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To cope with droughts and contribute to the sustainable management of water resources, Action contre la Faim (ACF), in collaboration with the Responsive Drip Irrigation (RDI) company, has carried out a pilot project based on the use of an innovative irrigation system in the districts of Al-Qurna and Al-Dair in the governorate of Basra.
Already weakened by two decades of war and economic crisis, Iraq is for the third year running in the grip of a water shortage that is damaging agricultural yields and testing farmers’ resilience, particularly in the western and southern regions. According to the World Bank, the country is expected to experience a 20% drop in water availability by 2050, which could lead to the destruction of a third of its irrigated land¹.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s freshwater reserves, have decreased by 30% since the 1980s and are expected to shrink to 50% by 2030². The construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Turkey and Iran exacerbated this situation. Compounding the problem is the escalating impact of climate change, which is driving up temperatures in Iraq and causing increasing salination, posing a significant threat to agriculture.
“Unsustainable and inappropriate practices such as poor management of water distribution, increasing pollution levels, sewage dumping, and outdated or damaged water infrastructure are further accelerating water scarcity and accentuating the risk of food insecurity in Iraq” points out Asmaa Farooq, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene’s Head of Department for Action contre la Faim in Iraq.
Unemployment amongst the displaced, returnees, women jobseekers, pre-pandemic self-employed and informal workers remains elevated in Iraq. By 2022, a quarter of Iraq’s population, approximately 11.4 million people, found themselves living below the poverty line, with an overall unemployment rate standing at 16 percent. The ongoing drought is expected to result in an 11.5 percent decrease in the demand for unskilled labor in the medium term, further exacerbating impoverishment³.
Declining water levels have particularly affected the agriculture sector, which is regarded as the largest consumer of water resources accounting for around 60-80 percent of total water usage⁴. When 25% of the population⁵ relies on agriculture as the main source of livelihood, the socio-economic impact of water scarcity is particularly acute in these communities. According to the Iraqi Federation of Agricultural Associations, 50% of agricultural workers are already living below the poverty line, while 40% have had to give up their profession to find other sources of income due to climatic conditions.
Beyond the direct impact on agricultural yields and livelihoods, water scarcity can exacerbate tensions at community level and has the potential to transform localized disputes into broader-scale unrest and conflict. In southern Iraq, tensions have already emerged in the form of water-induced conflicts and competition over water rights. In 2017, tribal communities in the southern Al-Muthanna governorate issued threats of conflict against those who were taking more than their equitable share of water resources. Furthermore, in 2021, a government official in Dhi Qar voiced concerns that local authorities were apprehensive about the potential eruption of tribal conflicts at any moment⁶.
In addition, water scarcity has triggered a significant wave of rural-to-urban migration, causing social unrest and placing strain on infrastructure. In 2021, around 20,000 people have been displaced by water shortages, high salinity and poor water quality in 10 Iraqi governorates⁷.
Taken together, these issues, if not effectively addressed, will heighten the risks of poverty, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and the destruction of historically significant agricultural regions. This, in turn, will lead to more displacement, diminished public health, heightened instability, increased climate-related conflicts, and a collective struggle for control over water resources.
“A collaborative, multi-sectoral approach is more necessary than ever to tackle this critical situation. This must involve government agencies, NGOs, communities, the private sector and other stakeholders working together to achieve the common goal of sustainable water management, resilience and social cohesion” says Asmaa Farooq.
As part of the local water management strategy and in collaboration with the company Responsive Drip Irrigation, Action contre la Faim has carried out a pilot project based on the use of a reactive drip irrigation system, a water and nutrient delivery system for growing crops, on three farms in the districts of Al-Qurna and Al-Dair, in the southern governorate of Basra.
Present in 40 countries, the Responsive Drip Irrigation (RDI) company owns a new method in water delivery that combats water waste and develops an innovative irrigation system. GrowStream tube is an irrigation and fertigation⁸ system that enables the plant to self-regulate its own water delivery, resulting in water savings and performance compared to other forms of irrigation, including surface irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, sub-irrigation and standard drip irrigation.
Musa Kazem, like most of the people of the area, was born and raised in Basra. He has been a farmer as long as he can remember. Over the years, water scarcity coupled by water salinity have significantly affected his agricultural production, putting his activity and source of livelihood at risk. “I mostly cultivate tomatoes, okra, eggplants and palm trees. These crops are the main source of income for me and for my family. This new irrigation system is easy to use, and it has helped me to rationalize water, maintain soil fertility, and foster the rapid growth of the crops” he explains.
“The advantages of this system are considerable, insofar as it helps mitigate the effects of water scarcity while improving agricultural production yields. Last year, I lost about 30 to 40 seedling during the planting season using standard drip irrigation. With the responsive drip irrigation system, I did not lose any seedling. In addition, within the same area, I have planted 8 lines of eggplants and tomatoes, while I had planted 6 with standard drip irrigation” adds Adil Kazim, one of the farmer who took part in the pilot project.
“This pilot initiative plays a crucial role in fostering a shift in irrigation practices necessary to address Iraq’s water scarcity challenges” adds Asmaa Farooq, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene’s Head of Department for Action contre la Faim in Iraq.
“The results show that the responsive drip irrigation method consumes approximately 200 gallons⁹ per day for 450 square meters of land, whereas traditional flood irrigation consumes 600 gallons per day. Expanding investment in such approaches holds the potential to alleviate the consequences of future disasters.”
2. Azzam Alwash et al., “Towards Sustainable Water Resources Management in Iraq,” Iraq Energy Institute (blog), August 30, 2018, https:// iraqenergy.org/2018/08/30/towards-sustainable-water-resources-management-in-iraq/; Mustafa Habib, “Iraq’s Lack of Water ‘Is a Foreign Policy Problem,’” Iraqi-Business News (blog), February 24, 2018, https://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2018/02/24/iraqs-lack-of-water-is-aforeign-policy-problem/
7. [IOM, Migration, Environment, and Climate Change in Iraq, August 9, 2022.
8. Fertigation is the application of fertilizers or other water-soluble products through an irrigation system.
9. Approximately 758 liters.
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