Returning the rain to Jordan

Returning the rain to Jordan
Feature: An alliance of water management experts and environmental activists are looking to bring life back to the deserts of Jordan.
6 min read
26 April, 2015
Bernd Mueller is planning to make Jordan's degraded, erosion-prone soil bloom with vegetation [Alice Gray/al-Araby]
"The most severe problem we face in Jordan is water scarcity," says Mohammed Ayesh of the country's Royal Botanic Gardens.

"Most of our other problems stem from that - like food security, economic hardship, or the loss of biodiversity."

Jordan is among the world's three most water scarce nations, according to a recent UN report, and is situated in one of the most arid regions of the Middle East - with a population expected to double by 2050.  

In addition, Jordan has assimilated many refugees from modern Middle Eastern conflicts, most recently taking in more than 628,000 Syrians.

The FAO and the World Water Council warned, in a paper published earlier this month, that water scarcity will affect two thirds of the global population by 2050, due to population growth, increasing demand, weak governance and global climate change.  

In Jordan, the pressure is particularly severe, due to its already limited resources and its rapidly expanding population.

Currently, Jordan meets its water demand by pumping groundwater from non-renewable fossil aquifers which are expected to run dry in the next few decades.

Plans exist to augment water availability by building a desalination plant on the Red Sea north of Aqaba, or to build a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea and use hydro-electric power to desalinate sea-water - both of which are controversial projects, which critics argue will cause worse environmental problems than they solve.

But ecological experts argue that there is a simple, low cost alternative that deals with the root causes of declining water reserves, as well as yielding numerous other environmental benefits.

Planting the rain

"Rain does not only fall from the sky, it also falls up from below," wrote Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese pioneer of natural farming techniques who has inspired a generation of practitioners since his 1992 book Sowing Seeds in the Desert.

The key to solving water scarcity apparently lies in the re-vegetation of degraded landscapes. 

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it seems that by encouraging the establishment of more trees and shrubs on the surface of the land, more water can be made to infiltrate into underground reserves, and furthermore, rainfall can be increased - as plants transpire water and form new clouds.

Jordan's declining rainfall - which has been falling by 0.7-1.8mm per year for the past 70 years according to the UN - is not only due to shifting global climate patterns, but to the destruction of its forests throughout the 20th century. Trees were felled here in their thousands to construct the famous Hejaz Railway - as well as for firewood, construction and to make way for agricultural production.

"The Jordan Valley used to be a forest of Zisyphus trees," Mohamed Ayesh told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"But when the King Abdullah Dam was built on the Yarmouk river and water became easily available, they were all cut down. That was when intensive, industrial agriculture started."  

Today, Jordan has approximately 80,000 hectares of land under irrigation (of a total cultivated area of 400,000 hectares) and agriculture accounts for around 75 percent of water withdrawals. 

However, the decline of many of the aquifers due to over-pumping is leading to increased levels of salinity in both water and soil, and many areas are going out of production as the resources become unusable.

In addition, agrochemicals - which are very widely used - are infiltrating the groundwater, degrading the soil and undermining biodiversity.

Based on these current trends of environmental degradation, the outlook is grim for this desert state, unless some radical change takes place.

Changing the outcome

John Liu is a film-maker and ecological restoration expert, and a fellow of several prominent universities and research institutions, including Rothamstead Research, George Mason University and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In 1995, he was involved in filming a Chinese government project to transform the Loess plateau in central China from a barren wasteland into a productive landscape - and was awakened to the possibilities of humans restoring landscapes rather than destroying them, while still drawing their livelihoods from the land.  

It was then that he became an advocate and practitioner of broad-scale ecological restoration.

Now he is working with an international coalition of activists, scientists and sustainable farming practitioners to engage Jordanian communities in the restoration of the landscapes that sustain them: an ecological restoration alliance.

"People obsess about the productivity of land, but what they don't realise is that if you restore ecological function, you will have productivity," he said earlier this month, at the inaugural meeting for the enterprise in Bayoudha village, near Amman.

"We need to realise that we have the ability and it is time we act... either you stay complicit or you get involved."

Zero run-off landscapes

Bernd Mueller is director of ecology at Tamera Peace Research Village in Portugal. Since 2007, he has worked to create a "water retaining landscape" at the village in cooperation with ecological visionary Sepp Holzer, transforming the arid and degrading landscape of the Portuguese mountains into a verdant and productive one, using only the scant rainfall available.

In April, he visited Jordan's highlands with Robert Senftleben - one of the coordinators of the Ecological Restoration Alliance, to give input on potential techniques.

"There is so much water falling on this landscape - you can see it clearly from the erosion gulleys," he said, looking out across the sparsely vegetated hills. 

"Until you have infiltrated all the run-off, you cannot complain about rainfall being too low.

"These soils were obviously formed under forests - but now all the trees have been cut down, and you can see how the water is carrying away all the soil in floods."

Mueller advocates using simple, low-cost landscaping techniques to spread the water out along the contours of the land, preventing gullying and soil erosion, and instead encouraging the water to permeate the ground to support the regrowth of vegetation, the building of new soil and the recharge of the groundwater aquifer. 

The rise of the Rhizo-camp

"We want to establish a mobile research, training and innovation centre for ecological restoration," says Robert Senftleben, project coordinator. 

"We call it the Rhizo-camp, because we hope that it will be like plant rhizomes that spread underground and cause new growth to pop up away from the parent plant."

The group is currently in talks with Princess Basma Bint Talal, who has supported many green initiatives in Jordan, and hopes to implement their first project on land belonging to her, which is currently grazed and cultivated by Bedouin herders.

"The support and participation of local communities is essential to the success of the project," adds Senftleben.

Mohamed Ayesh, who directs a permaculture research station at the Royal Botanic Gardens, agrees.

"We have to unite environmental protection with rural livelihoods or we have failed completely - there will be conflict over resources, and in any case there will be no knowledge transfer, and no real benefits," he said.

John Liu notes the importance of protexting the source of the resource.

"The truth is that the products and services we derive from functional ecosystems are derivatives," he said.

"It is impossible for the derivatives to be more valuable than the source. We need to work together in mutual trust to realise a peaceful and abundant future."