Fahad helping his mother in the fields near Ghor Safi, Jordan.
The ground is crumbling suddenly and unpredictably beneath the feet of the shepherds, beneath the rows of neatly planted vegetables. During the days in Ghor, the air is still and silent, broken by the crunch of dry earth underfoot and the nasally humming of a woman and her son, gathering zucchinis together. A hundred meters away, the remains of a small house and the road next to it are partially collapsed where the ground has given way.
The sinkholes are just one of the more visible testaments to Jordan’s water crisis. Some of the smaller pits are filled with liquid - it can hardly be called water, being fluorescent green and orange in color, smelling sharply of sulfur. In the larger sinkholes that swallow up entire fields, roads and houses, the rubble looks more like the pulverized remnants of shelling rather than nature taking its course.
People frequently run out of water in the summer, when temperatures can soar to 45 C. Agriculture is only possible due to heavy government subsidies on water, and like many countries in the Middle East, Jordan imports most of its food. Two generations ago, the Jordan River fed this valley with 1.3 billion cubic meters of water, but is now little more than a trickle. At the same time, water demand has grown exponentially.
Taking into account the effects of climate change, the picture gets bleaker. Jordan is expected to see higher temperatures, decreased rainfall, and increased evaporation. Assuming that “normal” conditions prevail - meaning no more waves of refugees - population will continue to grow, and water yield could drop 45 to 60 percent.
Jordan’s resource management policies are eerily similar to those of prewar Syria. In the plains of the Houran - formerly the country’s breadbasket, and home to the town of Dera’a, where the first protests began - Syria has been suffering drought for decades. Some farmers experienced total crop failure and moved into the cities, which were already struggling with high unemployment. Inequitable distribution of resources coupled with deep political problems are among the reasons for the beginnings of the civil war.
Outwardly, Jordan’s government certainly has a more “Western-friendly” face than does the Assad regime. Nevertheless, both governments have for decades employed similar policies – heavily subsidizing water-intensive farming, depletion of underground water reserves, neglect in rural communities – on top of which, mass migration stresses an already disenfranchised population. Water, rather than extremist groups, is more likely to be the country’s biggest catastrophe.
Eventually, something has to give. It’s only a matter of time until the well runs dry.
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A few kilometers away from the Jordan Valley border crossing with Israel, thick plumes of smoke rise over the agricultural land. The Israelis will burn dry grasses on their side of the border, using the smoke to find and deter illegal crossings. Frequently, though, the flames can spread into farmland on the Jordanian side of the border.
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"My father always told me that trees bring rain, but I never understood what he meant until I started this work," said Abed Rahman Sultan, park director of the Sharhabil bin Hassneh Eco Park in the Jordan Valley. The park is run by Eco Peace Middle East, which has been critical of the Dead-Red Sea Canal project after conducting environmental feasibility studies.
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A sinkhole is seen in Ghor Safi, Jordan. The sinkholes are often much larger, opening up the ground without warning, swallowing up buildings, roads, and fields.
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Residents of Ghor Safi sit together and talk at dusk, baking bread on an outdoor oven.
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Vendors sell fresh produce at the market in downtown Amman. Like other countries in the MENA region, Jordan imports well over 50 percent of its food. Agriculture in Jordan is only possible due to costly government subsidies and water-intensive irrigation.
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Amman residents do not receive water on a continual basis; water is delivered once a week, depending on which area you live in. On the day the water comes, people rush to wash everything they can. In the summer, especially in poor areas, people run out of water the same day it arrives.