Could hydroponics reshape Iraq's agriculture future?

Water scarcity and drought impact agriculture in central Iraq
16 April, 2024

Over the thousands of years humans have spent farming the Fertile Crescent, it has never ceased to be a hotbed of innovation.

Today, Iraqis are experimenting with a type of agriculture that may reshape the region: growing plants without soil.

As global warming and environmental degradation cause irreversible changes to the composition of Iraq’s farmland, the soil-free, water-saving science known as hydroponics offers the country of 40 million — home to two of the world’s most famous rivers — a chance to adapt to this new reality.

Meanwhile, the international community will be waiting to see whether Iraq’s technique is scalable.

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Hydroponics is as simple as it is innovative. Rather than plants getting their nutrients from the soil, farmers mix them into water-based solutions to irrigate their crops’ exposed roots. These plants may be placed atop platforms or suspended in the air.

The United Nations Development Program, also known as the UNDP, noted the manyfold benefits of hydroponics for a fast-desertifying country like Iraq in a March 5 press release on one of the international organisation’s ongoing projects there: “By growing plants without soil and using nutrient-rich water solutions, hydroponics saves water, a precious resource in Iraq. It also enables year-round cultivation, reducing dependence on seasonal weather patterns and mitigating the impact of extreme temperatures and desert conditions on crop yields.”

The UNDP’s testing ground for its Iraqi hydroponic experiment is Shirqat District, an administrative division near Iraqi Kurdistan and about 100 kilometres north of the city of Tikrit.

The UNDP’s ambitious initiative there intends “to equip farmers with the knowledge and skills needed to implement hydroponic systems effectively, promoting agricultural productivity and economic prosperity while addressing Iraq's specific needs.”

In some ways, Shirqat District is an unlikely testing ground for hydroponics. The area has fewer challenges with water scarcity than other parts of Iraq, with the Tigris passing right through it; the river bisects the capital, al-Shirqat, feeding the many farms on either side of the Tigris.

The UNDP also noted that a nearby “fertile plain” has made al-Shirqat “an important agricultural hub from which various crops and produce are exported to neighbouring cities.”

Yet if one of the traditional agricultural heartlands of the Fertile Crescent can make the transition to hydroponics, perhaps the UNDP can replicate this model across the region.

The UNDP focused on the story of Ahmed Turki Nayef, an Iraqi farmer and the head of a small family. One of the UNDP’s “modern agriculture and sustainability technology courses” taught Nayef about hydroponics as well as other innovative techniques, namely distillation-based agriculture, drip farming, and fixed sprinkler farming.

The project enabled him to grow crops as varied as barley, celery, chard, garlic, onions, wheat, and even strawberries.

The initiative turned Nayef into an evangelist for hydroponics. “These trainings have helped me realise part of my dreams, as I have started advising all farmers to abandon the old and traditional methods and replace them with modern methods to ensure the economic aspect, as well as to ensure the product and its good quality with the least possible effort and cost,” he told the UNDP.

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“I advise everyone to cultivate through irrigation and distillation for its quality and economy, not to mention avoiding the problems of traditional agriculture.”

If the UNDP had undertaken this endeavour in one of Iraq’s more water-challenged farming regions, word of hydroponics’ success might have taken longer to spread.

By choosing an agricultural hub like Shirqat District to spearhead this project, the UNDP ensured that its project would receive the maximum benefit of word of mouth.

The shift to strategies that minimise the use of water has had key benefits for Shirqat District. In addition to enabling farmers to grow a greater variety of crops year-round, hydroponics has relieved stress on the Tigris, which provides drinking water to residents of al-Shirqat and many other Iraqis along the Tigris’ banks.

The revitalisation of agriculture can contribute to the recovery of an area still reeling from Iraq’s pandemic-era recession and the aftermath of the war against the Islamic State, which occupied al-Shirqat from 2014 to 2016.

As hydroponics has taken off in several areas of Iraq dealing with similar challenges, the technique has enabled new forms of innovation.

Qaraqosh, a city about 30 kilometres southwest of Mosul likewise recovering from the war, has its own hydroponic programme with a polytunnel to help farmers better regulate the temperature of their crops and protect them from Iraq’s harsh winters.

Last year, the UNDP promoted its work with an entrepreneur in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to launch Hayane Farm, which combines hydroponics with aquaponics, integrating fish into the system to provide nutrients to the project’s soil-free plants.

With Iraqis pioneering hydroponics across their country, they may become models for a region bracing for a future defined by water scarcity and eager to invest in offbeat ideas.

The UNDP has been supporting hydroponics in Jordan, while the Emirates Group, the firm behind the airline of the same name, has bankrolled a project billed as the “world’s largest indoor hydroponic farm.”

One analysis dubbed the United Arab Emirates “a regional leader in hydroponic farming,” with three major firms getting involved in the industry.

Successes in Iraq, Jordan, and the UAE may inspire more countries to back hydroponics. In the race against climate change as in business, competition begets innovation.