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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 Field visits were done to take samples of this very sandy soil for lab analysis (Photo courtesy Mahdi Aoda).
 

Indonesia Partnership Picture C 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 houses (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 first quarter of 2014, the project team transplanted tomato seedlings at the research stations in Najaf and Baghdad. In mid-January PI Dr. Mahdi Aoda received delivery of the new soil moisture probes ordered for the project. They are being used to take consecutive measurements of soil moisture, salinity and temperature. As these instruments are new to Iraq, other universities have started asking about these devices and how to purchase them in order to use them in their research. In March 2014, two separate one-day field workshops were held at the Universities of Najaf and Baghdad for a total of 16 university teaching staff, and two field days were held for 45 undergraduate students from those universities to demonstrate the project and discuss how the membrane treatment works with sandy soil.
 
Two PhD students have already started their research work under this PEER project. Arrangements are being made for them to spend four months training at Michigan State University under the supervision of U.S. partner Dr. Alvin Smucker, beginning in June or July, with all costs being paid by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. An exchange visit to Michigan State is also being arranged for Dr. Aoda during the summer of 2014. Through the visit he hopes to learn more about the latest research activities and developments in the area of subsurface water retention technology, including a membrane installation device (MID) designed to install water-saving membranes at multiple soil depths in field research.