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The View from Here: Salty marshes and lack of opportunity

Mike Gangwer Published on 30 June 2010
College graduates

I am in travel status most of my last few months here in Iraq. As I write, I have just less than a month to finish my 16-month tour. I look forward to turning my PPE, or body armor, in for the last time. That will be done in Kuwait at Ali Al Salem Air Base.

I will describe two recent trips in this article. Answering the question, “What is my work like here when in travel status?” Although in fairness, I have written many times of my work outside the embassy.



I will begin with Basra. This is the second-largest city in Iraq, and it is located in the southernmost region of the county. The city and region are known for two attributes: It is home to most of Iraq’s oil fields, and the region includes the Arab Marshes.

I have flown to Basra many times, but this time I was invited to stay for five days. My task, along with about 20 military officers and another 20 civilians, was designing the agricultural campaign for the next year. The effort was headed up by a major in the U.S. Army, who is also a veterinarian in California. Our several-day meeting included a variety of agricultural issues, but the three predominant ones were similar to other regions in Iraq: land reclamation of saline soils, increasing the volume and quality of irrigation water and then restoration of the Arab Marshes.

These are huge challenges. Basra is the terminal end of the huge watershed that includes four countries: Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. As water flows through the watershed, salts enter the water and thus increase the salinity of water downstream.

As such, Basra is not particularly suited for crop production. The soils here are largely fine sand and lack intrinsic fertility, with practically no organic matter. The region is largely abused as desertification is overtaking the marsh land. Unfortunately, the Euphrates River is the primary water feed to the marsh lands, and this river in particular does not have the large snowmelt regions that melt into the other river system, the Tigris. Actually this has been a wetter year than the previous two, but it is the Tigris that carries most of this additional rainfall and then subsequent snowmelt. The result is increasing water in the Mesopotamia Plain farm region – but not the marshes.

Land reclamation generally includes the installation of subsurface drainage and the leaching of soluble salts out of the root zone. But this takes water and reasonably good quality water, which we do not have.


We can help with introducing some modern irrigation water management practices, including water scheduling. In fact, I will return to Basra University near the end of my tour and show them how we do this in the western U.S. But irrigation scheduling assumes that water is available, and the supply is rarely adequate for the demand. Of course, there are many dry areas in the world with this scenario, including the issues of salinity and land reclamation.

We write up the report and it will be handed off to the next Civil Affairs Battalion. The next group coming in will have a short tour as the military drawdown is on schedule.

I did meet with the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture director general and two faculty members from Basra University, hence the invitation to once again visit campus and deliver some training material.

The week after visiting Basra, I spent another five days in Salah ad Din Province. This province was home to Saddam Hussein and is located in the northern part of the country.

My tasks here included visiting Tikrit University and delivering a series of lectures about crop production, irrigation water management and soil fertility. We had 37 students in the course; nearly all were graduate students with a handful of faculty as well. The dean of the agriculture college attended one half day.

I was pleased that 10 young women graduate students attended, were engaged, asked questions and eagerly wanted to learn. I often state to my students here in Iraq that during my Afghanistan tour, my class of 120 students in three provinces was entirely men.


Tikrit University has nearly 20,000 students and was one of the more modern, recently built universities in Iraq. The teaching complex was one of the most modern buildings I have lectured in. The students were respectful and good note-takers. But like students everywhere, they carry a cell phone or some other type of handheld device and seem to have their eyes on them frequently.

I do report to you the downside to delivering training like this is that generally these students, upon graduation, will have little opportunity for employment using the skills they learned here.

I have written this often: Educating the mind without an opportunity for implementing or using that knowledge is frustrating and even tragic. At the end of our day, being employed in meaningful careers or having the opportunity to enter the business world as a business owner is the return on the educational benefit. Our own college graduates are certainly finding a tough time in their search for employment, but here in Iraq the times are many degrees tougher.

Yet these students are young and have many years ahead of them to enter the work place or begin a business. In fact, one of our reasons for being here, and I am referring to the U.S. government as a whole, is to help Iraq reach its potential as a significant contributor to the Arab region.

Perhaps in a distant time, one or two of these young students will stand in a faraway land and deliver a lecture or two about growing crops or water use or installing a soil moisture sensor. I have every reason to believe this will be so. PD

PHOTO : Our own college graduates are certainly finding a tough time in their search for employment, but here in Iraq the times are many degrees tougher. Photo courtesy of Mike Gangwer.

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