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Water from a desert well

Pipeline set to pump underground water from aquifers hundreds of kilometers to thirsty Amman

by Executive Staff

Jordan is to construct a $1 billion pipeline to transport drinking water from the Disi valley in southern Jordan to thirsty Amman in the north. Most experts welcome the project, yet wonder what will happen to agriculture in Disi, which has depleted its aquifer by almost one third. And, even if agriculture is halted, will there be enough water to make the costly pipeline worthwhile?

First initiated in the late 1990s, the Disi Water Conveyance Project (DWCP) aims to supply Amman with 110 million cubic meters (MCM) of water annually. The project was long regarded as too costly, yet the Jordanian government in 2007 contracted Turkish construction firm GAMA to implement it. Construction will commence in early July 2009 and is due to be completed by 2013.

“The project costs close to $1 billion,” said DWCP manager Othman al-Kurdi at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Amman. “It includes drilling some 55 additional wells in the Disi area and the construction of a 325 kilometer long pipeline to Amman, as well as two pumping stations and water reservoirs near Amman.”

The project is funded by low interest loans from Europe and the United States, and some $300 million from the Jordan treasury. Upon completion of the DWCP infrastructure, GAMA is entitled to exploit the system by collecting water tax revenues for some 21 years, after which the government will take over.

“I can say with a high level of confidence that Disi will supply us with 110 MCM of water annually for some 50 years,” said Al-Kurdi. “If all circumstances work in our favor, it may even supply us with water for an additional 10 to 15 years.”

Asked what will happen to the use of Disi water for agriculture, he replied sharply: “No politics. I told you before: no politics. All I can say is that our priority is drinking water.”

Disi’s aquifer

On the main road through Disi, the significance of water in the desert valley becomes clear.  While land on one side of the road is blessed with melons, grapes, olive trees and cypresses, the other side is a barren sandy plain that seems to have fallen straight off the moon.

The striking difference between the two sides of the road is due to irrigation. In the 1960s, a fresh water aquifer with a depth of up to 1,000 meters was found in Disi. The  mixed layer of sand and water measures some 360 square kilometers and stretches well into Saudi Arabia. Since the 1980s, both Jordan and its bigger neighbor have increasingly used the water for agriculture.

“I’ve been growing olives, grapes and potatoes for about 30 years,” said Abu Mohamed, a wrinkled 50-something-year-old with hands the size of spades. “Our products are first sent to Amman and then to markets in Jordan and abroad, mainly Europe and Iraq.”

Not all agriculture is in the hands of local Bedouins. All along the road, signs indicate the presence of the “Rum Agricultural Company.” According to Abu Mohamed, Rum and other firms are owned by people from Amman and Aqaba. “They mainly grow fruits like apples and apricots further inside the valley,” he said.

Deeper inside the valley one also finds the hilltop palace owned by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al Maktoum, and his wife Princess Haya of Jordan. To liven up the view from the palace, Maktoum created an artificial lake in the valley below, which every winter attracts flocks of migratory birds. The Dubai billionaire has left his mark on Disi in more than one way, as he revived the ancient tradition of camel racing. Every Friday, animals, jockeys and spectators gather on a dirt track outside Disi village.

Next to the race track, surrounded by a layer of red mud, one of the valley’s 55 wells is under repair.

“There is a lot of sand in the water, which harms the pumping installation,” one worker explained, adding that he had heard about the upcoming pipeline to Amman. “We’ve seen the pipes along the road, but so far we have not been told anything.”

One of some 55 water pumping stations scattered around the Disi valley

In 1946, every Jordanian had access to some 3,600 cubic meters of drinking water per year. Today that amount has dropped to 160

More people with less to drink

Water is a scarce commodity in Jordan and, consequently, a highly political one. Not only is Jordan one of the world’s poorest countries in terms of water resources, it also has one of the world’s highest population growth rates. What’s more, throughout its history, the kingdom has had to absorb wave after wave of refugees. While in 1946 every Jordanian had access to some 3,600 cubic meters of water per year, today the water per capita ratio has decreased to a meager 160 cubic meters per year.

Due to the presence of illegal wells, exact figures are hard to come by. It is estimated however, that current demand is some 1,350 MCM per year, while annual water supply amounts to but 1,000 MCM per year. An estimated half of Jordan’s supply stems from groundwater extraction, which takes place at twice the rate of what is regarded as ecologically sustainable. At least 65 percent of Jordan’s water goes to agriculture, while the remainder is used for drinking water, industry and tourism.

“Disi water is good quality water from a non-renewable source and therefore should be used as wisely as possible,” said Elias Salameh, professor of hydrogeology and hydrochemistry at the University of Jordan, who has long been a vocal critic of agricultural practices in Disi and welcomes the pipeline to Amman.

“The wisest way is to first use it as drinking water and then collect and treat the wastewater to reuse it for agriculture and industry. Of every 100 MCM some 80 MCM can be used again.”

A quarter century drained away

According to Salameh, the past 25 years have been extremely wasteful. The Disi aquifer contains an estimated 7 billion cubic meters (BCM), up to a third of which has so far been used for agriculture. The problem with growing crops in Disi, where summer temperatures may soar well above 40 degrees, is that the evaporation rate in southern Jordan is twice as high as in north Jordan. In addition, most agricultural products are exported, which means Jordan is virtually exporting water. 

Currently, some 80 MCM of Disi water a year is used for agriculture, while some 16 MCM is used as drinking water in the rapidly growing city of Aqaba. The government has pledged to get rid of agriculture in Disi, yet that may be easier said than done. Certainly the local Bedouins will not want to give up their new-found agricultural wealth, for Disi does not exactly offer a wide range of alternative sources of income.

According to Salameh however, most agricultural production in Disi is in the hands of four agricultural firms owned by a group of very influential Jordanians, among them one of the richest businessmen in the kingdom and a former prime minister.

“Their agricultural licenses have a validity of 25 years and are set to expire in 2010 or 2011,” Salameh said. “Let’s see if the government will keep its promise.”

If it can keep its promise, Salameh said, the Disi project will help to temporarily fill the gap between water demand and supply, and relieve the immense pressure on Jordan’s northern aquifers, which all suffer from over-extraction. However, seeing that Jordan’s current population of some 6 million is set to double by 2025, the Disi pipeline is no long-term solution.

According to Salameh, there is only one long-term solution for Jordan: the Red Dead Canal. “A desalination plant combined with a canal from the Red to the Dead Sea is the only way to save the Dead Sea, and provide Jordan with drinking water.”

Mainly due to the overexploitation of the Jordan River by both Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea evaporates quicker than it is replenished. As a consequence, the Dead Sea’s water line is receding by an average of one meter per year.

Although Salameh welcomes the construction of the pipeline, given that agriculture in the desert is halted, he still wonders if Jordan’s water and money could not have been spent in an even wiser way.

“I am no urban planner, but sometimes I ask myself: instead of bringing water to the people, why not bring the people to the water?” he said. “With the money spent on the pipeline, we could build a city and industrial zone near Disi and Aqaba, which would relieve the immense urban pressure on Amman.”

With Jordan’s population of 6 million set to double by 2025, the Disi pipeline is no long term solution

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