How Iraqis are using smart irrigation to overcome water scarcity

With mounting environmental challenges threatening food supply in Iraq, farmers and entrepreneurs are coming up with new solutions to ensure a sustainable future

Mohammed Al Rawi's project in Niveneh uses sustainable farming techniques that allow him to grow mushrooms in a climate-controlled environment. Photo: Mohammed Al Rawi
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

In the heart of Iraq’s southern parched desert, a verdant oasis rises like a mirage. But this is no illusion — it’s a thriving farm kept lush and green by the power of the sprinkler irrigation system.

“I consider the desert areas as the storehouse of food in the country due to the abundance of its groundwater and other ingredients,” said investor Wail Al Ghazali, 50.

“With the water stress that we are facing now, these areas could transform Iraq to a wheat exporter within two or three years with full support from the government."

Mr Al Ghazali knew the challenges that lay ahead when he poured his money into an agricultural project in the desert south of the city of Najaf two years ago, but he was determined to make a difference and create a successful business.

“To be honest, it is a risk to invest in the desert,” he said.

For decades, farmers in Iraq have relied on traditional irrigation systems, mainly flood irrigation — the flooding of a field with water to soak into the soil — for their crops. But such methods are inefficient, unsustainable and require significant amounts of water.

Only recently, some farmers began using more modern systems, such as drip and sprinkler irrigation, that can reduce the water required by up to 50 per cent through use of tubing, which improves crop yields and contributes to sustainable agricultural practice.

In July 2021, Mr Al Ghazali and his partners obtained an investment licence to develop 2,000 dunams (200 hectares) in Wadi Al Khir, about 60km south of Najaf city, to grow wheat.

He installed sprinkler irrigation across 1,200 dunams and a drip system that uses groundwater for another 400 dunams.

He has invested a total of 1.2bn Iraqi dinars ($800,000) so far. It is at least three times more than the estimated cost of growing wheat in an arable land with water readily available, he said.

“The cost of planting the desert is high for many reasons. Top of them is the absence of full government support in terms of offering loans, fuel and fertilisers,” said Mr Al Ghazali.

The government does provide incentives to encourage the use of more sustainable irrigation but still falls short of what is needed, he said.

For every sprinkler installed on a farm, the government supplies 1,200 litres of fuel per month to operate it. However, sprinklers actually require 5,000l.

Fertilisers provided by the government cover only 40 per cent of what the farmers need each month. Mr Al Ghazali said he depends on generators for consistent electricity.

During his first season 2021-2022, Mr Al Ghazali’s farm sustained losses of at least 300m Iraqi dinars ($200,000).

This year, he was forced to sell his car to buy fuel.

“I have to sell everything in my hand because I can’t see my crops fail and die,” he said.

Eventually, his hard work and sacrifice paid off. The current 2022-2023 season is promising, with each dunam is expected to produce between 1 and 1.6 tonnes of wheat.

Against all odds, rare success stories are emerging in agriculture sector in Iraq, the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change according to the UN Environment Programme.

Climate change, mismanagement and conflict have contributed to the depletion of water resources, affecting agriculture and food security.

One of the most pressing issues is dwindling flows of the two main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, mainly as a result of upstream dams in Turkey and Iran, as well as poor water management.

The country is experiencing its worst drought in decades, with temperatures exceeding 50°C last summer. Many of Iraq’s lakes have also shrunk — in some cases revealing ancient cities previously thought to have been lost to the water.

Desertification affects 39 per cent of the country and 54 per cent of agricultural land has degraded, mainly due to soil salinity caused by historically low water levels in the two rivers and reduced rainfall.

UN reports show that the rate of desertification has risen to 39 per cent of the country’s land and more than half (54 per cent) is under threat.

With mounting environmental challenges threatening food supply in Iraq, entrepreneurs are searching for solutions to ensure a sustainable future.

Mohammed Al Rawi’s passion for agriculture led him to establish the first mushroom farming project in the northern province of Nineveh in 2021, joining forces with innovation hub and business incubator QAF Lab.

The project uses innovative and sustainable farming techniques that allow him to grow mushrooms in a climate-controlled environment, by applying cold water steam.

It depends on recycling organic waste to create a suitable growing environment for mushrooms.

“I noticed that Iraqis consume mushrooms in large quantities and almost all are imported from neighbouring countries such as Iran and Turkey,” said Mr Al Rawi, 25.

“Since we can get all the raw materials locally and the project can generate good revenue, I decided to start the project,” he said.

Today, the farm produces 40-50 tonnes of mushrooms per year.

“The situation in Iraq in regard to water scarcity and agriculture is bleak, but if there is real support from the government Iraq can compete with other countries,” Mr Al Rawi said.

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Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:50 PM