An Interview with Dr. Samir Raouf

by Forum Staff on December 27, 2013

Dr. Samir RaoufDr. Samir Raouf has served as the Senior Deputy Minister at Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology since 2007. Dr. Raouf was formerly the Director General of Space Technology, Senior Researcher at the Military Industrialization Commission and a Researcher at Scientific Research Council. Dr. Raouf is a graduate of Al-Nahrain University (Ph.D.), Georgia Institute of Technology (MSEE) and Baghdad University (B.Sc.), all in Electrical Engineering.

In an interview with The Fletcher Forum, Dr. Raouf discusses the role of science and technology in the reconstruction of Iraq and gives an insight into the challenges the government faces in grappling with climate change and resource scarcity. He sets out Iraq’s plans for developing the sector and calls on the support of the international community and Iraq’s neighbors. 

FLETCHER FORUM: Iraq just released its five-year development plan. What role does the plan envision for science and technology in Iraq’s development? And what are the prospects for the future of science and technology, especially in an environment of increasing violence?

RAOUF: The Iraqi Ministry of Planning developed the 2013-2017 National Development Plan, released last September, with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and USAID. It covers economic development, social development, and environmental protection in Iraq. However, science and technology are not presented as a separate sector. Rather, science and technology are integrated into each economic sector to help achieve our development goals. For example, in our agricultural plans we integrate the development of new wheat varieties that withstand high levels of salinity and need less water. Expanding the use of new technologies such as broadband networks and space technologies are also foreseen to be important aspects of socio-economic development.

Although violence started to increase at the beginning of 2013, I don’t think that the term “increasing violence” describes faithfully the current state of Iraq. Violence reached its peak in 2006 to 2008 when Iraq was at the edge of civil war. Since then, violence has decreased by almost ninety percent of their 2006-2007 levels in most regions of the country, reaching their lowest levels since 2003. Violence in 2013 reached double to triple their 2012 levels; however the trend of violence is downward again in the past two months. The recent increase in violence is affecting development activities including science and technology, but with much less impact than in the 2006 to 2008 period. That is unfortunate and I hope that violence levels will soon be back to their 2012 levels and continue to improve further.

FLETCHER FORUM: How is Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) preparing the next generation of Iraqis to take a lead in science and technology in the country and beyond?

RAOUF: This is a very important question and is being addressed at all levels in Iraq now. Iraq used to provide young students with scholarships to study abroad, mostly in science and technology. The program was reduced during the 1980’s, and then practically stopped by 1990. The program was restarted in 2007, with a target of granting 10,000 scholarships in 10 years. This program was later expanded and now the Iraqi government provides about 4,000 to 5,000 scholarship opportunities each year for graduate studies at internationally reputable universities.

Our ministry granted 100 scholarships to our employees in 2013. In addition to academic studies, our ministry provides opportunities for our researchers to participate in international conferences and attend workshops.

FLETCHER FORUM: Iraq is still struggling to keep the lights on, as most parts of the country are coping with less than twenty hours of electricity a day. What is the state of the renewable energy market in Iraq, and is the government investing in renewable energies to address this issue?

RAOUF: Last summer witnessed the first signs of improving power availability. Last fall, most parts of Iraq received almost twenty-four hours of electricity a day. That is a great contrast to previous times. It is expected that Iraq’s electricity generation will surpass peak demand by the end of 2014.

At the same time, there is a developing interest in renewable energy. The Ministry of Science and Technology established the Directorate of Renewable Energy in 2010 and a recently passed law mandates our ministry with leading renewable energy activities in Iraq.

Our ministry is cooperating with the Ministry of Electricity with several new power generation projects especially in remote areas. The MoST developed Iraq Wind Atlas earlier this year to help design and select sites for wind turbines.

The new Iraq National Energy Strategy, approved by the cabinet in 2013, provides a target for renewable energy in Iraq to be five percent of total energy generation by 2030. That doesn’t seem like much, but it is the first time the Iraqi government has made a commitment to renewable energy generation, and it is a step in the right direction.

FLETCHER FORUM: You recently wrote that the water, climate change, and sustainability nexus will be the most important challenge Iraq faces in coming decades. Why, in your view, are these issues the most pressing challenges, even in spite of issues of the provision of basic services, political instability, and ongoing violence, among others? How can Iraq and the international community address concerns over sustainability and climate change?

RAOUF: According to the United Nations, Iraq is the most vulnerable country to climate change in the region. We are home to one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and yet we are receiving less and less water from our upstream neighbors, precipitation is falling and water salinity is worsening. Sustainability will be a big challenge.

Failure to meet these challenges may risk the security of many local communities. I remember delivering a presentation during a disaster response workshop for six governorates organized by the UN in 2010. During the workshop, each governorate was asked to identify their most serious disaster risk and develop a response plan. Despite the very real threat of sectarian violence, five out of six governorates identified climate change related disasters as their most serious disaster risk,

In fact, water scarcity and climate change is already affecting the lives of Iraqis. During the sectarian violence in 2006 to 2008 about 1.6 million families were displaced. Of the 1.6 million, 192,000 were displaced because of drought and 288,000 were displaced because of lack of opportunities, according the UN. Neither are directly related to violence. That is an indicator of the scale of the impact of climate change on local communities.

Such challenges require long-term prediction, planning, and adaptation strategies. Adaptation measures may require drastic changes to agriculture and water consumption patterns. Technological solutions and efficient practices are necessary measures of adaptation. The problem is that unlike with basic services, there are simply no plans in action to respond to the social impact of climate change.

The international community can play an important role in this respect. Climate change is not fully understood yet – scientific cooperation to enhance our knowledge and improve the accuracy of climate prediction models is needed to help in planning for adaptation. Exchange of success stories is also important. But the most important action in my opinion is regional cooperation. Regional cooperation in modeling and prediction, the sharing of scientific data, joint assessments and adaptation projects, and the development of technologies are needed. Unfortunately, our region is known for weak cooperation between member countries in most aspects.

FLETCHER FORUM: Ninety-one percent of Iraq’s water supply comes from outside the country. And yet regional governance of water entering Iraq, especially the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, remains nonexistent. Why is this? And what impact will this have on the future of Iraq’s water supply? 

RAOUF: This question is very important. For one reason or another, no comprehensive regional agreements have been signed to articulate the rights and obligations of countries sharing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. And Iraq, being the downstream country, is under the mercy of upstream countries [Turkey and Syria]. Combine increasing demand for water and reduced precipitation in all upstream countries with the fact that there exists no legal framework to specify the rights and obligations of each country and you can imagine the problem. The impact will be severe on Iraq’s future.

The first action for successful response to these challenges is to increase regional cooperation between these countries. Cooperation can start by sharing water data and joint research. At least this will unify our water baseline data that can be the basis of any future water governance agreement. Cooperation in developing and implementing technologies for more efficient water consumption is another suggestion for cooperation.

FLETCHER FORUM: Is there anything else you would like to add? Anything you would like our audience to know about your work in Iraq? Is there anything the international community can do to support Iraq’s science and technology aspirations?

RAOUF: I want to mention that Iraq has a lot of potential and capacity; however, our scientists have been cut off from the international scientific community since the imposition of the UN sanctions in the 1990s. Rebuilding our connections with the international scientific community was hindered by violence between 2005 and 2010. We are optimistic and hopeful that our scientific community will catch up and restore its position as a leader of science in the region.

Our focus now is on building an effective National Innovation System—the creation of technology incubators and research parks, the introduction of competitive funding for scientific research based on merit and national priorities, and the protection of intellectual property—based on international experience. Such a system would improve linkages between different economic, financial, academic, and research actors and produce better economic and social impacts of scientific research.

The international community can help by establishing cooperation frameworks with Iraqi research organizations and institutional capacity building in establishing an effective National Innovation System.

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