Improving water security for remote villages

A lack of water is the primary constraint to agricultural growth and food security for a large number of Iraq’s rural communities. So a readily-available and predictable water supply will bring a real boost to crop yields – to improve livelihoods and nutrition across many areas

HSAD is carrying out an assessment on the feasibility of building reservoirs and dams to harvest water and bring stability, increased prosperity and protection from climate change to targeted communities.

Potential locations for two small reservoirs in the Erbil area of Northern Iraq have been selected by the Ministry of Agriculture, with annual rainfall of 300-500 mm. Each reservoir has a capacity of 500,000-1,000,000m³. To fill the reservoir, a series of earth dams would be built to capture and store runoff water during the winter months (December-March) - this water will then be used for supplemental irrigation for wheat cultivation downstream during the dry spring months (March-May).

This work builds on more than a decade of expertise of ICARDA’s Integrated Water and Land Management research program, whose team has perfected approaches to assess the potential for water harvesting – even in areas where is very little water. Site selection included a range of engineering, natural resource and socio-economic criteria, covering: adequate runoff, suitable topography and geology, a nearby community practicing agriculture and needing supplemental irrigation, the willingness of the community to cooperate, and a number of specific technical issues.

The reservoir, dam, and a conveyance system would be used to supply water to farmers’ fields. The setup will be a model for multiplication in other areas, and will be used for research on managing water in reservoirs, supplemental irrigation, and socioeconomic aspects. To assess the project’s effectiveness, as well as the potential for large-scale use across Iraq, ICARDA has started a collaborative research program on water and land with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Enticing farmers back

Having experienced significant out-migration throughout the past two decades, the water harvesting scheme aims to entice the area’s farmers back by increasing the amount of available water – in an area that often suffers from chronic shortages - and making agriculture viable once more.  

Prof. Faisal A. Daham, Head of Dams and Water Resource Engineering at the University of Salahaddin, who acted as an advisor on the scheme and was instrumental in selecting the site, describes his hopes for the intervention: "Farmers began leaving this area 20 years ago but this project will be a reason for them to return. When farmers see there are new techniques and technologies they will take advantage, and when these interventions are cost-effective they will use them more.”

The practice of supplemental irrigation – delivering water in a planned way to crops at critical periods of in the plant’s growth cycle – has been demonstrated though ICARDA’s research with many dryland countries to bring dramatically increased wheat yields. This is also an effective and practical way to combat drought and unpredictable climate patterns.


If developed, the water harvesting project would provide long-lasting benefits to the communities involved. From a strategic national perspective, this project can be seen as a proof of concept – a pilot project – for how potential water harvesting sites can be identified to provide more water and food security to hundreds of communities across the country.

There is also considerable potential to extend this scheme to other parts of Iraq’s Kurdistan region – spreading the benefits of this intervention and raising farmer incomes across much wider areas. Says Prof. Daham: “We have several sites similar to the ones we have chosen which can be exploited during the dry season. Farmers are now growing wheat and barley, but with a more significant supply of water they can also grow high-value crops such as fruit and water."