Finding solutions to Iraq’s salinity problems
An Australian-funded agricultural research project is helping Iraq tackle soil and water salinity problems that are impacting three quarters of the country's irrigated farmland, and causing around 25,000 hectares of agricultural land to be abandoned each year.
The Iraq Salinity Project brings together an expert group of agricultural researchers and policy makers from Iraq, international research centers and Australia to produce a new body of research which Iraq will use to better manage salinity that threatens its agricultural production.
The project is operating at three different scales: regionally to identify the distribution of salt-affected soils and causes of soil salinity, and the levels of salinity in the river systems; locally to assess the irrigation and drainage infrastructure; and on farms to find out the best ways to control salt levels in soil.
Learning from Australia’s experience
“The salinity symptoms and agro-hydrological problems faced by Iraq are similar to the situation in Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin,” said ACIAR’s Land and Water Program Manager, Dr Andrew Noble. “The project is benefitting from the lessons Australia learnt since the 1980’s about tackling its salinity problem to the point where the problem is being controlled and in some cases reversed.”
“The expertise of the project leader ICARDA - the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas - is also helping our Iraqi colleagues improve the situation of salinity on the Mesopotamian plain,” he said.
Australian researchers are assisting Iraqi researchers from five ministries, sharing their knowledge in saltland agronomy, especially in the use of salt-tolerant forages for improved livestock production, how to map soil salinity using instruments on the ground and by remote sensing, management of river systems with saline inflows, and on-farm practices for the management and reclamation of saline soils.
Dr Noble recently toured research sites of the ACIAR/AusAID-funded project in central and southern Iraq and saw first-hand some promising results associated with the growth of salt-tolerant species and land preparation techniques that reduce the impact of salt.
“In Wasit Governate, we saw a number of trials where salt-tolerant wheat varieties are growing well in soils that had been ‘deep ripped’ and leached to reduce the saltiness of the soil. The construction of deep drains to facilitate a drop in salty groundwater is another technique we saw being tested. In contrast, in the regular farmer practice being tested alongside the crop had failed to establish and there were obvious deposits of salt on the soil, a clear reminder of what the farmers are facing,” said Dr Noble.
“Other trials are testing the salt tolerance of introduced and local grain varieties, including millet, sorghum and guar – with an introduced guar variety and a local sorghum variety performing the best in previous trials, indicating there is local genetic tolerance in the sorghum variety for saline conditions.”
Dr Noble was also very impressed with the calibre of the research and extension activities being undertaken by the Iraqi researchers. “This demonstrates that there is a capable research base in Iraq that can achieve good results under difficult conditions,” he said.
“Near Basra, trials in farmer’s fields evaluating introduced forage species tolerant to salinity against local varieties were showing that the best performing species were the local Cynodon, followed by introduced paspalum, which has a higher nutritional value. The farmer we met was extremely pleased with the growth of the forages as it will increase the milk production of his three cows.
“We also visited an enterprising farmer who had been quite innovative in developing a site for vegetable production, in an area where temperatures are in the upper 40s. He had established a greenhouse for production of aubergine, having dug out the saline soil from under the greenhouse and backfilling with layers of sand and organic matter. The crop was watered alternately with fresh and saline irrigation water, and the yields were very high. The farmer was very pleased with this approach to intensifying his production system and was selling his produce at the Basra market,” Dr Noble said.
The Iraq Salinity Project brings together the Government of Iraq's Ministries of Agriculture, Water Resources, Higher Education, Environment and Science and Technology, with an international research team. The implementing agency is ICARDA, in partnership with the University of Western Australia, CSIRO - Australia's national science agency, the International Water Management Institute and the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture. Regular project meetings are held in Amman, Jordon
The project recently issued a “Call for Partners” to attract further support for Iraq’s long-term effort to improve the productivity of its saline land and water resources. Support is required for continued salinity monitoring and management interventions, including training at farm level, capacity strengthening and technical assistance to government and extension agencies in Iraq. The Italian Government is now supporting components of the project in Al Nasiriyah.
The project will shortly publish a report that provides an overview of the scope and scale of soil and water salinity problems in central and southern Iraq. Information can be access on the project website
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