By Melissa von Mayrhauser
Jordan is the third most water scarce country in the world, while its population is rising at approximately 3% annually. Columbia’s SEE-U Jordan program is investigating the reasons behind the country’s lack of water security while also considering possible solutions. We dove into our studies by swimming in the Red and Dead Seas, studying what they may have to tell us about the future of water resources in Jordan.
More than three-quarters of Jordan’s population lives in urban areas, and this number is rising due to factors such as population growth, the move to cities to search for employment, and the influx of refugees from other countries. Yet large cities, such as Amman, are often not located near sources of water, which means that water shipments can be costly.
Jordanian water expert Dureid Mahasneh spoke to our class, noting that in 2004, Jordan’s agricultural sector used over 62% of Jordan’s water resources. While this percentage remains high, GDP outputs related to agriculture are scant.
Khaled Irani — former director of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, former minister of the Environment and former minister of Energy and Natural Resources — said that this is partially due to high agriculture subsidies. The agricultural tradition in the region also means that there is sensitivity surrounding farming.
Farmers could conserve water by switching to drip irrigation methods and less water-intensive crops. A recent study by the Highland Water Forum shows that farmers would be willing to make changes if the government provided financial incentives.
But the water shortage has already placed stress on Jordan’s water reserves. While Jordan relies on groundwater recharge from rainfall for water supplies, precipitation varies each year and over 90% evaporates before capture. Aquifers have reached historically low levels.
The rate of water extraction from the Azraq Aquifer in northeastern Jordan, one source of water for Amman, is approximately double the sustainable amount per year, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
This led to a dramatic reduction in the groundwater table levels in the early 1990s as well as the decrease of water and soil quality and a loss of investment for Azraq.
The changes have also negatively affected the biodiversity of the area. While the wetland area has for years functioned as a migratory station for thousands of birds, many of which are endangered, the lack of water has altered many of their migratory patterns.
The IUCN is currently working with several partners to empower local government and individuals to encourage water conservation and to replenish water resources in Azraq. Yet this is at odds with increasing needs for water supplies.
One of the solutions that Jordanian policy-makers have proposed is to provide water supplies for Jordanians through connecting the Red Sea and Dead Sea with a canal. While the Dead Sea is receding at approximately one meter of water per year, this new connection could replenish its water resources and provide drinking water to northern populations.
Yet the environmental implications of such a canal remain uncertain. While the Red Sea boasts an abundant amount of biodiversity, such as fragile coral reefs, the Dead Sea’s extreme saltiness supports only archaeans and algae. Connecting the two seas would disrupt the two ecosystems that have evolved separately and might lead to leakage in pipes along the way, among other potential problems.
There are also questions of how Jordan and its neighboring countries would decide how to share the water resources and how the connection would affect mineral mining in the Dead Sea. The SEE-U students visited both the Red and the Dead Seas in order to investigate their biodiversity and how policy decisions have impacted them.
We spent the majority of our time studying the rich marine ecosystem of the sapphire blue Red Sea in which there are over 1,300 fish species. More than 300 of these fish are endemic to the Gulf of Aqaba, especially because the relative isolation of the sea restricts gene flow.
Perhaps most interesting about our Red Sea studies concerned the architectural masterpieces that the fish call home: coral reefs. Among their other merits, these calcium carbonate kingdoms provide a nursery habitat for pelagic juveniles and give other organisms a place to live too.
The coral reefs are under stress right now, however, as there are increasing efforts to develop the Gulf of Aqaba coastland and to attract more investment. Even though the Jordanian government officially protects 7km of the coastline, the coral is suffering the consequences of increasing pollution, nitrogen runoff and overfishing. These factors may weaken their immune systems and make them more susceptible to disease.
We snorkeled in the Red Sea to view the multicolored coral and the many species of fish that live nearby. We witnessed the striped lionfish, the slithering moray eel and the myriad surgeonfish, which appear to have a scalpel on their side. A few group members even saw the Picasso fish that are just as angular as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon!
Many students were first-time snorkelers and gingerly entered the blue waters. Yet the experience of witnessing the daily life of a multi-hued underwater community soon outweighed former fears. Fish swam around branching coral, over wiggling sea anemones and past our plastic fins. We were the observers of a bustling underwater main street where the fish were moving faster than Manhattanites on a Friday afternoon!
Our next stop was the Dead Sea. 423 meters (and counting) below sea level, the serene body of water is approximately 34% salt and is inhospitable to life other than salt-loving microbes. There are several industries at work in the area, including those that extract potash, and the area continually attracts tourists from around the world. Yet our corner of the Dead Sea seemed much more serene and isolated, as we camped on a cliff far away from more developed areas.
Finding a path between the shimmering salt crystals crowning the body of water and trying not to slip on the wet rocks, we struggled to find our balance in entering the Dead Sea. Once we finally took the plunge into the Sea, however, we soon rediscovered our equilibrium. As we floated on the water’s surface surrounded by towering red-brown cliffs, we felt like astronauts on another planet.
While members of the trip were afraid of marine predators in the Red Sea, we felt at peace knowing that the Dead Sea only supports archaean and algal life. Surely the Dead Sea’s halobacteria would be less ferocious than purple jellyfish! The only evidence of our archaean friends was a layer of what appeared to be circular, translucent froth on the water’s surface.
Swimming in the sea was a bonding experience for members of the group who read stories to each other from newspapers while floating on the water. While a few students accidentally splashed salt water in their eyes, friends licked it off in order to reduce the sting!
During our time at the Red and Dead Seas, we witnessed first-hand their different ecosystems. It is difficult to imagine how they could become connected without damaging the biodiversity of each. While it seems that a growing Jordan will no longer be able to rely on its groundwater reserves, perhaps it will consider exploring other options such as importing water or replenishing the water flow of the Jordan River Valley again.
Melissa von Mayrhauser is a rising Columbia College senior. She is participating in the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation’s SEE-U summer program in Jordan.