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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Soil water retention technology to improve vegetable production among highly permeable soils under water scarcity and dry climate conditions In Iraq

PI: Mahdi Aoda (Baghdad University)
U.S. Partners: G. Phillip Robertson and Alvin J.M. Smucker (Michigan State University)
Project Dates: August 2013 to July 2016
The primary purpose of this project is to use a proven technology to double food production with a goal of reducing irrigation by 50% in arid regions of Iraq. Since water is the most limiting input to agricultural production, and its resources are declining, new approaches beyond additional irrigation are needed to retain more water in the root zones of plants. Water scarcity is becoming more acute in Iraq, primarily due to the high evapo-transpiration rates and the fact that previous international water sources are being retained in large dams and canal systems in Syria and Turkey. Surface flooding and canal irrigation continue to result in the lose of more water, promoting soil salinity. Therefore, new approaches for conserving irrigation water must be designed to minimize water losses during surface additions of water and increase soil water holding capacity in the root zone. The rapidly expanding utilization of subsurface water and nutrient retaining membranes, combined with surface and subsurface drip irrigation tapes, minimize surface water losses and deep leaching losses of water and nutrients below the root zone.

Indonesia Partnership Picture B

Indonesia Partnership Picture C

During field visits sandy soil samples were taken for lab analysis (Photo courtesy Mahdi Aoda).
Arrangements were made with the Ministry of Agriculture to run the Najaf experiment in one of their research stations and use one of their plastic greenhouses (Photo courtesy Mahdi Aoda).

Therefore, the main goals for this project are to conserve up to 60% of the irrigation water required to produce healthy vegetables locally and to consolidate and expand the research collaboration and student training activities involving Michigan State University and universities in Iraq. Water-saving and drought avoidance technologies have been highly successful with cucumbers, green peppers, and corn in Michigan, grass in Turkey, and cotton in Texas. Statistics show the 15-19% of Iraqi soils are sandy, often exposed to shifting sand dunes. Utilizing soil water retention technology in Iraq is essential for rehabilitating sandy soils for use in growing agricultural products, many of which are currently imported. The introduction and demonstration of these techniques to strategic sites across Iraq will contribute to long-term sustainable production with minimum irrigation water, which could help to improve the Iraqi economy.

Summary of Recent Activities

During the third quarter of 2014, the research team harvested their tomato crop and measured tomato growth and production parameters. Samples of tomato shoots, roots, root distribution, and N, P and K contents were taken, and the total volume of water used for irrigation and total tomato yields were measured and analyzed in order to compare different treatments applied during the experiment. The results indicated that the SWRT (Sub-surface water retention technology)  treatment was remarkably superior, requiring 60% less irrigation water and 50% less fertilizer but producing an 89% higher yield than the control group. These findings are encouraging, as this technology could be applied in Iraq’s sandy areas. The research team is now preparing to repeat the experiment using peppers in the next growing. Two plastic greenhouses, one in Baghdad and one in Najaf, have been prepared and seedling preparation has begun. 

As planned, two PhD students are now starting to write their dissertations and are analyzing the data. Unfortunately, due to the security situation in Iraq, the PI and his students were not able to travel to Michigan State University (MSU) as initially anticipated this year, although Prof. Alvin Smucker of MSU is still expected to visit the research team in Iraq at some point. During January-March 2015, Dr. Aoda plans four training visits to the field including students and farmers in both Baghdad and Najaf. A conference about this PEER project is being planned in January 2015 as well. All PEER project members will present their papers, which will be published after the conference. The research team’s paper detailing their recent findings was co-authored with Alvin Smucker and Andrey Guber of MSU and is entitled “Enhancing the Soil Water Characteristic Curve to Feed the World.” It has been submitted for publication in a U.S. journal.

2-455_Y1Q3_Plants at production stage2-455_Y1Q3_Peer tomato harvest
Tomato plants at production stage (Photo courtesy Mahdi Aoda).PEER tomato harvest (Photo courtesy Mahdi Aoda).