A microcosm of global water issues

Yesterday I joined a group of water experts from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen for a field study to Rsaifeh, an impoverished industrial and residential area sandwiched between two major Jordanian cities, Amman and Zarqa.

Farmer Abu Khaled and friends, with their plot of land behind and urbanisation crawling down on their land.

Many decades ago, the area around the Zarqa River prospered. It is now dried up to become a seasonal torrent, totally desiccated at the time of our visit. The reasons behind are extremely rapid and disorganised urbanisation, industrial expansion and the fact that a major share of the river water was pumped to serve the big cities which, in turn, poured waste water into its torrent. Then, a treatment station was built to treat the waste water downstream past Rsaifeh. The residents of Rsaifeh have now learned to live with the fact that the big cities took their clean water and gave them contaminated waste water instead – without any compensation.

On the “bank” of the torrent, we met a farmer who grows different vegetables with the help of Jordan’s only yeast factory. He irrigates his crops using the factory’s waste water, which is “bio-degradable”, he explains: an impressive use of terminology from a farmer who never finished his school education.

The factory owner thinks this all is a good deal. He provides waste water from the yeast production to the farmer for free, instead of having to transfer it to a waste water treatment plant and pay a large fee to have it filtered for reuse. As the crops grow with success using this “free” water, both farmer and factory owner are satisfied with the method. But, neither the municipality nor the agriculture ministry seem to agree.

The Rsaifeh municipality had previously banned the factory’s practice of pouring its waste water into the Zarqa torrent stream, deeming the water quality unhealthy. The agriculture ministry would often come and plough the crops away because they considered them harmful to the public. Still, they never tested the biodegradability of a waste water sample for agricultural production.

Another problem is urban expansion. The ministry of municipalities has finally agreed, after much lobbying from farmers, environmental activists and a local women’s cooperative, to stop allocating this farmland to low-cost residential construction. But urbanisation is still closing in on the few green plots that are left and air, land and water pollution is rapidly increasing. This places the quality of the agricultural products into question, regardless of the quality of water used for irrigation.

Climate change has also increased dryness in this area, which shows. It is easy to see the poverty, and the underdevelopment in Zarqa as compared to Amman. In short, this little farm plot represents everything that the world water community agenda is all about.

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