Bone dry

BAYOUDEH, Jordan — Walking the streets of Amman, it’s difficult to tell that the nation is facing one of the most pressing water shortages in the world.

People leave hoses running on the ground as they scrub their cars, shopkeepers spray down their storefronts every morning, and water pipes on many buildings drip constantly. Yet Jordan is the fourth most water-poor nation on earth, and its water resources are shrinking.

As the desert kingdom celebrated Water Day this week, many people are looking at what can be done in Jordan to avert a major crisis in the coming years. The problem has grown in lockstep with Jordan’s rapidly increasing population and now many Jordanians may be forced to embrace conservation practices if the nation is to survive.

“There is a big need for quite an important mind shift at all levels — government, institutions, private sector, public. It is not just doing things different. It will require changes in all the systems,” said Peter Laban, regional program coordinator for west Asia at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “There is a major need to conserve water and to make water consumption more effective.”

Although Jordan is 92 percent desert, the water problem is a relatively recent one. In 1946, Jordanians had access to 3,600 cubic meters of water per capita each year. Today that volume has dropped to 140 cubic meters per capita. Globally, the average person uses 650 cubic meters of water.

Despite a growing population, Jordan may have been able to meet its water demands had it not been for the influx of refugees that began streaming in after 1948 at the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since then the nation, has seen an almost steady flow of refugees from around the Middle East. Most recently, up to 700,000 Iraqi refugees have flooded into Jordan since 2003.

Each wave of refugees places greater strain on the counties limited water resources.

“The problem in Jordan is the unnatural growth, the immigration,” said Adnan Al-Zoubi, spokesman for the Ministry of Water and Irrigation. “We’re working very hard to raise the efficiency of the use of each drop of water.”

Now water conservation is part of the school curriculum. To reach adults, Al-Zoubi’s ministry has crafted a program that shows large water users how much money they could save on water bills if they used simple conservation methods.

While Zoubi said it was difficult to monitor the impact of such programs, he contended that since their implementation, the growth of water demand has contracted slightly.

Jordan’s agricultural sector strains conservation. Farming makes up less than 4 percent of the gross domestic product and the country is heavily dependent on food imports, but the agriculture industry consumes between 60 percent to 70 percent of the nation’s water.

Still, it’s unlikely that Jordanians will turn away from farming anytime soon. So the government and environmental organizations have begun encouraging farmers to move away from water-intensive crops like bananas and cultivate plants better suited to the dry climate.

Meanwhile, others have taken a more aggressive approach. In Bayoudeh, a village about 15 miles north of Amman, locals have begun using permaculture farming practices and recycling gray water — waste water from showers, sinks, etc. — to irrigate their fields. Reusing gray water alone recycles 90 percent of household water. Additionally, most houses have large cisterns to collect rainwater.

Khadeeja Yacoub, a farmer in Bayoudeh, converted to permaculture practices last year and says the change saves her about 100 cubic meters of water and $150 every year, after a one-time conversion fee of $300. While the savings are not huge, she will at least have enough to start growing mushrooms for personal consumption.

“I’m happy I did this,” Yacoub said. “It doesn’t cost that much money but it improves my quality of life.”

Sameeh Al-Nuimat, a native of Bayoudeh who has worked with Care International to spread conservation practices, said it was becoming easier to convert people to more sustainable practices.

“If you compare Jordan 10 years ago to now, everyone knows what to do to save water,” he said.

In Amman, residents are also paying greater attention to water issues as they build new homes and landscape their properties, said Lara Zureikat, associate director of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment.

“A lot has been done, but it needs to keep on going,” Zureikat said. Creating greater awareness about how to better use resources will not “happen over night," she added.

"It’s going to take more efforts of the same kind of public outreach and education,” she said.

Until that awareness takes root, several major projects are underway to meet Jordan’s growing water demands. One of the most promising but controversial projects is the creation of a canal that will bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The canal would help ensure that the Dead Sea water level no longer falls; a desalination plant would process water from the Red Sea and send it to Jordan.

The project has raised a variety of political, economic, and environmental concerns.

“It’s not that easy to find solutions,” Laban said. “It’s not just a technical question of you have so much water and you need so much water, and you can bring those two things together. It’s also influenced by politics, policies, and interest groups which makes things more complex.”

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