Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Close Call

Although it has been almost 10 days since Baghdad was hit with a series of car-bomb attacks on Easter Sunday, I have yet to write about it, perhaps because I did not have direct experience with the event at the time. Perhaps I did not want to elevate the magnitude of the event as a way to keep this particular bombing in perspective. Perhaps I did not want those who care about my safety to have additional cause for anxiety.

In any case, it turned out to be a close call all around. We left the compound in Mansour around 11 a.m. A mere 20 minutes later, two car bombs were detonated near the Iranian and German embassies in the area. After the fact I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps we drove right past one of the bombers, he on his mission, we on ours. Much of what I know about the event comes from those who experienced it directly. I’m glad that I did not experience this first hand.

After the first bomb, people in the compound dove for cover. Minutes later the second bomb, much closer, went off, shattering windows and blowing doors out of their frames. Pieces of shrapnel rained down on the compound, including one of the wheels of the car-bomb. One of the expat ag scientists at Inma recovered a piece of the door frame with the seat belt attached, leading to macabre jokes about buckling up before detonating. The shrapnel was mostly pieces of twisted, jagged metal. It’s amazing that new one was hurt in the compound. People in the immediate area of the bombing were not so lucky. Apparently one of the women who cleans houses lost her entire family. One of the guys on the security team told me that the head of a young boy landed at one of the entrances to our compound.

The magnitude of what happened was not driven home until we returned to Baghdad late last week. First, we needed almost an extra hour to get through the increased number of security checkpoints, which snarled traffic. The usual access route to the compound was blocked off completely, requiring us to make a wide, lengthy diversion.

The only comparison I can make to what I found upon returning based on my life experiences is the effects of a hurricane. Most of the glass and shrapnel had been cleaned up, but smaller secondary piles remained on the roadside. Windows and doors that had been blown out were covered by plastic sheeting. Workmen were already busy repairing the damage. Only one building sustained structural damage. I was lucky: there was only one pane of glass broken in my room, primarily because the windows faced away from the source of the blast.

The next morning I came out onto the street to walk down to our office. I saw a group of Iraqis come running down the street, carrying a man who appeared to be unconscious with blood soaking the front of his shirt. The security team sprang into action, grabbing their medic kits. It was a bit chaotic, but they laid the man down and I could see a deep cut across his neck, from ear to throat. They cleaned the rather deep wound and then loaded the man into a taxi for a trip to a nearby hospital. No doubt he’s going to have a noticeable scar there for the rest of his life but he’ll be fine. Apparently he was one of the glass workers and a piece of glass had fallen and sliced his neck. Never a dull moment at the Inma compound.

All week long the sound of hammers, saws, and breaking glass has filled the compound. Slowly but surely most of the almost 1000 broken windows have been replaced. This comes none too soon because Baghdad has been gripped by a gritty cloud of dust that has hung over the city for the last few days. Any room with an open window has become coated with a fine film and my throat has been scratchy.

I continue to be impressed how Iraqis continue to live their lives, striving for normality, in the context of what is clearly senseless violence. If anything, it has made everyone more committed to work hard to take charge of their own affairs. This was also the response to bombings that occurred during the recent elections. These events continue to shake people’s confidence in the army and police and their ability to maintain security. Nonetheless, people strive on.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Almost Babylon

Early last week we received an invitation to the grand opening of the new office of the Iraqi Society of Fish Producers in Al-Hillah. After the ribbon cutting and the speeches, lunch was to be served at a restaurant near the Babylon Ruins. I was excited about the prospect of visiting these famous ruins, having had the chance to visit the Great Ziggurat of Ur in 2008. Opportunities to be a tourist have been extremely rare, mainly because I've had a job to do.

We made yet another visit to the Euphrates Fish Farm, specifically to check the status of the pump station on the Euphrates River, prior to the ceremony. Given the time, we skipped the ceremony in downtown Al-Hillah and opted to proceed directly to the ruins for lunch. When we got there, passing by the palace built on "Saddam Hill," the parking lot was filled with buses and large numbers of mostly teenage boys were milling around. Clearly this is a popular spot for school field trips and the scene was mildly chaotic.

The leader of our security team was trying to find a way for us to get to the restaurant in a secure way. He finally decided that there would be no way for him to have control over our security and advised us to scratch the visit. My heart sank in disappointment. Of course, he probably made the right decision, and I realized how willing I was to risk my safety to see the ruins. I think everything would have been fine but it was not my call to make and it was the security team leader's responsibility to assure our safety.

My disappointment was short-lived because I know by direct experience that the best-laid plans can easily change when working in this kind of an environment. Flexibility and pateience are key attributes to success and happiness for Iraqi and ex-pat alike. I stewed in my juices a little while but then came around when we stopped off at the Middle-East Fisheries Company farm to check on the day's fish spawning and were treated to a "simple" lunch of kebab, roast vegetables, pickles, and bread. Nice.

I'm hoping the day will come when I can return to the Babylon Ruins and walk freely, soaking up the sweep of Mesopotamian history.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Raining Mud

In my previous trips I have come to know Iraq as a desert country. I've been here in the summer, when the heat is brutal and relentless, the major grain crops have been harvested, and everything is dry, dusty, and brown. Since coming here about two weeks ago, the weather has been unsettled, with many cloudy days and a fair amount of blessed rain.

Yesterday was warm and sticky. Around 4:30 in the afternoon, the sky turned red-orange and became very dark. It looked like a dust storm was moving in. Lightning was flashing horizontally in the dust clouds. I was rushing to meet some people in the PRT but got caught out as it started to rain. When the rain dried on my clothes each drop was marked by a brown speck of dust.

It rained on and off for several hours, turning the army base into a muddy mess. The mud sticks to your shoes like any good southern gumbo clay, forming a heavy plate on the soles that gets bigger with every step. I'm going to resist the temptation to make a metaphor of the mud with the last seven years of US involvement here, but it's easy to do.

After seeing the effects of drought over the last couple of years, seeing beautiful fields of green wheat and abundant vegetable crops throughout Babil, I now understand the good mood of the people here. Despite the troubling bombings in the capital and the ongoing uncertainty about forming a new government, life goes on and good work is being done to improve security and people's livlihoods every day. Sadly, as is always the case, only the bad news is reported and the tiny daily incremental changes that improve people's lives here remain unseen and unknown to the wider world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Making Babies

I finally got to do what I came here for. We drove down from Baghdad and made a quick stop at FOB Kalsu, the army base where we are now staying and where our team lived for a month in 2008. Then we drove over to the Middle East Fisheries farm, which is one of the two farms that has been keeping the new broodstock introduced from Hungary last May. As we pulled up I saw a man I recognized getting into his car to leave. It was Sheik Jafar, who Team Borlaug had visited on my very first day in the field two years ago. It had been a memorable visit at many levels, but Sheik Jafar's hospitality stood out, especially among the ruins of his village. I rushed out to extend my greetings before he could depart and his smile told me that he recalled our visit. His village is well on the way to recovery although the surrounding area remains restive.

After Sheik Jafar left, we sat around in the main office with the farm owner, Mr. Thamir, my colleague, Dr. Saleh, and several others drinking tea. We were waiting for a call from the hatchery to tell us the fish were ready to spawn. They had been injected the night before and spawning was imminent but delayed a little bit because the water temperature had dropped from the cloudy and rainy weather the preceding two days. We finally got the call and went to the hatchery for the action. I had made a point to get on the same page with Dr. Saleh about the crosses we wanted to make and simply let the hatchery crew, especially the experienced fish breeder, do what they know to do. The broodstock were separated by sex and origin in different tanks. One by one the females were lifted out of the water onto a foam pad, with a thumb placed quickly over the genital opening. The belly of the fish was wiped dry with a towel and a bowl was placed beneath the fish to catch the eggs. With well-practiced technique, the fish breeder then worked his hand along the abdoment, pushing eggs into the waiting bowl. This process was repeated for each female. The Hungarian females were a bit on the small side so we did not get many eggs from them. Then the breeder collected milt from the males into small glasses the size of a shot glass. When everything was collected we separated the eggs into the four groups we wanted to make and added the sperm from the males. We made these crosses (female x male): Iraq x Iraq, Iraq x Hungary, Hungary x Iraq, and Hungary x Hungary. Once the sperm was added the hatchery workers began stirring the contents together using feathers from the rather large cormorants that plague the production ponds. I found this supremely ironic. After a few minutes a fertilizer solution was added and the mixing continued. This went on for about a half hour. Several rinses of fertilizer solution followed. Then, to keep the eggs from sticking to each other, a tannin solution was added briefly. The tannin solution was made from the dried skin of pomegranates, which is sold in local markets as traditional medicine. After several rinses with fertilizer solution the eggs were ready to be placed in incubators called Zug or Zuger jars where they will gently roll around for the next few days.

The hatchery was a hive of activity. In addition to the hatchery workers, Dr. Saleh has three students working on the project. They will help each other but one will work at one hatchery and the other will work at the other hatchery. The third student is a young woman who is interested in working on genetic analysis of the fish using DNA markers. She doesn't have a lot of experience but appears to be motivated and capable. I mocked the students a little bit because I didn't see them taking any notes. The smiled and laughed but did nothing. Some time later they saw me taking notes on what was happening and finally got the picture. A big notebook came out and the data collection began.

We are repeating the whole operation at the Euphrates Fish Farm so the evaluation of the four crosses will occur at two farms. We will also repeat the study late in the spawning season (after I depart) to evaluate the effect of the two temperature regimes.

Results to follow in due course.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

First Days, Latest Visit

I was awoken this morning by the sound of the muzzein making the call to prayer around 4:30. Once the call faded I heard the buzz of an unmanned drone followed shortly after by the thrum of a pair of Blackhawk's flying by. I could hear all this because the generator was not going, which meant that the compound had power from the utility. These are some of the sounds of life at the Inma compound in the Mansoor district of Baghdad.

Things seem to be different here, definitely "better" based on a limited and perhaps superficial view. First, the weather is lovely, with pleasant temperatures and even some overcast skies. Having come here in mid-summer over the last couple of years, this has been a welcome difference. Second, I've never seen Iraq so green. Partly this is a function of the time I've arrived, corresponding to ripening wheat and barley crops and abundant winter vegetables. Apparently there has been quite a bit of rain over the winter, so Mesopotamia looks lush. Third, people seem to be in a good mood. There were jokes and laughter among the passengers headed to Baghdad from Amman. We saw numerous wedding parties in crowded mini-vans, with everyone inside clapping and singing in unison, as we drove back to Baghdad yesterday. It also seems to me that there are fewer check-points, especially on the main north-south highway, known as Route Tampa to the military. In their place I saw numerous roadside restaurants, surely a sign of good progress. I've seen very little sign of the US military, with the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police firmly in control of all the major check-points. This place is still highly militarized and tightly controlled.

We've taken two excursions since coming here this week. On Tuesday we went to the National Fish Hatchery in Suwayra. This was a place I tried to visit in 2008 but was thwarted in part by a rather tenuous security situation in the area. Typical of many government facilities, there were way more workers than actually needed but there were some dedicated and skilled workers who anchored the hatchery and made the place functional. Carp spawning season is well underway so we saw the hatchery with incubators filled with eggs and ripe broodfish nosing their tank-mates with nervous energy. We also saw the results of attempts by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization to "help." There were beautifully tiled Chinese-style spawning tanks, sitting dry. There was a recirculating aquaculture systems with expensive biofiltration equipment, including stainless steel microscreen particle filters and a pressure-swing oxygen generator, that was severely overdesigned based on potential fish loads. Apparently the system includes monitoring equipment that allows remote control through the web from Germany. There were also pontoons, floats, and walkways for a cage culture system that may never be installed.

When we first proposed the introduction of the new carp broodstock from Hungary, our intention was to include the National Fish Hatchery in the distribution, but this proposal was rejected by some political considerations at the level of the Ministry of Agriculture or Ministry of Fisheries. We are going to push to get them some of the hybrid broodstock that we will be making this spawning season.

One of the most amazing things I saw during this visit occurred on the way there. While driving on the main highway extending east from Baghdad, we saw two lycra-clad cyclists hammering away on their road bikes. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Another sign that things are changing to be sure.

Yesterday we visited the two hatcheries where we will be doing most of our work during the time I'm here. It was a scoping visit to view facilities and talk with the farm owners and hatchery workers and my friend and colleague Dr. Khalil Saleh, who will be my indispensible partner in our work. It was a great visit, capped off by a wonderful lunch with lamb, roast chicken, and roasted carp (masgouf), complete with all the trimmings (rice, pickles, bean soup, salad, and more). I'm anxious to get to work and, after yesterday's trip, we now have a basic plan to move forward. We should make our first hybrids on Sunday or Monday. More once we make our first babies.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Telling Our Story

In the previous blog entry I talked about the lead-up to our presentations and here I’ll describe how things went. First, however, I need to call attention to the death of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and the namesake of the institute at Texas A&M that we’ve been working for in Iraq since last June. Even at 95, he was alert and engaged; he was aware and supportive of our team’s work in Iraq. Last night we had a little ceremony to present some certificates and other mementos, including a replica of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize medal, that was given to the Deputy Leader of the PRT. Our team leader spoke of Norman and mentioned that he was still alive. Little did we know that he was only hours from passing away. At the ceremony last night we were given US flags that were flown over the PRT a few days ago, on 9/11, a special gift and remembrance of our time here.

OK, rewinding to this past Tuesday, the day of our meeting with the governor. Unfortunately the governor had double-booked our meeting time so we were made to wait. Finally we were escorted through a room into another room and through yet another room before reaching the governor’s office, a true inner sanctum. We recognized a few government agricultural officials and were disappointed, but not unexpectedly so, that more people who we wanted to hear what we had to say weren’t present. After a too-long and rambling “introduction” by the governor, our team leader Mark began our presentation. We had discussed strategy going in and decided to lay out the key message—about collaboration and capacity building—right up front, and then go into detail to build the case. While this is going on, the governor is sitting at his desk, signing papers and passing notes to his minions, clearly giving us only half of his attention at most. At one point he handed our BBA a note saying that we needed to wrap things up. We were less than half-way through! We had not choice but to end. In any case, we gave the governor an Arabic translation of our full presentation, so he had the details in hand. We were also able to secure a commitment from him to follow up on the distribution of some tractors that had been given to a farmer’s association in Um Qasr, but were being held by the municipal authorities. So, it wasn’t a total loss. We were able to get our main points across and realized in hindsight that we should have just focused on the big picture and left the details for others. When we returned to base, we decided to modify the presentation for the next meeting, our agriculture “summit.”

The summit took place two days later, on Thursday, at the airport adjacent to the base. We had about 60 farmers, agricultural association leaders, government agricultural officials, extension agents, university professors, and agri-businessmen, most of the people we’ve met over the last couple of months. The meeting was a big success and our presentation was well-received. It was obvious that this was the first time that all the “players” in agriculture in the province had ever gathered in one room. Perhaps this meeting served as an ice-breaker to raise the comfort level of the participants so that they can deal with each other and engage in meaningful dialogue. We sensed some trepidation on the part of the government officials, fearing that they would be verbally attacked by the farmers. When one sheik, quite a curmudgeon, started ranting about how useless the Ministry of Agriculture is to farmers, the other farmers in the room grumbled, recognizing that it was important to look forward to move ahead. The DG of Agriculture, much to our surprise, stood up and addressed the group forthrightly and a good discussion ensued. The group got the message that any projects funded by the PRT will be for demonstration of best practices and will require groups to work together. We received several phone calls later that day thanking us for organizing the meeting and for the work we’ve done on behalf of the farmers of Basrah. It was very gratifying.

Our final briefing took place yesterday, Saturday, on base to the command and the PRT. We met in a conference room at Division headquarters, outfitted with plush seats and video screens facing every possible direction. The meeting was attended by the commanding general of the division, Brigadier General Lang, who had flown with us in his helicopters when we did our aerial tour of the province. We had good rapport with him during and after that flight and this carried over into our presentation. We also had a full-bird colonel, a handful of lieutenant colonels, some majors, a few NCOs, and various other civilians, some representing the division (all of southern Iraq), others representing the battalion now stationed here, responsible for the province. We were given two hours and we used nearly all of it to lay out, in the first part, the big picture which applies to the larger context of all agriculture in Iraq and, in the second part, the details of our assessment and project recommendations for Basrah in particular. The general interrupted numerous times to ask questions, which were pointed and on the mark. It was a good presentation and the general spoke sincerely of his appreciation of our team’s efforts since June of last year. We were gratified and relieved, but also felt tired from the effort we’ve put in over these last eight weeks.

Today we’ve been tying up loose ends and beginning the process of leave taking. Tomorrow we fly to Jordan. I’m going to take a couple of days of sightseeing before heading back home on Thursday. Once I get back, I’ll write a final entry with some reflections on the overall mission and what it’s meant to me and the people I’ve met along the way of this most fascinating and once-in-a-lifetime journey.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Managing Expectations

Part of the reason I haven’t written an update in awhile is that the central subject of what I had intended to write about—our final presentation to the governor—has been delayed now for the third time. Our original intention in delivering our findings and recommendations to the governor was to include all the agricultural association farmer-leaders and agri-businessmen that we have met during our two months here. First, the governor’s agricultural advisor asked to see a copy of our presentation, presumably to see if there were any unacceptable findings or recommendations. We complied and also sent him a list of names of people we wanted to invite to the presentation. After a couple of days he said that no farmers would be invited to the meeting with the governor, which would only be attended by government people. The reasons for his delaying tactics and agenda were transparent. He was trying to manipulate the process to exclude the farmers and to ensure that any projects that might flow from our recommendations would be run through the government, which is the last thing we are ever going to do because they bring nothing to the table. They perceive that we represent a “gravy train” of big infrastructure projects, but we made it clear from the beginning that our focus was on small demonstration projects and others focused on building capacity of the agricultural associations for self-sufficiency.

As a point of background, when we arrived here we became involved in trying to resolve some problems associated with the distribution of tractors to some farmers associations by the British army, who left here in June. The governor’s ag advisor and the Director General (DG) of Agriculture for the province felt left out of the process (and they were, deliberately so). The tractors were given directly to the ag associations to avoid any potential malfeasance on the part of the government. We were helping to resolve some of the issues around registering the tractors and helping the ag associations develop a process for fair distribution. This is the time of year when tractors need to be in the field to prepare the land for the upcoming growing season. So, this is the backdrop for the govenor’s ag advisor and the DG for Agriculture’s behavior toward us.

On top of the obstructions placed before us by the government ag peoples, a couple of the BBAs (bi-lingual, bi-cultural advisors) on the PRT were advising us not to invite the farmers to the meeting at the governor’s office. They said simply: “You can’t invite uneducated farmers to the governor’s office.” They also said that giving projects to ag associations is like “giving computers to first-graders.” It was amazing the extent to which these guys were trying to promote what has been a dysfunctional government when it comes to helping farmers. They even (half)-joked with us that we should be sure to invite Moqtada al Sadr to the briefing because all the farmers are reputed to be Sadrists. Foolishly I took the bait and said, “So, should people have to pass a political litmus test before they receive the benefit of any projects?” They just twisted the knife further basically saying that I was playing into the hands of the enemy. It was all a bit too much for me because these guys are supposedly on our side and are supposed to be giving principled advice, not directly manipulating the process. It was also clear that they were speaking from a point-of-view that reflected contact primarily with government officials and almost never with the farmers that we have been meeting almost daily.

After finally resolving the issue of the invitation list by essentially capitulating to the requirements of the government ag officials, we had our next date scheduled. The governor was actually here at the PRT for a meeting and we managed to confirm the meeting with him personally. Then, the day before our meeting, we received news that a prominent Shiite politician, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, had died while receiving treatment for lung cancer in Tehran. We were told that the plan was to bring his body to Basrah airport, where it would be received by pilgrims and carried on foot to Najaf for burial there. In the absence of the PRT leader and deputy leader, the senior military officer in charge made the command decision to cancel all movements for four days until the situation played out. In the end, Mr. Hakim’s body went first to Baghdad before going to Karbala and then Najaf, never even coming to Basrah. This was a frustrating time for us because we were anxious to meet with the governor and, in any case, we like to get “outside the wire” as much as we can. Our team leader likened us to “thoroughbreds in the barn.” We like to get out and run!

After re-setting the meeting date yet again, we received word that the governor was in Baghdad and would not be available on the date scheduled. We were not too upset this time because we knew that the governor was visiting with Prime Minister Maliki to lobby on behalf of an important water infrastructure project. Iraq has been experiencing a severe drought for the last three years. One of the results has been the intrusion of seawater from the Persian Gulf (here in Iraq known as the Arabian Gulf) into the Shatt al Arab waterway. The Shatt is used as a source of irrigation water, cooling water for power plants and petrochemical factories, and in some places for drinking water. All of these uses have been severely impacted by the increase in salinity of the Shatt. There is a humanitarian crisis with the availability of drinking water for the residents of Fao, at the very end of the Shatt. The problem is complicated because the reasons for the lack of freshwater reaching Basrah are related to transboundary water issues (primarily with Turkey, but also Syria and Iran), the inefficient water use by farmers in Iraq, and the drought. The proposed “solution” is to construct a barrier across the Shatt al Arab at a point south of Basrah city to prevent seawater from moving upstream. The freshwater would be diverted to a canal that would run parallel to the Shatt and empty into the Gulf. That freshwater could be used for domestic supplies, crop irrigation, and industrial cooling water. The governor’s visit to Baghdad was apparently successful because we received word that the prime minister has committed US$1 billion to this barrier/diversion project. This is good news!

Well, the date for the meeting has now been set for tomorrow. In the past, we have given one final presentation, occasionally two. In this case, we are likely going to end up giving three final presentations. The first will be for the governor and government agricultural officials in the province (tomorrow). The second will be for all the agricultural association leaders, agri-businessmen, extension agents, university agricultural scientists, AND government agricultural officials. This will be more of an “agricultural summit” than exclusively a presentation of our findings. The final outbriefing will be for the PRT and the military command, especially because this base is now division headquarters for all of southern Iraq.

Our main message is that the primary way that agriculture can advance and the farmers can improve their situation is for the agricultural associations, government extension agents, and university research scientists to work together on demonstration projects of model farms or best practices. The other message is that farmers should seek ways to develop a capacity for self-sufficiency because the level of support that farmers received before 2003 when the country was isolated will never appear again. The funding for these demonstration projects and organizational capacity building will come from you.