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Mideast Troubled Waters Series: Final Installment - Of Jordan: A River And A Nation

Air Date: Week of

Jericho on the west bank of the Jordan is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Today, the country which took the name of the Jordan uses little of the river's water as Israel and Syria use much of the river from dams and diversions upstream. Many in the nation of Jordan had hoped the situation would improve after King Hussein signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994. But as Living On Earth's Sandy Tolan reports, many Jordanians still feel they do not have enough water.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, men and women began planting seeds in the rich river bottomlands. Along the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the River Jordan, a complex agricultural community emerged. Jericho, on the West Bank of the Jordan, is considered the oldest continuously-inhabited city on Earth. Today the country which took the name of the Jordan uses little of the river's water. Israel and Syria take much of the river from dams and diversions upstream. The situation improved somewhat after King Hussein signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but many Jordanians still feel they do not have enough water, and the scarcity is threatening social stability. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has the final installment in our series Troubled Waters.

(Bleating sheep, hurried on by a man; clanking bells)

MAN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I like the way we live. We're away from all the noise of the city. Of course we have problems, but I've always enjoyed this life. It's my life. But when I start reflecting on it, on our problems and what that means, I see that this kind of life is threatened. And I almost succumb to despair.

TOLAN: Four Bedouin brothers gaze intently at their visitors. They are young men with soft faces, charcoal eyebrows and piercing green eyes, sitting cross-legged on foam pads under a piece of burlap, offering Arabic bread and steaming cups of sweet goat's milk. We're at the base of a rocky hillside, beneath a ruin of the Roman Empire.

MAN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: Older people talk about how these mountains were green. There were woods and trees everywhere. We remember when we were young there was something of that sort. Not as much, but disappearing. I can't give an explanation, but I can tell you how we feel to see it happening in front of our eyes.

(A sheep bleats)

TOLAN: Sheep graze amidst the bedrock outside the tent. The hill is ravaged. It hardly rains any more, the brothers say, so there's no more grass and the sheep have to eat feed. The price of fodder is up, and worst of all, they say, now water is triple the cost of last year.

MAN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: After we heard about the peace treaty, we were hoping the water problem would be resolved. They say in 50 years there will be no water. Do they have an alternative for us? For Jordan? What are they talking about? We hear about reports all the time, and they tell us they're studying. But we don't hear about solutions. Is there no future for us? Would we die, or what? There's no life without water, especially for Bedouins, because we need a lot for our sheep. Definitely, we can't continue like this. We won't be able to if water remains as expensive as it is now. If this continues, we will be forced to leave this and go work as laborers in the city.

(Traffic sounds)

HADADIN: Let me then summarize the entire problem in one word: liquid. Americans call the electricity in the wires “juice,” so power is liquid. Water is liquid.

TOLAN: Munther Hadadin is considered Mister Water in Jordan. He was chief negotiator for the water provisions in the peace treaty with Israel, and now as Jordan's Minister of Water and Irrigation he is dealing with the country's continuing acute shortages.

HADADIN: The country needs more water resources than it actually has to cope with the population pressure on the resource.

TOLAN: In its 50 years as a nation, Jordan's growth has been due not only to a high birth rate. The nation has absorbed 3 great waves of Palestinian refugees. Once in 1948 after the State of Israel was declared, once after the 1967 War and Israel's capture of the West Bank, and then 6 years ago when several hundred thousand Palestinians were evicted from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War.

HADADIN: You can imagine what kind of a challenge the resource management is. To give people in the States an idea, we spent a couple weeks last summer, my kids and I, my wife, we spent it on a ranch in Montana. That ranch had 2 creeks, 2 streams of water, that were privately owned. Either stream was bigger than our major river here, that is causing so much political turmoil.

(Beeps. A voice over radio speaks in Arabic. Translator: "This is Amman, the Radio Service of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." Local music plays.}

TOLAN: The poor mop their floors with drops of water. The middle class take fewer and shorter showers. The rich rip out their lawns. And on the street, in the newspapers, on TV and radio, government programs urge everyone to conserve.

(A woman's voice on radio, in Arabic)

TOLAN: On Direct Transmission, Jordan Radio's morning call-in program, experts offer regular advice on how to save every drop.

TRANSLATOR: There are many ways to conserve water. You can discipline yourselves to turn off water taps when you're washing your dishes. And you can take showers instead of baths, which will allow you to use 20 liters instead of 120. After washing your vegetables, reuse the water for your houseplants and garden. And you can use other wastewater to scrub the tiles on your patio or balcony. When washing your car, always...

TOLAN: Conservation is at the heart of Jordan's current water policy and of a lot of foreign aid. It's the number one strategic priority of US aid in Jordan.

(Pleasant chimes in a crowded area)

TOLAN: But some people say they've already reached the limit. At the Safeway in Amman's middle class Al Shmisani neighborhood, Siham Al Bujari pushes a cart with some soup bones and a bottle of Clorox. She says with water 3 times the price of a few years ago, she doesn't need the lectures.

BUJARI: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I don't know what they are talking about. I don't understand what they mean by conserving. We need to drink and keep our bodies clean. We do conserve when cleaning our houses, but we don't have the minimum we need. We are already conserving.

ABEIDAT: We really, sometimes we feel shame, when we ask them to conserve water. They assure us that they have not the minimum of the water which they should have to live in dignity.

TOLAN: Ahmad Abeidat was King Hussein's prime minister in the mid-1980s and director of state intelligence before that. He's now the chairman of the largest environmental group in Jordan and leader of a new opposition coalition.

ABEIDAT: How can the Jordanian government maintain this relationship between the regime and the people? If the citizens are not finding the minimum of their rights in water. This is very dangerous. Who are responsible for that situation?

TOLAN: The answer lies upstream. In 1953, Israel began diverting the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. Syria shelled the diversions. President Eisenhower sent a special envoy, Eric Johnston, who drew up a comprehensive plan to part Middle Eastern waters. Jordanians would have received a big share of both the Jordan and its tributary, the Yarmouk. The plan petered out amidst growing regional tensions. Today Syria's dams on the Yarmouk and Israel's diversion of the Jordan have left Jordanians downstream out of luck. They can't even use the trickle in the lower Jordan. Israel diverts salty springs away from its main reservoir and dumps them in the lower Jordan, making the river unusable. Thus, water was a major motivation for Jordan's move toward peace with Israel. The treaty promises to give Jordan 15% more water than it uses now. But former prime minister Abeidat says Jordan settled for far too little and allowed Israel to tighten its grasp on the region's waters.

ABEIDAT: Israel is now there enjoying the rights of the Palestinians in the water, the rights of the Jordanians in the water, and also some of the Syrian shares in the water, in addition to their share. I think that the peace treaty in general was unfair to the Jordanian people.

TOLAN: A few years ago, King Hussein removed Mr. Abeidat from his senate post after he criticized the peace treaty. Today, Mr. Abeidat says by negotiating one on one with Israel, Jordan undermined the interest of other Arab players like Syria and the Palestinians. He says the treaty does not account for the water rights of the 2 million Palestinians who've sought refuge in Jordan. But it does allow Israeli agricultural settlements to remain inside Jordan, giving them rights to drill for Jordanian water. Mr. Abeidat says because of the treaty, Israel's 2 to 1 advantage in water is now written virtually in stone.

ABEIDAT: They are trying now to oblige the Jordanian to surrender concerning the water issue. It's so obvious that the Israelis won the water issue.

MAHASNY: I surely do not agree that the Israelis won in that. If the Israelis would have won, it would have been zero water for Jordan and all kept in Israel, which is not the case.

TOLAN: Dored Mahasny, Jordanian water negotiator and deputy to water minister Hadadin.

MAHASNY: You have to be convinced that if it's the Arab way of how things should have been done, they would have been done differently before. But we are in a peace era, and a peace era means that you are recognizing your rights as well as your enemy's rights, who is from now on not your enemy. Now we achieved getting that water. The build-up of water in the region, it's always conserved.

TOLAN: One thing Jordanians agree on: they need a huge water project. Many hope for a canal running downhill from the Red Sea in the south to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, generating hydropower that would desalinate water. But Israeli reluctance, along with environmental concerns and a $5 billion price tag, make the Red-Dead canal appear unlikely. Then there's the idea of a dam on the Yarmouk to the north, but that would require Israeli and Syrian approval, and those countries aren't even speaking to each other. Another possibility: Israel wants to build a dam downstream on the disputed Golan Heights. But if the Jordanians approve that in exchange for a share of the water, they could risk war with Syria. In the spring, reports surfaced that Mr. Hadadin had approached Israel with another option: storing much of Jordan's future water in Israel's Sea of Galilee. Critics say this would undermine Jordanian sovereignty. Mr. Hadadin would not comment on the reports. But clearly, the chief water negotiator for the treaty with Israel is now struggling with the consequences.

HADADIN: The only way I can see that we can respond to it is by harder work, and then trying to establish a tradition of working hours that average 16 hours a day. And believe me, when I do that, people under me respond. I used to come in alone in the early morning at 15 to 7. Pretty soon 4 more people, 10 more people. Now there are others who impress me by coming even earlier, at 6:30. I myself have to provide the leadership.

(Mulling voices and applause)

TOLAN: All this tension over water leads the Jordanian government to celebrate every new drop. On a sunny morning last May, as the summer shortages approached, King Hussein turned a wheel to open the floodgates and bring millions of gallons of water from Israel as part of the peace treaty.

(Gushing water, followed by applause)

TOLAN: But even this water, only 3% of Jordan's annual use, is contested. It's bound for the Jordan Valley, the country's farm belt, not for thirsty urban areas. City dwellers with water in their pipes only twice a week may not be happy about that, and farmers are getting worried.

HALABI: There will be priorities about the use of water. They say that the agriculture is no more feasible, let's buy tomatoes from Lebanon and let's have a shower in Jordan. You never know. I think it's coming soon, 5 to 10 years.

{Flapping cloth, bird song)

TOLAN: Aisa Halabi sits in the breeze under a flapping canopy. It's dusk. He's munching a cucumber, drinking a beer. Isa's family owns large orange groves in the Jordan Valley. He says the water shortage creates tensions between the city and the farm.

HALABI: Probably there will be like a big plan that the people of Amman drink water while the growers in the Jordan Valley don't drink water. So the people of the Jordan Valley will hate the people from Amman. They'll come to Amman and make demonstrations.

TOLAN: Aisa says there are important reasons to keep the water in the fields.

HALABI: You have to think about it socially. If you want to decrease the water on Jordan Valley and eventually have no farming, all the people of the Jordan Valley will come to Amman, okay? When these people come to Amman, the rate of rent will increase in Amman, because, you know, there will be more people. Then the government has to spend more money on these people because they have to put more police people, police force, more civil servants, so eventually they're going to spend money on them. One way or the other. So might as well spend money on the Jordan Valley now and keep the people there to create less social problems.

TOLAN: The Jordan Valley is also important to the country's security. It has been ever since the 1967 War, and the days that followed when Israeli fighter jets crossed the River Jordan in pursuit of Palestinian resistance fighters. Aisa's father died in one attack. Isa says he's not bitter. It was war then.

HALABI: We're at peace now.

TOLAN: But many Jordanians see theirs as a dry peace forcing excruciating choices. Western economists say Jordan should no longer grow thirsty oranges in the desert. It should diversify its economy, shift water use to the cities, and implement population programs that will guarantee enough resources for the next generation, so that the peace will last. Many Jordanians resent this advice. They'd prefer more water. But with no new projects in sight, the country is reduced to patching its leaks.

(A jackhammer)

TOLAN: Jackhammers make rubble of a residential street in Amman. Half the water delivered to Amman is lost, partly due to illegal connections but mostly because of the crumbling network of pipes.

(Noises in the background: jackhammer, voices on radio, traffic)

NAJI: This is a very, very critical thing and sensitive things. And really, we take it very seriously and very urgent. We take action if you have, for example, a shortage of water, a problem with water. If you have a broken line, if you have water in the streets, we taken action immediately.

TOLAN: Mohandis Abdel Kareem Naji directs one of dozens of response teams that answer hundreds of calls a day, applying tourniquets to a bleeding network. Mr. Naji says peace time or not, it feels like he's in a war.

NAJI: We are soldiers. We are soldiers. I think we don't have any difference between us and the front. We are fighting here to save water. Every man is in his position, I think, a fighter or soldiers.

TOLAN: But even if these soldiers save every drop, even if they work 20 hours a day, Jordan still faces a future of severe shortages. In 30 years Jordan's population may double, and people here fear that social tensions may burst out in every direction, like the water from the ruptured pipes under Amman. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

(Jackhammer continues; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our series Troubled Waters was edited by Peter Thomson and engineered by Eileen Bolinsky, George Homsy, and Liz Lempert, with production assistance from Betsy Gammons. For a tape or transcript of this program call 800-218-9988. That's 800-218- 9988.



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