Jordan’s thirsty agricultural sector must dramatically boost its water efficiency to prevent the Kingdom’s vital groundwater basins from drying up. But this will be easier said than done.
By Laith Abou-Ragheb
A few days of heavy rainfall at the tail end of winter may have lifted Jordan’s dam levels out of the danger zone, but this doesn’t mean the country—famously one of world’s water-poorest—shouldn’t stop trying to find more efficient ways of using this precious resource. This goes double for the agricultural sector, which sucks up around 60 percent of Jordan’s water each year and only contributes 3 percent to its GDP.
Farmers are now facing unprecedented pressure to use water more sparingly. To this end, the Water Authority of Jordan has been cracking down on illegal agricultural wells. The Jordan Times reported in March the owners of just under 1,500 of these wells had been ordered to hand over more than JD 24 million in unpaid dues by mid-August or face possible sanctions, such as property seizures and travel bans. The government has allowed these farmers to continue using the wells, provided they pay for what they pump and stop growing crops that depend on the water extracted by the end of the year.
Why the tough stance? Jordan’s important water basins are being depleted at a worrying rate. They are relied on heavily by farmers, particularly in the highlands. The Amman-Zarqa basin, which provides water to more than half of Jordan’s population, has a safe yield of 87 cubic million meters per year. Yet the annual extraction rate is 160 cubic million meters—and ominously, that’s just the rate known to government scientists. “The future is alarming. This is why we are being strict and why the campaign started,” the Secretary General of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation Basem Telfah told delegates at a recent conference in Amman on water use in Jordan’s food chain.
The campaign is taking place against a backdrop of a wider drive to make the agriculture sector use water more efficiently. As well as aiming to greatly reduce groundwater extraction, a 14-year national water strategy launched by the government in 2008 hopes to cap irrigated agriculture in the Kingdom’s highlands, alter water tariffs, and introduces incentives to promote irrigation water efficiency and productivity.
PRODUCE MORE WITH LESS
According to the Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture Radi Tarawneh, the sector has already achieved relatively high water efficiency—using 60 percent of a country’s water supply actually compares pretty well internationally—but more can still be done to bridge Jordan’s huge water deficit. “There’s potential to improve water productivity and overall competitiveness. Major investments in Jordanian agribusiness are needed in order to improve the food value chain. Much of the focus should be on enhancing water efficiency and quality, and on other logistical infrastructure,” he said during the conference, which was organized by his Ministry, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
The initial findings of a new FAO report, Water Along the Food Chain: The Jordan Case, recommended that investments in Jordan’s agricultural sector, which is roughly divided between the Jordan Valley and the highlands, should, in the main, target profitable food chains that have made efforts to improve their water efficiency levels, and have the potential to further enhance the productivity of each drop of water they consume. The Jordan Valley, with its production of fruit and vegetables for high-value foreign markets, was held up by FAO as a good example of this.
The FAO commended farmers in the Jordan Valley for using surface water and almost all of Jordan’s treated wastewater to irrigate their crops. Farmers have also invested heavily in increasing the competiveness of their products by erecting greenhouses and switching to growing high-value crops. Eighty-five percent of the valley’s vegetable output is now confined to the winter season and farmers are increasing their exports of fruits and vegetables to the European Union, Balkan, and Russian markets.
A good example of this is AgriJordan, an agricultural firm with farms all over the Kingdom, including the Jordan Valley. It grows everything from tomatoes and capsicums, to zucchinis and sugar snap peas. Much of its produce is exported to high-end retailers in Europe, such as the Waitrose supermarket chain, and Harrods department store in Britain.
AgriJordan’s Chairman and CEO Mohammed Bataineh said the firm was set up around a time when questions were being raised as to whether Jordan should even be growing crops, given its chronic water shortage. He dismissed this idea as misguided. “The real solution is to create a paradigm shift in the industry to where agriculture makes sense, especially in terms of water use,” he told Venture on the sidelines of the conference. “Our group is invested in the nexus of sustainable water, food, and energy. We are tackling these three at the same time where the value-added is more than the use of the components.”
By investing in the latest right hybrid seeds, greenhouses, irrigation systems and packing facilities, the firm said each kilogram of its produce uses between 80 to 90 percent less water compared to traditional agricultural practices, with 90 to 95 percent of the produce being of export quality.
But Bataineh stressed that the solution to his sector’s water worries lies as much with the government as it does with farmers. He indicated that he would like to see generous water subsidies reduced, even though it might be met with stiff resistance. “Subsidies in general create an unlevel playing field and market niches that shouldn’t be there,” he said. “We recommend the government actually looks at supplying water for agriculture for a reasonable price.”
He would like much more to be done to cut down on water losses. “I don’t see why every single farmer has to pump his own water. Why don’t we have water in pipelines that already arrives pressurized, which would save on energy and water?” Furthermore, he wants to see a more concerted response from the government to the mounting water challenge. “The water ministry for example, has different policies than the agriculture ministry and the energy ministry. This sometimes results in haphazard decisions create a challenge for private sector investment,” he explained.
When it comes to the agricultural sector’s role in Jordan’s water deficit problem, there appears to be less concern surrounding water use in the Jordan Valley than in the highlands, which are composed of a mountain range that runs alongside the Jordan Valley and a desert plateau which extends easterly to Syria and Iraq.
In 2008, the Water Resources Management journal published a report on groundwater depletion in the highlands, written by Jean-Philippe Venot of the International Water Management Institute and Francoise Molle of the Institute for Research and Development. The report said private groundwater irrigation, which has helped develop over 140,000 dunums of agricultural land over the last 30 years in the area, has been allowed to continue unchecked due to relaxed controls on drilling operations and the near absence of controls on licensed abstraction rates.
The report said the government will likely find it very difficult to reverse this by only relying on extraction capping, future water tariff increases or subsidy cuts, and promoting higher-value crops. The government should also encourage farmers to change their practices by securing for them better market opportunities, technical advice and capacity building, as well as subsidies for modernizing irrigation material.
But even this might not be enough, as the government might not have the stomach—in terms of political will—to tackle what the report really thinks is necessary to tackle the root causes behind the rapid depletion of Jordan’s water basins. “[All these measures] would do little to reduce groundwater abstraction which, eventually, can only be substantially curbed by controlling sales and transfers of wells, and by promoting buy-out of wells and uprooting trees to reduce irrigated areas. The social and economic consequences of such measures have to be carefully considered,” the report said.