Jordan grapples with water crisis

DEIR ALLA, Jordan (AFP) – Gasping for water and fearful that climate change will amplify its problems, Jordan is pinning its hopes for liquid salvation on a scheme with no parallel: hauling water from the Red Sea to replenish the Dead Sea.

The 3.5-billion-euro (4.5-billion-dollar) “Peace Canal” is the heart of the government’s vision of slaking thirst in a country that is mostly bone-dry desert and one of the 10 driest places in the world.

At present, the country’s main conduit is the 110-kilometre (68-mile) King Abdullah Canal, which brings “blue gold” down the valley of the River Jordan from a range of small rivers in the north of the country.

It irrigates around 8,000 farms and provides the capital, Amman, with its key supplies of water.

But five successive years of below-average rainfall have added significantly to the country’s water stress, fuelling fears that worse is to come when man-made climate change really bites.

In theory, 250 million cubic metres (8.8 billion cu. feet) of water are earmarked for irrigation from the canal, but this figure has been notional for several years.

“We are one of the poorest countries in the world in water resources. I am worried for the future that we will receive less quantity of water than we have now because of climate change,” said Shafig Habash, managing director of the King Abdullah Canal’s control centre in Deir Alla.

“The climate is really changing,” he told AFP. “We see it and we feel it. I remember, 15 to 20 years ago, the rain was more heavy and the temperatures were less.”

UN talks on addressing global warming run from December 1-12 in Poznan, Poland.

The negotiations are a stepping stone towards a new global pact in December 2009 for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for damaging Earth’s delicate climate system.

Scientists say drought is likely to accentuate in countries that are already badly water-stressed, especially the Middle East and the Mediterranean rim.

Jordan is placing its hopes on the Peace Canal, which would stabilise the Dead Sea — retreating at the rate of a metre (more than three feet) a year — by taking water from the Red Sea 180 kilometres away.

Although the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, is below the Red Sea, the pipeline would have to cross higher land in order to reach it, which entails a major pumping effort. En route, a desalination plant would remove the salt, providing 850 million cu. m. (29.75 billion cu. ft.) of potable water each year.

The World Bank is carrying out a feasibility study into the scheme. But even before it clears the technical hurdles and seeks to assemble a mountain of funds, the project faces enormous diplomatic problems.

It has to be approved by Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as Jordan, and thus becomes a card in the poker game of Middle East peace.

Environmentalists, too, have their doubts, fearing that an influx of seawater could have a bad impact on the Dead Sea’s strange yet fragile ecosystem.

Munqeth Mehyar, president of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), said a first, key task is to inform local people about water stress, warn them that it is likely to get worse as a result of climate change and advise them of how to curb wastage and grow different crops.

“When we talk about climate change, a single person in Jordan Valley would feel really helpless,” he said. “They would ask: ‘What can I do if the developed countries are really putting so much CO2 [carbon dioxide] into the atmosphere?’

“We are preparing them to look for crops that use a lot less water, methods for irrigation and methods for reusing the water. All that is in order to prepare them to use less and less water in the future.”

Khawla Dalki, a teacher of English at North Shuna, a village in the far north of the Jordan Valley close to the Syrian border, said awareness of Jordan’s water problems was making only painful progress.

“I started talking about it about four years ago, but it’s very slow in fact,” she said.

“If they get some information about how to deal with this problem, they could be a good example for their parents, their families or their neighbours.”

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