Friday, May 2, 2008

Do you need some water to shave, go the Jordan valley!

Do you need some water to shave, go the Jordan valley!

Written in 2000

Jordanians are well aware of the serious water situation in our country. Only a summer ago, Amman’s residents were chasing after water tankers in the streets, handsomely paying their owners to fill up the water tanks on their roofs. Despite a drought this summer, the government has managed to successfully deal with the water situation without any major crises. Nonetheless, a closer look at what the government is doing, reveals a far from successful situation.

To preempt any water crisis this summer, the government drilled many new artesian wells to pump water to Amman. While a good short-term solution, this approach only aggravates the continued depletion of Jordan’s underground aquifers and promises more severe water shortages on the long run. The longer-term solution rests with facing the glaring ugly facts and tackling the real culprit in Jordan’s obscene and chronic water shortages: That being, the Jordan Valley’s agricultural farms.

Agriculture in Jordan resembles a spoiled baby, requiring much attention and showing no responsibility. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) country profile of Jordan, agricultural exports constituted 6.8% of Jordan’s US$ 1.8 billion exports in 1998. At the same time, agriculture consumed 600 million cubic meters of water: A full 67% of the total annual consumption of 900 million cubic meters. The same EIU country report cites that Agriculture employs around 6.4% of Jordan’s total labor force (54,995 workers in 1993). The land allocation in the Jordan valley during the 1960s was supposed to turn the valley into a haven for medium sized family run farms. Nonetheless, wealthy families manipulated the system to create large commercial farms employing low skilled and low cost, mostly Egyptian, labor. The staple products of the Jordan valley farms are tomatoes, cucumbers, and citrus fruits and of course the ever famous water guzzling bananas.

To summarize the sad situation, the Jordan Valley farms consume some 60% of Jordan’s water, contribute less than 7% in exports and employ less than 7% of the labor in underpaid exploiting jobs. In the meantime, water starved Amman had to go without water for a month in the simmering summer of 1998. A situation that demolished the tourism season in that year and continues to diminish the prospects for the promising tourism industry in the Kingdom.

While Jordan’s water situation is plagued with many anomalies such as leaking pipes and privately owned wells, the agricultural anomaly remains the most absurd. A sector, dominated by wealthy families in Amman, that exploits emigrant labor and contributes minimally to the national economy while wasting the most valuable resource in the country, should not be maintained. Instead, the government continues to overlook the problem and persists in subsidizing the sector to give healthier profit margins to the influential families that dominate agriculture. To add insult to injury the government even plans to increase the subsidies with a recent promise by the Water and irrigation minister to lower the price of irrigation water.

Jordan needs a good agricultural sector. A sector that would guarantee a good living standard for the people it employs not be an exploiting ground for immigrant workers. A sector that grows crops suitable for Jordan’s climate and water situation, and not tropical bananas. The current situation in the Jordan Valley is as outrageous as it is unsustainable. For the government to continue to ignore the problem, and even perpetuate it, is an indication of a serious failing to recognize national priorities. Agricultural reform is a national priority, deal with it accordingly.

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