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Taking steps to secure the aquifers: the threat of radio activity in the waters of the region's aquifers is being re-examined and measures taken to make safe the Middle East's precious resource.

A $1.2BN HYDRAULIC ENGINEERING PROJECT scheduled for completion in 2013 will supply the Jordanian capital of Amman with 100 million cubic meters of drinking water a year from the al-Disi sandstone aquifer 325km away, in addition to the 60m cubic meters of water already drawn annually from that source.

The extra supplies are to end persistent shortages that have provoked recurring and intensifying public protests initially limited to the burning of tires and the blockage of road traffic. But fresh scientific studies have just authoritatively confirmed earlier warnings that the high natural radiation contamination levels of the ancient water deposits held by the aquifer pose a significant mass cancer risk.

Scientists caution that the water riches of most of the aquifers of the Middle East and North Africa are similarly affected. The race is on for a novel approach to averting a colossal consequent public health emergency. Jordan is considering the dilution of the water to reduce contamination.

The cancer threat posed by the aquifers is a staggering blow to the long-term economic and social prospects of the Middle East whose rapidly growing populations comprise 5% of humanity while holding only 0.9% of the global resources of potable water. Jordan that shares the Disi aquifer with Saudi Arabia is covered mostly by desert with only 5% if its territory capable of supporting agricultural production.

Many of Jordan's thirsty rural settlements receive water at best only once a week. Their pumps and water infrastructure often must be protected from thieves by armed guards. And the dismal per capita water availability to this parched land has just plummeted with the influx of well over 200,000 refugees sheltering there from the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.

The prospect of plentiful water supplies for the 2m population of Amman from the country's biggest, Disi infrastructure project may have saved the throne of King Abdullah II of Jordan from the wrath of the "Arab Spring" movement that had toppled rulers in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia.

Water riots eventually expressing a wide range of related grievances, including the withdrawal of fuel subsidies, spread to many parts of the country. Calm has returned only after the January parliamentary elections boycotted by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood/ Islamic Action Front.

Serious warnings about the quality of the Disi water first surfaced in 2009 following tests conducted by an international research team sponsored by Duke University of Durham, North Carolina, led by the renowned geochemist Avner Vengosh. Their findings reported in Environmental Science & Technology, an authoritative specialist journal, confirmed widespread radioactive contamination of the 30,000-year old waters of the aquifer quantified at 30 times above the safety level set by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).

Their report was summarily rejected then by conspiracy theorists dismissing its contents as unfounded, malicious rumours spread by American/Israeli agents.

But the French state geological survey BRGM has independently confirmed similar readings in the Saudi side of the aquifer, calling for urgent further attention. And calculations just published by the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection put the increased cancer death rate in the city of Amman likely to be caused by the presence of naturally occurring radium in the water at 8,000 a year--in addition to further fatalities from the effect of consuming agricultural produce watered from the same source. Hence the urgent search for a solution to make the water safe.

The Disi construction is being carried out by a joint venture involving many interests led by the Kingdom of Jordan, Gama Enerji of Turkey and General Electric of the US. It has been financed by a mixture of private and public funding raised mostly in the same three countries and by the European Investment Bank. Much of the investment is conditional to the demonstrable maintenance of high public health and environment protection standards.

There are several hopeful approaches to reducing the carcinogenic properties of the fossil water, some of them successfully put to a test by Saudi Arabia.

These include the reverse osmosis filtering process already employed in the desalination of seawater, and the use of chemical absorbents for the removal of radioactive particles, write scientists Mohammed Al-Saud of the Riyadh Ministry of Water & Electricity, Christoph Schuth of the German Technical University of Darmstadt and colleagues in a groundbreaking recent discussion paper.

Their study--"Investigation and Treatment of Natural Radioactivity in Large-Scale Sandstone Aquifer Systems" published by the International Journal of Water Resources and Arid Environments--should be required reading for public health officials throughout the region. The health effects of the water has been also the subject of valuable recent research at King Saud University described by the scientific journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry.

Many poorer countries, including Jordan lack any water treatment technology. The Amman Ministry of Water & Irrigation has in any case cast doubt over the high initial radiation readings recorded at the Disi wells. And it has expressed interest in diluting the water pumped from the aquifer with uncontaminated water supplies drawn from alternative sources in order to obtain safety levels meeting the WHO's requirements.

To achieve that, Jordan would need to find an additional supply of 1bn cubic metres of uncontaminated water annually, according to estimates published by the German Federal Institute for Geosciences & Natural Resources.

Saudi Arabia is keenly concerned with these developments because some 90% of the aquifer it shares with Jordan, which it calls Saq, lies beneath its own territory, used for supplying perhaps half its water consumption. Mostly untreated radioactive water drawn from similar sandstone aquifers are also being used in Egypt, Libya, Israel and elsewhere.

The untreated, pristine carcinogenic waters of the aquifers may still be preferable to no water from such a source, observes Clemens Walther of Germany's Institute for Radioecology and Radiation Protection at Hanover University. For the disease-infested, filthy water that poor people across the region would be forced to drink in the absence of supplies from the deep rockbed, he explains, would claim still more lives than the radionuclides lurking in the aquifers.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs/JORDAN
Comment:Taking steps to secure the aquifers: the threat of radio activity in the waters of the region's aquifers is being re-examined and measures taken to make safe the Middle East's precious resource.(Current Affairs/JORDAN)
Author:Land, Thomas
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7JORD
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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