was also interested to see how the government worked. When I was doing my Ph.D., I worked at an NGO in Kenyaand government relations, politics and development activities seemed like such a mystery!
Once at the U.S. State Department in your AAAS fellowship, had you expected the assignment in Iraq? Tell me a little bit about how that assignment came your way. What were your feelings as you considered the assignment, or as you headed to Iraq? What goes through your mind as you're landing at an Iraqi airport?
I wouldn't say I expected it, but I did know it was a possibility. My Diplomacy Fellowship position was not one of the ones that was offered through the normal fellowship channelsI actually called the person who is now my boss and asked him if he wanted a fellow for his office. I was interested in Iraq because I was hoping to learn about post-conflict and reconstruction (at the time Iraq looked to be "post" conflict). It was a good match; the office needed a desk officer who was comfortable with technical issues, particularly related to infrastructure. To me this was an ideal combination of using engineering skills and learning about foreign policy.
The assignment came up because the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO), with which I coordinate was short-staffed and asked me to come out. I was there for approximately a month from mid-December 2004 to mid-January 2005.
What was going through my mind? Beforehand, I guess I had a feeling that this would be a very good decision or ultimately a very bad one. One of the worst things for me was how much your family worriesand I wasn't even someone who was really in danger compared to Iraqis and military personnel.
We flew inand I was lucky enough to be able to ride in the cockpit of the C130. It was very coolbecause you get to see the landscape (there aren't really windows to look out of in the back of the C130). I was also relieved to have finally arrived because you spend quite a bit of time in transit, and because of security, not knowing when you will depart, so you wait and wait and wait.
What was your assignment for the State Department in Iraq?
My main responsibility at the State Department is the electricity portfolio as part of the Iraq desk. I provide rear support for the Embassy, which includes the Economic section and the IRMO electricity consultancy. I went over to Baghdad on a temporary duty assignment to support the IRMO team because of a staffing shortage in the office. There is so much work to do there that the environment is very much like what you find at a start-upwhile everyone has different official duties, everyone does a lot of everything and titles are almost meaningless. Officially I was filling in for the generation engineer, but I ended up doing much more of everything elseanalyzing data from the Ministry, coordinating different agencies doing reconstruction, drafting policy, doing reports and then just talking to people to better understand how things work and how Washington can better support Baghdad.
Since the invasion of Iraq, analysts have frequently cited a shortage of electrical power as one of the chief sources of Iraqi frustration with the American and allied occupation. And in reading the news on a daily basis, one comes away with the sense that this problem really has been stubborn. So let's talk about the basics: How serious is the lack of electricity? Why is it proving so stubborn? To what extent have things improved?
The problem has been and is stubborn. There are several things going on that complicate the situation, not the least of which are the security conditions. Iraq's rated capacity is approximately 10,000 megawatts) (MW); a typical country runs at 80 to 85 percent of capacity. Iraq is currently running at closer to 40% capacity. Much of the power plant equipment is old, worn out and, in the 1990s under Saddam, was not at all well maintained. For example, generating units were often run under frequency (< 50 Hz) deliberately to try to increase their MW output. We know this operation outside specification causes wear and tear, but how much is unknown. Much of the equipment comes from different manufacturers in different countries, so knowledge from one plant is not entirely transferable to another.
Saddam gave very little money to the Ministry of Electricity, so spare parts were difficult or impossible to procure. Iraqi engineers did an unbelievably good job under the circumstances keeping MW on the grid at all. After Saddam's ouster, add to this situation an influx of electrical appliances with freer markets and continued negligible tariffs on electricity. Iraqis familiar with the power sector told me over and over that because electricity is basically free there is an absence of a culture of conservation. Demand has been rising rapidlyfor example, the summer with its sweltering temperatures tends to be the demand peak for the year, but we actually saw this winter's peak demand surpass itapproximately 12 percent higher than summer!). The focus now of electricity reconstruction efforts is bringing on and consistently supplying as much generation as possible before the coming summer.
A final constraint has been the security situationinsurgents have continually attacked fuel supplies and infrastructure, downed transmission towers, kidnapped officials and intimated workers. In addition to making working conditions very difficult, it has driven up the cost of doing reconstructions significantly.
Despite these difficulties, the generation capacity is being added. To the average Iraqi, however, things may seem the same or worse because of this skyrocketing demand. Now the average Iraqi may receive between 8-12 hours of electricity per day, if lucky which according to an Iraqi friend who has lived in Baghdad, this is about the same as he received under Saddam. I get reports from some of the governorates south of Baghdad that there is routinely less than 5 hours of electricity per day. There is also frustration among Iraqis outside of Baghdad that some of the electricity produced in their region is exported to Baghdad. The expectation was that the Coalition would be able to provide more electricity quickly. And now with talk of implementing tariffs, it's easy to imagine why many Iraqis are very frustrated.
Tell me a little bit about your role in trying to assess or improve things. What were the goals for you and your colleagues, specifically?
At the time I was in Baghdad, the goal was to add MWs quickly to the grid to be able to meet more demand. Several USG-funded projects have been delayed so those units were not yet online. The ministry also continues to be challenged by unplanned outages of different units. In the weeks leading up to the Iraqi elections, being able to keep lights on was very important.
Now with generation projects moving ahead, the focus is shifting toward strengthening the capacity of the ministry, so that new and rehabilitated units can be run effectively and efficiently. It's a quite interesting technical environmentbecause of isolation and sanctions since the early '90sthe older engineers remember modern systems and processes and whereas the younger engineers have only known work with few resources. Ministry officials have also asked for assistance in restructuring and building management capacity within the ministry so that it can attract foreign investors.
What was a typical day like for you?
As you know, there is no typical day for anyone who deals with Iraq. Although I did find that every third day or so there was an emerging pattern (assuming there were no major events to deal with). That day might look like this: We had an IRMO meeting to start the day that included a security briefing. Following this we (the Electricity Consultancy) would travel to meet officials from the Ministry of Electricity and other U.S. representatives involved in reconstruction. This usually lasted until early afternoon. We would return to our offices after a late lunch, do some paperwork based on the morning or tasks coming from within the Embassy. Often I took a break from late afternoon until dinner (napping, doing laundry or playing Frisbee were my typical break activities).
Anytime after 4 p.m. Baghdad time, Washington would call by phone or emails would start coming in. After dinner, many people worked or were in their offices until about 10 p.m. or later. Activities varied quite a bit depending on situations that needed attention. Friday mornings were really the only time off and even then it wasn't unusual to have meetings or find folks in their offices. And as I mentioned, there were heightened concerns about the energy situation when I was out thereso this resulted in several very late nights working on communications to Washington.
To what extent did you deal with Iraqis in trying to resolve the problems? What attitudes did you find among them to the U.S. presence, and to the insurgency?
IRMO offices are structured so as to be a consultancy to the different ministries. So if the Minister of Electricity finds IRMO Electricity's input unhelpful, he ignores itor redirects them to do work that is helpful to him. So to answer your questionIraqis solve their own problems. The problems IRMO addresses are primarily those related to the U.S., U.S.-funded reconstruction or ways the U.S. can provide assistance. IRMO staff acts as a conduit between the ministry and the different embassy and military functions. Many of the IRMO personnel have strong personal relationships with the ministry officials whom they work with.
Among the Iraqis I worked with, there was a lot of annoyance with the insurgents. I was told that their annoyance was both with the fact that reconstruction efforts were being hindered and that an insurgency was not the way to encourage the coalitional forces to withdraw. The Iraqis I worked with were very friendly towards Americans and the U.S. in general. ("We like your movies!" And in the Ministry one day a man gave a vigorous thumbs up and called out "George Bush GOOD! George Bush GOOD!"). Obviously, though, they would prefer not have foreign forces in their country. In the meantime, and until Iraqi forces can be built up, Iraqi officials frequently request assistance from the U.S. government-particularly from the military with infrastructure security.
There's a documentary that just came out"Voices of Iraq"made by Iraqis and talking of their feelings about Americans. As might be expected, there is a range of opinions, but it gives nice perspective in comparison to the media reports. Most Iraqis, it seems, just try to get on with their lives and hope that things improve.
What security precautions did you have to take? Were there any close calls for you or your colleagues? If so, tell me about them.
As an American, everything about life there is a security precaution. Before you are deployed, you receive security training, including weapons handling and surveillance detection. Everyone has a flack jacket and helmet that you are required to wear most of the time you are outdoors. When traveling outside the IZ (the international zone), we traveled in armored convoys and occasionally by helicopter. Mortars and rockets land daily in the IZso there are sandbags and concrete walls everywhere to protect buildings. I had no unusually close calls, but many of my colleagues did. The consistency of the incoming fire and security incidents ensures that mortality is never far from your mind.
I met two Iraqi girls at a security-training seminar who were in the Green Zone Café when a suicide bomber blew himself up there in October 2004. Both had been injured in the attack, but continued to work in the IZ. I asked them if they were scaredand they said yes, because one was also being intimidated when she would go to and from work. They were grateful for the security training they received, but more important they enjoyed their work and believed in what they were doing.
In your time in Iraq, were there frustrations for you? What were they?
Some of the frustrations there are like those in any country without a robust infrastructure (although overall, the communications in Baghdad is still much better than many other places I've worked.) From a working and living stand point, the IZ can get very claustrophobic as it is difficult to move around and there really isn't anywhere to go. It's often called 'ultimate gated community'this slogan even made it onto a t-shirt.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered there, positive or negative, whether in your work or in the broader political and cultural sense?
I was surprised about a lot of thingsthe biggest surprises for me were how incredibly hospitable the Iraqis were and the high morale among American military and civilians working there. The soldiers I worked with were extremely committed to Iraq's reconstruction and the economy's recovery.
What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans might have right now about Iraq?
I think the biggest misconception is that life has stopped in Iraq because of the insurgency. This is far from the truth, at least in my experiences. Every time I was outside of the International Zone, markets were full, traffic was jammed, people still went to work every dayand I'm not sure why that is really a surprise. All of the Iraqis I met were very hopefulit surprised me because many of them were taking great risks, particularly those who worked in the IZ and those who held leadership positions in society. It seems like much of the news coming out of Iraq highlights the negative, when obviously that isn't a full picture. For example, I recently heard a story on NPR (22 February 2005) that NGO workers are rarely outside the International Zonethis is highly inaccurate.
I wonder if you can talk more broadly about the role science and engineering are playing right now in Iraqspecifically the role of Iraqi scientists and engineers.
Scientists and engineers tend to be prominent members of Iraqi society. If you look at the 36 members of the Iraqi Interim Government, 22 have a science or technical backgroundincluding all five of the senior leadership. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is emerging as a leading contender for the position of Prime Minister in the transitional government, like Ayad Allawi, is a physician. The mayor of Baghdad is a civil engineer. Scientists and engineers are literally leading Iraq.
Reconstruction is inherently science and technology-driven. Take, for example, the agricultural sectorby Middle Eastern standards, Iraq is well-endowed with fertile soils, access to two major rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates) and extensive irrigation potential. However, decades of neglect, poor management, sanctions and war resulted in lowering agricultural productivity, quality and diversity. Many of the challenges to rebuilding the sector have major scientific or technological components: the existing irrigation infrastructure is inefficient, inadequate water management and quality, poor soil fertility (due to poor land management and increasing soil salinity), lack of access to affordable high-quality inputs (such as seeds, fertilizer, spare parts, etc.), pests and diseases affecting crops, livestock and poultry, lack of appropriate agricultural technologies and a dearth of veterinary services.
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.
Do you see a potential role for the U.S. and Western S&T community in supporting their colleagues in the Middle East or in aiding the reconstruction? How would that be received in the Iraqi S&T community?
There is a lot of potential for collaboration and support. My impression is that Iraqi scientists and engineers would welcome partnerships, particularly given their long isolation. 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.
What's your prognosis for the electrical system in Iraq? Will there be more powerand more fans and air conditioningas we move into the heat of spring and summer? What work remains to be done?
There will definitely be more power, but you're right: There will definitely be a lot more fans and AC 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 as I mentioned earlier is strengthening the operations and maintenance skills so that the machines can run efficiently indefinitely.
How did you feel about this experience on returning home? Did you come home optimistic for Iraq's future? Pessimistic? Mixed?
I had a great experience because I learned so much and met incredible people. Of course, I worry about the friends I have made and the will of the people to endure through danger and hardship. However, I'm optimisticI honestly don't think you can be any other wayand I'm mostly optimistic because the Iraqis I met were optimistic. The Iraqis are very committed to rebuilding their countryone with a very rich and complex history.
[See also the article, "AAAS Fellow Krista Donaldson Returns to Power-Grid Work in Iraq".]