How the Cradle of Civilization Became Infertile
Jordan's Current Water Crisis
Adele Dalla Pozza
+October 15, 2019
The most pedantic voices we hear when mentioning Middle East are political instability, terrorism, extremism in religion, oppression of women, war from which dangerous refugees flee to reach northern countries and exotic bedouins riding camels in the desert. Unfortunately, fewer people today seem to be talking about those extreme arid areas which are not originally known as deserts but are taking over the region at a scary pace, and Jordan is currently one of the most affected countries of the entire region.
Interestingly, the Middle East was part of what was once called the "Fertile Crescent", a term coined by American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted in the first half of the twentieth century. It included countries that we now know as Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, northern Egypt, southern Iraq, some parts of Turkey and Iran. The reason behind the name stands in the region's relatively abundant access to water, being the Tigris and the Euphrates in contemporary Iraq, the Nile in Egypt and the Jordan in Jordan, the main rivers that regularly flooded the region and rendered the soil fertile. Agriculture and farming were the main sources of livelihood, wildlife was abundant. Because of these lands' fecund states, from around 3200 B.C. the Fertile Crescent (especially in Mesopotamia, now part of Iraq) made it possible for Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians to take root and develop the first organized cities. Ancient Egyptian civilizations also arose around 3150 BC thanks to the presence of the Nile. The profuse water availability, then, played a crucial role in the development of the first cities and societies in the Middle East and that is why those lands are now referred to both as the Fertile Crescent and the "Cradle of Civilizations".
Together with the Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile, another water supplier of the Fertile Crescent was the Jordan river: a 251-kilometre-long watercourse flowing north to south through the Sea of Galilee, along the border between southwestern Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and merging into the Dead Sea. Mentioned in different stories of the Old Testament and known to be Jesus of Nazareth's baptism site, the Jordan river used to be a meeting point between animals, plants and human groups: a natural border crossing countries which could benefit from the proximity of its waters. Unfortunately, it is currently nothing more than a weak stream and its shrinking is considered to be one of the most relevant causes of the country's water scarcity.
Its course started to drastically change from the 1960s when pumps and pipes were built in Jordan to divert its water into urban agglomerates like the capital Amman, which started to be an attraction pole for people in search of employment. Nearby countries such as Israel and Syria also made (and still make) a great use of the Jordan river's water to cope with industrialization. Moreover, the water demand increased as a result of population growth. Jordan started to receive refugees since the so-called 1947- 1948 Civil War between Palestinian Jews and Arabs after the end of the British mandate where Palestine had to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews. Jordan welcomed refugees from Iraq after the start of the Gulf War in 1990 and hosted another influx after the 2003 invasion of Iraq from the US armies. Around seven years ago, again, Jordan began to receive Syrians fleeing from Assad's regime and in 2015, when the "Yemeni civil war" broke out, many civilians found shelter in Jordan. Following the UNCHR, in 2018 the country hosted 745,865 refugees, with 82% living outside of camps and among which 660 thousand are Syrian, 66 thousand Iraqi, over 10 thousand Yemeni, 4 thousand Sudanese and a bit less than a thousand Somali. With an overall population of 10 thousand people, Jordan hosts 2 million and 7 hundred refugees. When considering Jordan's current water situation we then need to think of its absorbing role of nearby countries' turmoil that has been on for the past eighty years: population grew on a very fast pace and increased water demand to the already country's scarce capacity.
The government has been trying to deal with the problem since the 1940s (when the first big influx of Palestinians reached the country) by mainly implementing pipelines pumping water from rivers, man-made dams, basins, aquifers, and by redirecting it to urban agglomerates. We should however question the benefits that these water management infrustructures give to the problem if we consider that around 46% of Jordan's already scarce level of water is lost in network leakages. Also the main water suppliers of the country, namely the Jordan and the Yarmouk rivers, are drying out due to very scarce rainfall, which is in turn caused by ever-growing greenhouse gas emissions. Only nine countries in the world receive less annual precipitation than Jordan and, on top of this, 93.9% of the total amount of water is lost in evaporation. It seems that the government copes with the problem from the surface: to keep fixing old and leaking pipelines does not increase water's presence in the area if not in this specific moment. Once the natural streams will be entirely dried out, those pipelines will not serve their purpose and leaks will not be a problem any longer.
As such, while not denying the help of governmental incentives in the present time, we need to find more efficient, but mostly more sustainable solutions to the problem that work in the long run. A starting point towards this goal is the inclusion of the citizens who, first of all, need to become more aware of the current state of water in the country. A consciousness towards the problem is of a paramount importance in a country which has recently reached the second place in water scarcity worldwide and where domestic use of water covers over 30% of the total amount. People abuse its usage in everyday life, be it through excessive car washing, personal hygienic purposes or water being spilled on the ground after one usage. The further step is an active engagement that shows people how they can face water scarcity through small daily gestures in life. For example, collecting and saving rainwater from roofs instead of abusing fresh water for gardening, reusing grey-water for everyday life purposes like car washing or toilet flushing, connecting the grey-water from the faucet to the toilet flushing system, and many others. This is extremely important as it will help people engaging with a not so known matter or one that is thought of being out of their reach.
An everyday life engagement should be paired with a durable solution towards a "call" for new water, which differs from the process of collecting existing water from natural or man-made resources that are already scarce. To get more water we need to help rainfall forming and one of the most efficient ways for this to happen is reforestation. Jordan has historically gone through a process of deforestation as a result of over exploitation of the land by the large amount of both nomadic and sedentary populations who, since ancient times, have been crossing or settling in the area for different time spans. Moreover, from 1908 to 1917 the Ottoman Turks directed tree-falling operations for their Hejaz Railway which was supposed to run from Damascus to Medina. Eventually it was never fully implemented because of the outbreak of World War I, but those forests were already disappearing. Other causes which led Jordan's forests to cover only 1% of all the country are invasive and damaging usages of soil such as illegal logging and over grazing. Restocking trees could help make up for the water scarcity as their leaves keep water in the soil (this could for instance work against the 93.9% of rainfall evaporation we mentioned earlier) and eventually release it into the atmosphere causing rain precipitation elsewhere. Moreover, trees store carbon and can thus alleviate the impact of climate change. Reforestation could then be one of the measures taken by the government as well as from society at large: a tree can simply come to life from the stone fruits we normally throw away.
A further example of increasing sensitivity towards water scarcity is art. Inspired by questions related to roots, identity, water scarcity, environmental degradation and man’s maternal relation to land, Jordanian documentary photographer Nadia Bseiso (@nadiabseiso) describes the reality of what was once called the Fertile Crescent, which "was the keyword, that became the catalyst for me to start exploring man and land's complex relation", she explains. The artist starts from the consideration of the once fertile Jordan, explains the geopolitical changes the country faced since the beginning of the 19th century, (the Ottoman Empire, the British-French colonialism, the refugees influx, etc.), and finally connects it all to the current situation of the country. Of relevant importance in our case is chapter two as it traces the Jordanian Northern border with Syria and Palestine.
I want people to see the lack of water resources as an indicator, and recognize the border villages as witnesses, to what the region once was, is now, and might be in the future. Ancient civilisations paid their respect, and created lasting rituals that gave them good fortune in return.
Nowadays, the situation is different. We do not consider nature, water in this case, as something we are part of (and made by), but as an external problem that can only be solved on big scales by our governments. As photographer Nadia Bseiso asserts, we kept and still keep distancing ourselves from the natural world breaking that sacred bond with Mother Nature and now "we are suffering the consequences of our own misconduct".
The invitation is then to position ourselves inside the problem, we are part of it, we caused it. It is our task to switch our everyday life behavior towards a sustainable usage of water while simultaneously finding ways of reconnecting with that man-nature bond we broke, such as planting trees, growing a garden, which will make up for that tie we eroded and, eventually, will supply us with water in return.