Water in the Desert

This bleak landscape holds more promise than it seems.

“Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. …”

Securing the route that both oil and commerce must take from Bayji to the population and refining centers in Hadithah is a major strategic goal.   In support of that goal, ePRT Western Anbar is looking for ways to support commerce and prosperity along the route, by encouraging small merchants to set up kiosks, perhaps with the support of a microfinance loan, and helping local pastoralists and farmers make a living nearby.  The challenge is that the land along way makes Death Valley look like a garden.   Development depends on water and there is not much of it available anywhere near the road, railroad or pipelines – until a few days ago.Dennis identified possible water bearing formations in Pliocene formations along the route during a helicopter reconnaissance and then followed up with a Marine patrol and a backhoe.  They struck water in three of the four areas he identified.  In one case, they found enough gushing water at a depth of about three meters to support a small community.  

This water is sustainable with wise use and replenished from natural rainfall in the area, i.e. it is not “fossil” water (as in parts of the Ogallala Aquifer, for example) that will be drained out by use.   Dennis and engineers at the RCT have already developed plans for a pond system that would take advantage of the terrain and some modern dry land farming techniques to create permanent oases around these tentative water holes. 

Below – the water is muddy at first, but left stand it clears and the flow was strong.

The technique involves “pitting,” which is a series of hundreds of small holes produced upstream from the place where a pond will be constructed.  These pits slow the runoff and allow it to soak into the ground, replenishing the aquifer.  Normally, the local desert soils shed water like a Wal-Mart parking lot.  The runoff puddles up in low places, without significant percolation and generally bakes off in the sun leaving salty pans and doing nobody any good.

We estimate that a properly constructed series of ponds featuring pitting and silt ponds to moderate rapid runoff and erosion could provide year round sources of water for local agriculture and other uses.   The only caveat is that the presence of reliable water sources on public land could stimulate increased sheep populations that could stress the limited resources available in this arid and poor environment.   This could be a classic “tragedy of the commons” where all producers try to maximize their own consumption of what becomes a dwindling and overtaxed resource base.  This however, is a challenge at any level of development.   The Iraqi landscaped suffered for years cut off from new developments during the dark years of Saddam Hussein.  Access to fresh, clean water is a growing problem worldwide and it is an especially acute situation in an arid country such as Iraq.  These inexpensive and effective projects will help address the issue in Western Al Anbar.