Water-starved Amman awaits a solution in an expensive cross-country aquifer

Story by Robert Tokanel // Photos by Valerie Sarnataro

A freshly dug trench of concrete pipes snakes along the barren, dusty stretch of highway that runs from Jordan’s southwestern port city of Aqaba to its capital in Amman. Though it currently serves as little more than an expensive eyesore in an otherwise tranquil desert landscape, it will eventually act as a conduit for the country’s most scarce and essential resource – potable water.

Miles of pipe, some assembled in a long line, some stacked or just heaped together, stretch across Jordan, promising much-needed water to the residents of Amman, the country's largest city with 2.8 million inhabitants.

Jordan, ranked as the fourth-most water-scarce country in the world, relies heavily on rainfall in the North and a series of dams and aquifers to spread groundwater and river water through its middle and Southern regions.

As the population in Amman swells to accommodate a growing number of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, the 2.8 million people that currently inhabit the city are left to wonder when the day will come that the water simply stops flowing.

“Their concern might be even more than anyone else,” said Raed Al Tabini, who recently co-authored a study of Jordan’s water resources. “The water only comes one day a week for people in Amman, so if that day it doesn’t come, it’s going to take two weeks.”

The Disi Water Conveyance Project, a nearly $1 billion effort started in 2008, is expected to provide Amman and surrounding communities with about 100 million cubic meters of water per year by transporting it more than 200 miles from the Disi aquifer in Mudawarra, a city bordering Saudi Arabia.

But the project, set to finish within the next two years, will only quench the city’s thirst temporarily.

“It will create another problem in the long term,” said Al Tabini. “This aquifer is fossil, it’s not replenishable, so that means the water goes down and down and down until it is finished. It’s a huge amount of water, but it will run out one day.”

The shared use of the Disi aquifer with Saudi Arabia presents a major concern for Jordan’s conservationists. The terms of the agreement between the countries allow each to use its groundwater supply, and the new pipeline is partially a political investment because it guarantees Jordan will get its share of the water before it runs out.

Phil Graham of the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, a research group based in Norrkoping, Sweden, said at a May 22 climate change conference in Amman that while Jordan has taken a lead in the Middle East in terms of concern for water resource issues, he thinks the country’s competitive relationship with Saudi Arabia has encouraged its people to use water wastefully.

“I find it a bit worrisome that cooperation between people sharing these resources is not optimal,” he said. “Both sides think they have to pump as much as possible, because [they think] ‘if we don’t, they will.’”

The trench is dug and the pipes are laid down beside it. But officials in Jordan still have to come up with the funds and work out the politics with neighboring countries to move water from the southern border to Amman.

Water from the Disi aquifer has been used for public consumption in Aqaba for about 20  years, but five or six major farmers in the South have consumed the majority of its water thus far, said Marwan Al-Raggad of the University of Jordan Water Research Center.

A recent U.S. AID study estimated that agriculture accounts for about 3 percent to 5 percent of Jordan’s total GDP, but farmers in the country are using a disproportional amount of the available water.

“In general about 65 percent of the total groundwater resource is consumed by agriculture, and it is producing very few amount of the total income in Jordan,” Al-Raggad said.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that farmers are planting mostly crops that require excessive amounts of water. Watermelon and tomato, two of the most commonly grown crops in the country, are composed of 97 and 85 percent water, respectively.

“Some farmers irrigate five or six times more than what the plant needs, its real water requirement,” Al Tabini said.

Efforts to set quotas on the amount of water used by farmers have largely failed. While there are bylaws stating that any use beyond 150,000 cubic meters of water per year can only be pumped for a fee, enforcement of the quota remains to be seen.

“As far as I know, they don’t have any farmers yet paying,” Al Tabini said.

Furthermore, a newly formed economic relationship with Saudi Arabia has actually caused farmers to pump more groundwater than they would have in past seasons. After 10 years of strained relationships with the Saudi government over concerns of the quality of the water used for irrigation, farmers have been turning up to four times as much profit as they had in previous seasons by exporting crops to the neighboring country.

“When we opened the exporting gate, we had huge water consumption,” said Al-Raggad, who recently worked for the Ministry of Water and Irrigation.

But while farmers in the Wadi Rum and Disi region use about 60 million cubic meters of water per year, the nearby popular tourist city of Aqaba has been forced to adapt to a quota of only 15 million cubic meters. Aiman Soleiman, manager of Aqaba International Laboratories, said his company has helped the city find a variety of ways to adapt to the limitations, including desalinating water from the Red Sea.

“We fully understand the amount allocated to us on a yearly basis,” he said. “Every drip of water is being utilized, and we make sure that the wastewater is being pumped back to the station for treatment.”

Efforts such as desalination may work in Aqaba, but changes in farming practices in the region are harder to enact. Al Tabini said while the economic statistics downplay the importance of agriculture for Jordan, the country’s placement in the Middle East and the number of rural families that depend on farming for income dictate that the problem has to be dealt with sensitively.

“If we want to just import our food from Syria, for example, and they get mad at us and close their borders, we would die from hunger,” he said. “We have more than 40,000 families whose direct income comes from agriculture … what are they going to do if they don’t have agriculture? Go to the government to ask for funds?”

While there are no easy solutions to the problem, Al-Raggad said enforcement of a stricter quota and a push for farmers to plant more efficient crops in smaller spaces will help save the most water in the long term.

“We are going toward a good water management of the agricultural activity, but in very slow steps,” he said. “When [farmers] see there is a change in water consumption and no change in the benefit, then they will change their behaviors.”

For the time being, though, the people of Amman will have to make do with the water they have, Al Tabini said. Even when the pipeline is finished, it is unlikely they will be allocated more than the 180 cubic meters a week they currently receive.

“If we talk about water consumption in Amman, there is no way that they can save water because they already receive so little,” he said.

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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One Response to Water-starved Amman awaits a solution in an expensive cross-country aquifer

  1. Pingback: 4 critical corners, 1 Red dream « Anthony Savvides' blog

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