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Jordan: another dry summer.

Jordan's endemic water problems will not go away. As the country searches frantically for alternative sources and better ways to ration consumption, Amman is braced for another summer of water cuts.

Water is Jordan's national obsession. Squeezed between a barren desert to the east and water-hungry Israel to the west, Jordan is never far from a water crisis. The situation is further complicated by one of the highest annual rates of population growth in the world (3.8% according to the latest official estimates) and steadily increasing demand for water from industry and agriculture.

A crisis mentality permeates the country, from the farmer's fields to the offices of cabinet ministers. As Jordan's minister of agriculture, Fayez Khasawmeh, told The Middle East: "When seasonal rainfall is low there is general distress that befalls farmers, in fact everyone in the country."

For the moment Jordan's water situation can be described as "critical but stable". Last year's rains were below average, but still within the norm, and this year's rainfall has been about average. An official in the Ministry of Water announced in April that water cuts, common in previous years, would also be implemented this summer. The official, Mutaz Bilbeisi, secretary-general of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, noted that the return of more than 300,000 people after the Gulf War has put the country's already strained water resources under even greater pressure. According to figures from the ministry, Jordan annually consumes around 838m cubic metres of water, but another 320m cubic metres are needed to meet domestic, agricultural and industrial demand.

Experts in Amman are alarmed at the long-term prospects. According to a Jordanian water expert, Theib Oweis: "In 2025 there will still be enough water for agricultural and municipal use, but after that it may be a problem." The Washington-based World Resources Institute reports that Jordan's per capita annual internal renewable water resources are a mere 160 cubic metres, compared to 370 cubic metres for Israel, 610 cubic metres for Syria, and 2,110 cubic metres per person in Britain.

A particularly grim report from government notes that "in 1990, Jordan could count on 720m cubic metres of secure water sources that were replenished naturally from rainfall and subsurface springs. But the country was pumping 882m cubic metres of water a year - or over 160m cubic metres more than the safe extraction level - to meet demand estimated at 955m cubic metres. If this pace continues, a water catastrophe is imminent."

With such dire forecasts going about, there is a race on to see where water consumption can be reduced. Agriculture is the largest single consumer of water, accounting for around 70% of the total. Despite this, the agricultural sector accounts for less than 10% of Jordan's gross domestic product. Equally significant, only around 10% of the country's work forces is involved in agriculture.

Abdul Rahman al Fataftah, director of the agriculture and water section at the Higher Council for Science and Technology, warns that with rising demand from industry and for domestic use, some hard decisions will have to be made: "If we continue like this in agriculture with the same amount of water, the area currently devoted to agriculture will have to be reduced."

In the near future the government is likely to raise the price of water in an attempt to reduce consumption. A senior official in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation told The Middle East that price increases are currently under consideration, but added that "no final decisions have been taken yet."

In many parts of the country water consumption for agriculture is indeed excessive. "Aquifers are declining very fast," says Oweis. "Regulations have been imposed on pumping to reach a balance between discharge and recharge." But regulations came too late in parts of the country. In the Shawbak area, north of the ancient city of Petra, "the water table is dropping at three to four metres per year, and up to 20 metres in some places."

No discussion about water in Jordan is complete without reference to the issue of water rights. Officials in Amman claim that Israel is drawing far more than its fair share of the Jordan River's waters, and are anxious that a water sharing agreement be included in any overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

As the agriculture minister says, "we have water rights that have been confiscated by our neighbour, Israel. The current |Middle East peace~ talks are addressing this issue. We hope to regain our rights to those waters, which would supplement our resources." And it is not only the above ground sources that Jordan is being denied. According to the dean of the agriculture faculty at the University of Jordan, "the aquifers in the Jordan Valley are shared with Israel. We have not been getting our fair share. If there is peace, we should get our fair share."

Several years ago Syria and Jordan agreed to build the "Unity" dam, on the Yarmouk River (which originates in Syria, flows into Jordan and then feeds into the Jordan River) on the border between the two countries. Israel objected to the project, claiming that the dam would threaten its water supply. Foreign funding agencies shied away from the project after Israel voiced its objections. Hardly before the project had gone beyond the initial phases when construction was halted from fear of an Israeli attack. On several occasions Jordan has accused Syria of over-pumping from the Yarmouk.

Jordanians are also unhappy with the Israeli practice of "cloud seeding", whereby Israeli aircraft drop silver iodine on clouds blowing in from the Mediterranean in the hopes that rain will fall. Amman has long claimed that this practice deprives their country of rain which might otherwise have fallen in Jordan.

Pollution is another problem threatening Jordan's limited water supply. The King Talal Dam, north of Amman, is the capital's principal water source. In recent years alarmingly high levels of industrial pollutants have been found there. Naim Sharaf of the National Centre for Agriculture Research and Technology Transfer notes that much of the water from the King Talal Dam "has been polluted with industrial wastes. Pollution from sewer and industrial by-products have entered the system. More than 50 factories empty their wastes into the wadis leading to the dam. The water is now being monitored for level of pesticides, fertilisers, and PH."

Necessity is the mother of invention, and more than most countries Jordan is trying to engineer new ways to increase its water supply and make better use of the water available. These include recycling of water for agricultural and industrial use, more efficient methods of irrigation and an innovative technique called "water harvesting".

About 30kms southeast of Amman, the University of Jordan has been conducting a research project which has caught the imagination of many. The project, funded by the European Economic Community, covers a 200-hectare site with three reservoirs catching run-off water in the wadis. While annual rainfall in the area is low - about 150mms per year - the water collected in the reservoirs is enough to irrigate cereals, fruit trees and forage crops.

The three reservoirs, with a total capacity of around 85,000 cubic metres, were formed behind small dams. These dams were designed with local materials and resources in mind. According to Oweis, who worked on the project, a 30,000 cubic metre dam costs between JD1,500 and JD2,000 ($2,160-$2,880), a reasonable sum is pooled by a group of farmers and possibly with some government help.

Very little rain is needed to fill the dams up, according to Jordan University's Esmat Karadsheh who has been working on the Muwaqar project. Karadsheh says that fruit and olive trees are the most appropriate form of agriculture in the area.

The Muwaqar project uses the water harvesting concept on a small as well as a large scale. In one experiment, plots ranging between 25 and 75 square metres are either covered with plastic sheeting or the soil is compacted and molded at an angle toward a fruit tree in an uncovered corner. When rain falls, the water that would fall on these relatively larger plots is channelled into smaller areas around fruit or olive trees. Another experiment involves cultivating fruit trees in simple trenches designed to catch runoff.

Oweis notes that the quality of the water at Muwaqar is surprisingly good, with an electrical conductivity (a measure of total salts in the water) level of 0.3. This compares favourably with the drinking water in Amman, which is between 0.5 and 0.6. The only drawback is the high level of sediment in the runoff water, which is always muddy. The sediment can clog sprinklers and drip irrigation systems, but efficient filters can alleviate this problem.

The beauty of water harvesting is its simplicity. As Oweis says, "on land receiving 150mms of rainfall, hardly any crop can be produced. But if half the land is used to water the other half, then you double the water in one half to 30mms - enough for barley or maybe wheat. If you take water from two-thirds of the land and use it for the other third you can get 450mms." The range of water harvesting systems available promises to significantly increase agricultural productivity in many areas.

"Without water harvesting, no benefit is received from these rains. But if you develop only one-fourth of these lands, you have the potential of changing the face of agriculture in the region."

Back in Amman, water tankers roam the streets of the city. Many of these trucks are owned by private businessmen who make a handsome living delivering drinking water to those who can afford it. If solutions are not found soon to the country's intractable water problems, they stand to profit. The question on many people's mind is whether Jordan can pay the price.
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Title Annotation:Business & Finance; Jordan's endemic water problems
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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