Brown, rubbish-filled water flows slowly along an irrigation canal near Jordan's border with Israel. Shepherds by the side of the channel use the same water for their sheep. "The water has been getting dirtier, and it's level lower," says one shepherd, Samer Mansour, 24. "It is our only source of water."
The shepherds, like Mr. Mansour, receive water from the canal for free, as do the region's farmers. But its declining water quality, and the smaller amounts being allocated to users, have contributed to a reduction in farm yields. Farm owner Abdulhadi Youssef says that the last good year for his tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and aubergines was 2013. Mr. Youssef grows his crops in 50 plastic greenhouses near the canal. His farm's output has declined steadily to 60 percent of its levels eight years ago.
Water from the canal no longer comes daily, and its low quality has affected the soil. The season, from September to April, is two months shorter, and several neighboring farms have gone bankrupt, he says. "As soon the weather heats up, the crops go bad," he says. His tomato harvest has declined from 900 boxes annually to between 350 to 500 boxes.
At 100 cubic meters each year, Jordan's per capita share of water is one of the lowest in the world. Rainfall, which averages about 100 millimeters a year, is also among the lowest.
"If there were more water in the canal, there would have been more date farming for sure," says Hassan Al Sawalha, who manages a date farm in the area. But agriculture expanded significantly in the past decade in the desert areas above the Jordan Valley. Olive, peach, and almond farms straddle desert roads from the north to the south of the kingdom.
Last week, Irrigation Minister Mohammad Al Najjar said the kingdom's groundwater "is being exhausted". He steered clear of identifying the specific regions with illegal wells, saying only that farmers "caught red-handed are transferred to the judiciary". The immediate solution, the minister said, is to carry out an as-yet-unrealized plan to desalinate water from the Red Sea and pump it north.
Although the plan takes into consideration local conditions and divides the kingdom into agricultural zones, instead of more uniform policies covering the country, it still requires government diktat. Prof Al Bakri says efficiency can be achieved "by adopting suitable cropping patterns and studying demand" for each zone. "Why do we have huge amounts of tomatoes? There are other, strategic crops," he says, suggesting potatoes, carrots, and onions instead.
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