By Ahmad Khatib
Agence France Press

AMMAN: In its desperate efforts to battle chronic water shortages, Jordan, one of the world’s 10 driest countries, is now mulling “unconventional” and “environmentally unfriendly” plans, experts say.

The challenge is huge for this tiny country where desert covers 92 percent of the territory and the population of 6.3 million is growing.
Critics say the government’s efforts to manage the country’s limited water resources and generate new ones are being hindered by a strategy which at best is chaotic.

Jordan is tapping into the ancient southern Disi aquifer, despite concerns about high levels of radiation, while studies are underway to build a controversial canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

“Unconventional projects, like Disi for example, are environmentally unfriendly,” water expert Dureid Mahasneh, a former Jordan Valley Authority chief, said.

The $990 million project seeks to extract 100 million cubic meters of water a year from the 300,000-year-old Disi aquifer, 325 kilometers south of Amman, officials say.

The plan is to provide the capital Amman with water for 50 years, said Water Ministry official Bassam Saleh, who is in charge of the project that was launched in 2008 and is due to be completed in 2012.

A 2008 study by Duke University, in the United States, shows that Disi’s water has 20 times more radiation than is considered safe, with radium content that could trigger cancers.

“Our research shows that the Disi aquifer is heavily contaminated with radium,” according to the study done by the Durham, North Carolina team which tested 37 pumping wells in the aquifer.

Mahasneh said “Disi water should not be touched.”

“How can you go for a non-renewable water resource that is contaminated with radiation and needs treatment?”

But the government has brushed aside such concerns.

“We know there is radiation in Disi because it is underground water but we will treat it by diluting it with an equal amount of water from other sources,” said Saleh.

Jordan University professor Elias Salameh agreed. “The radioactivity can be treated, and it is not a complicated matter.”

Munqeth Mehyar, of the Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian nongovernmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), warned against abusing the water resource.

“If we overpump the Disi water, we will suffer from problems like sinkholes for example. And there are no studies that tell you for sure how long the aquifer water would last,” he said.

Jordan has also agreed in principle to build, along with its Palestinian and Israeli neighbors, a $4 billion pipeline from the Red Sea to refill the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

But the world’s lowest and saltiest body of water lies below the Red Sea and the pipeline must cross higher land in order to reach it – a project that will entail a major pumping effort.

A desalination plant would also be built to remove the salt and provide 200 million cubic meters of potable water to Jordan each year.

“This project is worrisome,” Mehyar warned, adding that “It will cause indescribable damage.”

A feasibility study is being carried out by the World Bank but environmentalists fear that an influx of seawater could undermine the Dead Sea’s fragile ecosystem.

The degradation of the Dead Sea began in the 1960s when Israel, Jordan and Syria began to divert water from the Jordan River – the sea’s main supplier.

Over the years, 95 percent of the flow has been diverted by the three neighbors for agricultural and industrial use, while Israel alone diverts more than 60 percent of it, according to FoEME.

The impact on the Dead Sea has been compounded by a drop in groundwater levels as rain water from surrounding mountains dissolved salt deposits that had previously plugged access to underground caverns.

Industrial and tourist operations around the shores of the lake exacerbate the situation.

“We ask the government to keep an open mind while examining the plan,” said Mehyar. The government acknowledges the project will be a challenge.

“Six studies on the Red-Dead plan’s impact on the environment are currently being conducted,” said Fayez Batainah, who heads the project at the Water Ministry. “We are coordinating and cooperating with the World Bank and all concerned sides.”

But Mahasneh said the authorities did not have a comprehensive strategy.

“There is chaos in the country’s water polices. We do not have a real strategy and efficient water management, and the current plans did not consider what independent experts think or say,” he said.

“The country for example is still cultivating crops that consume a lot of water. We should import these crops and save our water,” he said, singling out tomatos and bananas.

More than 60 percent of Jordan’s annual water consumption of 900 million cubic meters goes to agriculture, which contributes 3.6 percent to the gross domestic product, according to official figures.

“We have water … but we suffer from massive water mismanagement,” Mehyar said.

According to him, around 48 percent of pumped water supplies are lost annually due to worn-out pipes and theft.

“We need very firm decisions to deal with such problems. If we save this lost water, our situation will improve a lot. We do not even have a comprehensive study about the water situation in Jordan,” Mehyar said.

Jordan’s population is expanding by 3.5 percent a year and every drop of water is needed.

Years of below-average rainfall have created a shortfall of 500 million cubic meters a year, and the country forecasts it will need 1.6 billion cubic meters of water a year by 2015.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2011, on page 12.