Changing old ways

Iraqi farmers see hope with water-saving irrigation techniques amid drought threat

AL-AZRAKIYA – After four years of drought, Iraqi farmer Mohammed Sami almost abandoned his father’s parched land. However, a water-saving irrigation system revitalized his crops and hopes.

He is among hundreds of farmers in Iraq, battered by heatwaves, scarce rain, and depleted rivers, benefiting from new water management systems introduced by the United Nations World Food Programme.

These systems, which employ automated sprinklers and drip irrigation, ensure that scarce water is utilized efficiently, minimizing run-off and evaporation under the intense sun.

Drip irrigation is a technique that allows water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either from above the soil surface or buried below the surface, ensuring that water goes directly to where it’s most needed.

“Since 2019, due to the water scarcity, we have been unable to farm the land,” said 38-year-old Sami from his village of Al-Azrakiya in the central province of Anbar. The drought had turned his 10 donums (approximately one hectare) of land into a desert, forcing him to work as a day laborer in a nearby city.

“I thought about giving up farming for good,” he admitted.

However, two years ago, Sami’s fortunes changed, and his land flourished once again.

The WFP provided a new automated irrigation system that waters his field for just two hours a day, two to three days a week.

The WFP is the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security.

“I now irrigate 10 donums with the same amount of water that I used for one donum before,” Sami noted, mentioning his wheat harvest increased from seven to 12 tonnes per year.

Last year, the WFP project assisted over 1,100 farmers “in areas most affected by climate change and drought,” according to Khansae Ghazi from the WFP’s Baghdad office.

The new irrigation systems “use 70 percent less water than traditional methods such as flooding”—a method that involves covering fields with water, which is highly inefficient due to evaporation and run-off.

These modern techniques enable farmers to cultivate diverse crops year-round, including barley, cucumber, watermelon, and eggplant, reducing reliance on unpredictable rainfall, the WFP stated.

Iraq, still recovering from years of war and chaos, ranks among the top five countries most affected by some effects of climate change, as per the United Nations.

As the site of ancient Mesopotamia, civilization here thrived along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. However, Iraq now faces severe water scarcity, exacerbated by upstream dams in Iran and Turkey.

“Iraq is the Land of Two Rivers, its more than 7,000-year-old civilisation has always relied on farming,” stated Mohammed al-Khazai, a spokesman for the agriculture ministry.

“For decades, the country was afflicted by floods, not drought.”

With rainfall becoming more irregular and water scarcer, depleting aquifers—underground layers of water-bearing permeable rock, sand, or gravel—many farmers have left their fields in the newly formed dust-bowl regions.

During the 2021–22 season, agricultural productivity dropped by 36 percent from the previous year, the WFP reported.

State authorities have limited water use for agriculture to ensure enough drinking water for Iraq’s 43 million residents.

To address the issue, the ministry now offers sprinkler systems that farmers can pay off over ten years, with the state covering 30 percent of the cost.

“At first, it was difficult for the farmer to switch to modern irrigation,” Khazai said.

Yet, the ministry aims to increase wheat harvests to more than six million tons in 2024, up from five million last year—a significant rise from about two million tons in 2022.

The UN agency cautions that modern irrigation systems, while significantly improving water efficiency and agricultural practices in Iraq, might not fully address the complex drought issue: “While modern irrigation systems can significantly improve water efficiency and agricultural practices in Iraq, it may not be sufficient to tackle the complex issue of drought.”

Nevertheless, farmers like Souad Mehdi from Al-Azrakiya near the Euphrates are witnessing notable improvements. The 40-year-old has doubled her harvest of wheat, barley, corn, tomatoes, and eggplant.

“It used to take us two days to water our crops,” she said. Now, filling a basin with river water and activating the sprinklers is a task that “doesn’t take more than two hours.”