DIWANIYAH, IRAQ — Ask Iraqis south of Baghdad to name the most urgent issue in their country and you won’t hear about bombs, kidnapping or corruption.
According to U.S. soldiers and civilians in Babil, Najaf and Qadisiyah provinces, virtually every Iraqi says water — for growing crops and for drinking — is the most pressing concern in the region by far. The Middle East has suffered drought conditions for the past two years and that region has been hit particularly hard.
"Water is the No. 1 issue for the people here and, therefore, it’s the No. 1 issue for the PRT (provincial reconstruction team)," said Michael Klecheski, team leader of a U.S. State Department PRT in Qadisiyah province.
Said Khlim Hanna, a hydraulic engineer and another PRT member: "When we go out to people’s villages, it’s all people talk about. There’s not another issue that even comes close."
The PRT estimates 70 percent of the working population in Qadisiyah province works in agriculture.
The water shortage is affecting the most popular agricultural product in the region, known as Anbar rice, a water-intensive crop which commands a premium price in Iraq, Hanna said.
"The central government has requested that rice production be cut by 50 percent [to conserve water] but it is not clear if that’s been done and I’m not sure if they have any way to enforce it," he said.
Mohamed Fahem Hamza, who runs a herd of 30 cattle just outside Qadisiyah’s provincial capital, Diwaniyah, said the lack of water is creating great hardship for farmers.
"The grass is not enough for my animals and I have to walk four kilometers each day with my herd to find it," he said, through an interpreter.
Hamza paid 200,000 Iraqi dinars for the right to graze his cattle on another farmer’s land this summer. He knows the local irrigation water comes from the Farat River, which runs through Diwaniyah. But he said he doesn’t read newspapers or watch television and he doesn’t know anything about U.S. or Iraqi government efforts to improve irrigation.
According to Klecheski, Iraqis with more knowledge about the issue often blame the water shortage on neighboring nations such as Turkey, Syria and Iran, which siphon water from rivers before it reaches Iraq.
"I just talked to a sheik," he said. "He acknowledged there has been a drought but he felt that the diminished flow of water [from Turkey] had a big impact as well — an even bigger impact than the drought."
The water that flows down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers makes Iraq one of the most fertile countries in the Middle East. The problem for Iraqis is that the water in the rivers starts across the border in Turkey or Syria as mountain snow melt.
Lt. Col. Steve Miska, commander of Task Force 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, said Turkish dams are a problem for people in southern Iraq.
"The Turks increased the water supply [to Iraq] by 50 percent recently and [Iraqis] are also negotiating with Syria," he said.
Klecheski said it’s unclear whether the extra water released by Turkey is enough to sustain farms in southern Iraq.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy in most Iraqi provinces, although Iraqi farms are small with each farmer working barely enough land to support his family. In places like Babil, Najaf and Qadisiyah, farmers can be seen toiling in fields in the early morning or late at night, growing crops such as wheat, rice and barley, or herding sheep and cattle.
"Where there’s water, plants have no problem growing," Hanna said.
There are still green areas in southern Iraq and water in irrigation canals that flow from the rivers. But in 120-degree heat, the water dries up quickly and dust storms from unirrigated land often blot out the sun.
The PRT experts believe improved irrigation is the key to stimulating the economy in much of Iraq, an important factor in achieving political stability.
PRT members make regular trips into the countryside, traveling down canal roads under military escort to talk to farmers about how they manage water and pump it from canals to fields.
In Qadisiyah province, the PRT is providing U.S. aid money to line canals with concrete, preventing water leakage, Hanna said, and there are plans to train people to drill artesian wells.
There’s also a project to improve farmers’ drinking water, which is often the same muddy brown canal water that their animals drink.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Young, 26, of Arlington, Texas, who works with the Qadisiyah PRT, said he teaches Iraqis at a local agriculture school to make solar water purifiers. The devices store water in a chamber under glass so sunlight sterilizes the water and evaporates salt out of it.
"They cost $60 to $70 and are supposed to produce 10 to 12 liters of water each day, although I’ve only been able to get six liters so far," Young said.
PRT members teach officials from the Water Ministry to map the land and irrigation canals on computers using the satellite-based Geographic Information System, or GIS, Hanna said.
"They have had canals for thousands of years," he said. "Part of our project is to put more technology into irrigation."
The idea is to map the slope of the ground, determine how much water there is, where it flows and where it ends up. Hanna trains Iraqis to map irrigation canals and determine the most efficient way to release water to farms using gates and reservoirs.
"In the long term, it will better manage their water resources," he said. "It will help them make improvements to their control system, create reservoirs and plan canals. It will show them the best way to invest money to conserve their water and direct it to the different farming areas efficiently."