Story and photo by Anthony Savvides
AMMAN, Jordan – A 200-mile pipeline designed to bring water to the drought-ridden capital is finally making its way into Amman after almost three years of construction and millions of dollars invested in the project. If everything goes as planned, 2.5 million residents here will have access to continuously flowing water one year from now, in May 2013.
The Disi Water Conveyance Project, funded by the government and a number of outside sources including private investment firms, is 75 percent complete. When it’s done, residents of Amman will finally be able to use water without fear of depleting their weekly ration of 3 cubic meters, or about 750 gallons.
“I hope that the water will be an improved solution and the total capacity of the water will be increased,” said Bassam Saleh, the project’s director and an engineer at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, which is an official branch of the government. “It will be supplied to the people, and continuously supplied 24/7, not like this current situation of the ration of [water delivery] one day per week.”
Jordan, located in the heart of the Middle East and bordering Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, is the third-driest nation in the world. Its people have long suffered the realities of their geography. With almost no ground water reserves and more than 90 percent of the nation receiving fewer than 8 inches of annual precipitation, water is desperately scarce. In addition, neighboring Syria and Israel have built dams along the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, respectively, in their countries, which in effect choke these water sources that once flowed onto this country’s soil.
The aquifer is supposed to neutralize that, experts say. But some are skeptical that its promise will be fulfilled.
“It’s a temporary solution,” said Mohammad Hashem Stietiya, a professor of soil chemistry at the University of Jordan. “One main reason is that it’s not a replenishable source. [Jordan is] a country of absolute water shortage.”
The Disi Basin aquifer, most of which lies beneath the northwest quadrant of Saudi Arabia with about 25 percent beneath the southwest region of Jordan, is a ground water resource that’s 30,000 years old. Experts don’t know exactly how much water is there, but estimate that it will serve the people of Jordan for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.
It is, however, what’s known as a fossil aquifer, meaning there is no way to replenish it. Once the water is drained, it’s gone for good.
“The problem we must think about is sustainable use. Is there a sustainable plan, or will they just pump the water?” wondered Raed Al-Tabini, an Amman-based expert in semi-arid land management and community development and a frequent contributor to journal articles about scarce water resources in the Middle East.
Even if the aquifer doesn’t provide a permanent solution, it will help to prevent a near crisis situation here in the short term. The Arab Forum for Environment and Development – a non-governmental organization created to study environmental issues facing the region – released a report in October 2011 projecting that Jordan and the surrounding region will face a severe crisis by 2015 when water availability will be well below the global average based on population.
“After 20 to 30 years, the population here will double according to some studies. Needs for water will continue to rise,” said Saleh.
The only hope at that point is other, additional efforts such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project – a proposed waterway between the Red and Dead seas that would include desalination plants – and efforts to convert wastewater into a usable resource.
While the head of the project is proud of what he will have soon accomplished, many in Jordan hope that the plan will be properly implemented so that the few resources available are put to the best use. Farmers in the southern regions of Jordan, for example, are seen as one of the major stumbling blocks to sustainability.
“Agriculture consumes 70 percent of the renewable water resources in Jordan, and domestic resources use less than 20 percent, at a time when agriculture makes up 3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product,” said Stietiya, the professor in the Department of Agriculture at the University of Jordan. He made particular mention of certain crops such as tomatoes and watermelon that require excessive amounts of water to grow.
On the other hand, agriculture is a major staple in the economy, providing many rural families income. So, there has to be a compromise in place, he said.
“One possible solution is the use of unconventional resources, such as treated waste water,” Stietiya said.
Currently, there are 23 wastewater treatment plants in Jordan, some of which provide water flow into surrounding channels used for irrigation. But even that’s not enough to offset the amount of renewable water resources used up seasonally by farmers.
“This [Disi] project is only for drinking purposes,” said Saleh. “We will not pump any water for irrigation purposes. We will ask that people not use it without any conservation, not to use it wastefully and without monitoring.”
Eventually, as part of the aquifer plan, channels will be developed to supply water to other parched areas of the Hashemite Kingdom including Zarqa, a city east of Amman in central Jordan.
“The Disi project will solve the problem for Jordan up to 2022, and after that,” said Saleh, “we can begin a new project to solve the increased needs for water.”