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The world's `single biggest threat': Part 2

By Alanna Mitchell

Back in the Jordanian desert, it is easy to see why the landscape's inhospitability is legendary. The heat makes the horizon shimmer. The sand is so fine that it is more like a powder. Each footstep sends up a puffy cloud above ankle height where it hangs in the blistering air before settling down again. The fine grit seems to combine chemically with body salt and sweat to form a new, intractable substance that is impossible to remove from clothes and shoes.

The Bedouins are the only humans to survive the desert efficiently, aided by their camels. As I walk around this desolate place, I see a baby camel, tethered by its front legs to a post, much as a North American would leash up a puppy. Its owners, draped in thin cotton cloth, sit grinning nearby.


There are few other animals in sight. Birds and flowers wait for a sprinkle of rain to come before they appear. That usually amounts to less than 14 millimetres - about half an inch - a year. But for the past four years, it has, according to Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, been zero. Near the oasis, however, the air seems transformed as if by magic. It smells fervid and promising. This is the slim portion that has been painstakingly, expensively brought back from the dead. It is a poignant symbol of the adaptability of nature.

There is no natural surface water here any more. All the vibrant springs that once permanently fed the oasis - at one time there were more than 10 - have been drained dry. All the water now used to keep a bit of the oasis wet - 1.5 million cubic metres a year - is pumped from deep below, likely from fossil stores collected thousands of years ago.

In 1977, Jordan recognized the great significance of Azraq by designating the site as a "wetland of international importance" under the Ramsar Convention, a global environmental treaty named for the Iranian city in which it was signed 30 years ago. That means independent experts have deemed it fundamental to the regulation of a vital water system and to supporting a rich selection of species (Canada's 36 such sites cover 13 million hectares, or almost 20 of Ramsar's worldwide total).

But in 1990, with the Jordanians pumping out twice as much water as the aquifer could replenish, Azraq was placed on the convention's black list, a recognition that it had become terribly degraded. The concern was not just for the wildlife. The Ramsar report points out that unless the drainage is reduced, seawater will invade, eventually turning the aquifer salty and unfit for drinking. "Only the timing of such an occurrence is in any doubt," the report says.

That frightening prospect sparked the attempt to rehabilitate the oasis, financed in part by money promised by international organizations as a result of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Now, there is a visitor's centre and a short wooden path.

And water. Once it returned to the surface, the oasis came back to life. Dessicated rhizomes grew plump again and sprouted, and fish eggs nobody knew could survive so many years in the dusty soil mysteriously rehydrated and hatched. Then the birds began to return, drawn by the glinting water back to this essential link in their migration route. So once again it is possible to see purple herons and Egyptian nightjars and laughing doves. The honey buzzard flies by every now and then. The steppe eagle is back.

It is impressive, given that seven years ago, Azraq was a dust bowl without a single bird species to its credit, but still a far cry from a 1967 Jordanian survey that counted 347,000 specimens. By all counts, Azraq today is anything but Azraq in its natural state. Plant life consists mostly of reeds, which take over when little else will grow. The water level used to be neck-high, but now it is so shallow that minnows kick up ripples wherever they swim.

Farther along, the path leads to a cracked depression - all that remains of the mighty Ain Soda Pool, the spring that lay at the ecological heart of the oasis. The sign posted here for visitors is blunt. "Once this spring poured millions of litres of water across the marshlands every day," it reads. "By 1993, it was dead."

The killing started in earnest on Nov. 15, 1980, when the pumps started sending about 900 cubic metres an hour to charge the thirsty taps of Amman, the capital. That year, roughly 15 million cubic metres were taken from the Azraq Basin, three-quarters of the amount Jordan deemed a safe yield.

By the following year, 15 artesian wells had been drilled to the northwest of the oasis to help extract purified ground water. Ten years later, the draw had reached 39 million cubic metres a year, roughly double what the basin can sustain, and the government had developed Jordan's main military air base just south-west of Azraq. (Officials will not say how much water the base uses.) By 1993, the oasis was a dusty gar-bage dump. The rescue efforts started a year later, and by 1997, a small portion of the wetlands had come back.

But little else has changed. Official records show that last year, 37 million cubic metres of water were pumped out of the oasis. On top of that, area farmers relied on 500 illegal wells to irrigate their fields.

  • Sandra Postel
  • Tom Pedersen
  • Global Water Partnership
  • International Water Management Institute
  • The Noor Al Hussein Foundation
  • Places
  • Azraq Nature Reserve
  • Satellite image of the Azraq watershed
  • The Abbotsford Aquifer
  • Science
  • The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
  • Nitrate levels in the Abbotsford Aquifer
  • Water information from Environment Canada
  • U.S. Geological Service Water Watch
  • Irrigation and the collapse of Mesopotamia
  • Jordan is fiercely proud of Azraq's international significance, but the government is under unrelenting pressure to keep up supplies to Amman, which relies on the oasis for one in every four glasses of water drunk by its more than two million residents. How long it will allow the 1.5 million cubic metres of fossil water to feed the resurrected wetland remains unclear. The initial commitment was five years and is soon to run out.

    But there is a problem even if the flow to the surface continues. Fossil water is, by definition, a finite commodity. At some point, it runs out.

    I am touring the site with geomorphologist Roger Crofts, chief executive of Scottish Natural Heritage. He examines a chart in the visitors centre that explains the exponential increase in pumping levels.

    "They're using up their environmental capital," he says. Is it sustainable? I ask. "No," he adds shortly. "I don't think it is."

    But the Jordanians are not the only ones mortgaging the future. Deep beneath the east flank of the Rocky Mountains, stretching through South Dakota down to the Texas Panhandle, lies one of North America's great bodies of underground water.

    The High Plains Aquifer has fed agriculture in parts of this massive area for about 100 years, defying the predictions of early explorers that this desolate plain could not support human life. Now, farmers in eight states covering an area of 480,000 square kilometres grow wheat and other grains in the world's largest expanse of cropland supported by irrigation.

    And parts of the aquifer are running out. By 1980, the water level in the Texas Panhandle had fallen more than 30 metres since irrigation began, says Tom Pedersen of the University of British Columbia, a leading authority on international water issues.

    By 1998, it had dropped another 12 metres - 1.5 of them in 1997-98, an abnormally wet period in that part of the world. What would a truly dry year - Pedersen says one is bound to come along soon - do to the aquifer? The prospects are frightening.

    "We are squandering our strategic reserves of water," he says, echoing his Scottish colleague. "We act as if it is an infinite resource. This will be the focus of intense political concern in the future."

    And what do the Jordanians do with all the water being drained out of Azraq? It would be hard to accuse them of wasting it. On average, each citizen uses just 85 litres a day, says Elias Salameh, a geologist and water specialist at the University of Jordan. In neighbouring Syria and Lebanon, he says, average consumption is 125 litres while in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the daily figure is more like 400. North Americans? From 500 to 600 litres.

    Where a Canadian city would have greenery, Amman offers only dust. Sprinklers are absent. It is so dry that flies land on people just to drink their perspiration.

    And soldiers are posted at many intersections. Peace eludes this part of the world, and water is a key factor in the unrest because Israel controls so much of it. Last fall, Libya's radical leader, Moammar Gadhafi, visited Jordan for the first time in more than 20 years - to demonstrate his support for a $730-million (U.S.) pipeline to link Amman with another ancient aquifer at Disi, about 320 kilometres away. Libya is paying for concrete pipes to be built along nearly half the route and has given a $100-million (U.S.) grant to get the project going.

    Of course, water megaprojects have a great deal of history in this part of the world. Sandra Postel, of the Global Water Policy Project, is fond of telling the story of ancient Sumer, the world's first known civilization. Starting 6,000 years ago, it thrived because the Sumerians settled in the rich Mesopotamian fields between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and discovered how to divert water to their crops. This nourished a rich civilization famed not only for harvests of wheat and barley but also for fluted golden cups, bowls of black obsidian and the imposing ziggurats said to be architectural templates for the biblical tower of Babel.

    All this lasted for 2,000 years until a shortcoming in Sumerian technology became apparent. The soil, flooded and dried out time and time again, became poisoned with salt and other impurities. Agriculture failed. The civilization crumbled.

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