Water will soon flow through the canals that used to feed the once-fertile land some 30km west of Mosul, a northern city that has been occupied by Islamic State jihadists since June 2014.
A cash-for-work component of the project, led by the Food and Agriculture Office of the United Nations, supports vulnerable families, many of whom have earned almost no income since IS marched into the area.
Participants are being paid to clear the main canal of the Al Jazeera irrigation scheme of debris so it can once again feed the smaller canals in the system.
The FAO has also repaired the pumping station that water to the waterways from Mosul Dam, and is collaborating with a company to clear mines and undetonated ordnance from the valuable farmland in the area—a first for the UN agriculture body.
The project is already benefiting more than 3,000 people and there are hopes that farming is back underway as Iraqi forces fight for control of Mosul in an operation that began in October.
Having overcome Isis occupation of east of the city, government troops have been engaged in fierce battles with jihadists as they close in on the left bank of the Tigris river, which divides Mosul.
"Farmers here haven't been able to grow vegetables for two years, since the irrigation canals were destroyed by armed groups who also contaminated the area with explosive devices," said Fadel El-Zubi, the FAO’s representative in Iraq.
"Restoring people's ability to farm and trade in this area is not only important for food security but also for building prosperity and lasting peace in the country.”
Farmers used to export vegetables and crops, including wheat and barley, to Syria and other countries, as well as supplying millions of people in Iraq. Now the country relies on fruit and vegetable imports.
"We collect debris in piles and then merge every four piles into one big one for the excavator to pick up and remove from the canal," said 23-year-old Ahmed Mohammed, a father of three.
"My brother has agricultural land and he'll benefit from the project as well. He used to grow wheat and barley in the winter and vegetables at other times. Now he can only grow vegetables when the rain falls."
The Al Jazeera irrigation scheme has been an essential source of water for agriculture, livestock and domestic use since it was launched in 1991. Some 100 of the system’s smaller canals have been damaged since the fighting began. Due to this and damage to the pumping station from the fighting, residents have had to face extreme water shortages.
As Iraq’s government fights to retake control of more areas, a major effort is needed to rehabilitate critical infrastructure so that agricultural production can resume and livelihoods can be restored, the FAO said.
The agency is currently seeking urgent funding of US$89m to rehabilitate damaged agricultural infrastructure, support farmers to vaccinate and feed their livestock, and expand cash-for-work and other income-generating activities.