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In Jordan, female engineers lead way in sustainable agriculture

A Norwegian NGO has launched a joint training program to train female engineering graduates in the field of sustainable agriculture, with the aim of both encouraging Jordanian women to join the workforce and fight desertification.

Under the hot Aqaba sun, an all-female team of recent Jordanian university graduates took turns planting lettuce and bok choy seeds in the desert soil. Just minutes earlier, they had prepared a special compost blend — a mix of peat moss and ground coconut shell — which allowed them to turn the otherwise arid soil into fertile ground.

The 15 female engineers were participating in their first site visit of the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) research center in Aqaba, as part of a 12-week training program to boost innovative practices in sustainable agriculture in Jordan. The training program is a joint project between Hussein Technical University and SFP, a Norwegian NGO focused on providing fresh water and food in desert regions.

For many of the participants, this was their first experience seeing what they had learned in university outside of a textbook. 

“For me, this was the first time seeing agricultural fields like this,” Dania Shahrori, a 24-year old graduate in water and environmental engineering, told Al-Monitor. “It’s unique to see these new techniques in Jordan,” she said.

The SFP employees guided the participants through the research facility and through the lifecycle of a crop grown using their experimental techniques. The participants first learned how seawater was taken from the Red Sea a few kilometers away and about the desalinization process, before learning how to determine the proper salinity level of the water. They then observed the composting stations outside and the crops grown using the custom-made compost.

The participants asked the two SFP staff members many questions about the research station’s technology, crop yields and the chemistry behind the special compost blends they were making. After stumping the SFP country director with a question about a specific part in the desalinization machine’s reverse osmosis filter, one of the women explained that she was working in a waste management startup and thought the part could be useful for her work.

In Jordan, women make up just 14% of the workforce as of 2019, one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the region. In the agricultural sector specifically, women typically work low-skilled, low-earning jobs, rather than more technical and managerial roles.

To this end, the program not only focused on the technical aspects of sustainable agriculture in Jordan, but also on the soft skills necessary to bring a project to fruition, Ruba al-Zu’bi, a sustainability expert and mentor for the program, told Al-Monitor.

Throughout the site visit, participants formed breakout groups to discuss what they were learning and later attended a mentoring session where they pitched and refined ideas for their own sustainable development projects.

It is not only important, however, that women are empowered to work in higher-skilled roles in the sustainability sector, but also to create a general awareness of sustainable practices as women are often the head of households and make the day-to-day decisions about the homes’ consumption in Jordan, according to Zu’bi. 

Indeed, there does seem to be a rising awareness of the importance of sustainably grown agriculture, at least in the capital city of Amman. Zeina Fakhriddin, program mentor and operations manager for Mujeb Organic Farm, a local farm focused on sustainability, said that demand for their vegetables had skyrocketed in recent years, especially after the coronavirus lockdown in the spring. She also noted that over 60% of the farm’s customers were women.

Innovative practices in agriculture and water usage are essential for Jordan, as the second-most water scarce country in the world. The agricultural sector is one of the main consumers of water in the country, using 53% of the country’s annual water supply — though the sector only contributes about 6% to the gross domestic product.

Because Jordan’s groundwater resources are not sufficient to meet the needs of both the general population and the agricultural sector, the country has consistently overexploited underground water reservoirs over the last two decades. Over half of the water used by the agricultural sector comes from such reservoirs. As a result, Jordan’s main reservoirs are depleted by about two meters (6.5 feet) a year — though some of the smaller ones are depleted by as much as 20 meters (65 feet) annually.

Though the government has made facile efforts to better manage water usage, particularly in the agricultural sector, a general lack of policy enforcement and illegal well building has meant that rate of use has failed to slow in any significant way.

If the techniques used in SFP’s research center could be upscaled, certain crops could be grown without contributing to reservoir depletion since desalinated seawater is used as the source of irrigation. Plans were drafted to create a 10-inch wide pipeline running from the Red Sea to the center, as the seawater is currently trucked in, creating logistical barriers.

However, the project’s ambitions have run into bureaucratic realities and the pipeline has stalled for over a year seemingly without a reason, preventing the center from expanding.

Though frustrating for SFP and its goals, the bureaucratic dilemma provided a good case study for the participants. In one of the breakout sessions, they sat and discussed the challenges to upscaling SFP’s project and how to successfully launch a sustainability project in Jordan. “Remember, it’s the minister of finance who’s often the most important person for your project since he signs your checks,” Zu’bi reminded the participants.

The sessions on the political context of Jordan’s sustainability sector in Jordan, as well as the site visit seemed to have left the participants with a wider sense of what is possible both for the country and for themselves.

“The problem is not a water shortage; this project showed me that we can use seawater as a source of freshwater,” Nour al-Qutub, a 25-year old program participant said. Another participant remarked, “We have resources, the problem is there’s no management.”

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