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Water scarcity in Jordan threatens nature reserve of rare Arabian gazelle

Water collection and a lack of available supplies are putting nature reserves in the east of the country under increasing pressure.
Omani oryx

The famous Arabian oryx, a distinctive white gazelle with long black horns, is not hard to spot in the Shaumari reserve. From across the scrubland, a herd of around 20 oryxes could be seen clustered around a water pipe where a small leak has caused the vegetation to grow up green and lush.

The oryxes' survival depends on the careful management of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) at Shaumari reserve. Previously extinct in Jordan, 11 of the gazelles were reintroduced to the reserve in the east of Jordan in the late 1970s. The population has since grown to around 110 individuals in what has been hailed as a successful reintroduction program.

However, ensuring the oryxes’ well-being has been getting harder in recent years, said reserve manager Ashraf Al-Halah. “The plants here do not depend on rain, they depend on floods. But we’re noticing a change in the flooding frequency,” he told Al-Monitor.

Al-Halah explained that while the semi-arid area used to get around four or five floods a year, the water has decreased. “We received just one this year, and the last year there was none,” he said.

The lack of water is putting animal populations at risk. Al-Halah blames increased water harvesting outside the reserve.

According to Al-Halah, the RSCN was not consulted by the authorities when water collection ponds were constructed nearby, including one pond just three kilometers away in 2015.

Al-Halah said that talks on the impact of water collecting on the reserve have begun this month between the RSCN and the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Water and Irrigation. Al-Halah added that until surveys are conducted, they will not be able to start negotiations about a potential solution.

Last summer, there was a row between the RSCN and the Energy Ministry over the ministry’s plans to start copper mining in the Dana Nature Reserve. The mining plans have since been put on hold.

Al-Halah warned, “If we destroy these treasures, or destroy this heritage, it cannot be recovered.” He cannot envision a solution that doesn't involve the decommissioning of the nearby water collection ponds. He said, “We will take the conclusions [of the surveys, when done] to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Water and tell them [that] this will destroy us,” he said.

Downstream lies the Azraq wetlands reserve, an oasis that serves as a crucial stopover for migratory birds. The wetlands are also drying out dramatically.

“This is the first year I witnessed no flooding,” said Hazem Hreisha, who manages the Azraq wetlands reserve. “This is the problem. The wetlands depend on permanent freshwater.”

The Azraq wetlands used to be fed by a natural spring. However, as the groundwater was depleted, the spring dried up in the early 90s.

The oasis is now supplied by water pumped in by the Jordan Water Authority under an agreement signed in 1993, for the provision of 1.5 to 2.5 million cubic meters annually. Hreisha told Al-Monitor that the RSCN paid the water authority a one-time fee of $250,000 to secure the agreement.

However, the reserve is currently only receiving 600,000 cubic meters per year and the flow often stops on summer days. Hreisha explained that the oasis has shrunk to a tenth of its original size and needs more water to be restored to being a resilient ecosystem.

“This is the government’s responsibility,” he added. “It’s not a large quantity to provide.”

When asked if the RSCN is communicating with the Water Ministry and Irrigation about the deficit, Hreisha replied, “Every year.” He said, “They respond that they have a lot of commitments with the local community.”

As millions around the world show their support for the environment on Earth Day, Hreisha said he hopes international advocacy will pressure the government to prioritize Jordan’s nature reserves.

According to UNICEF, Jordan is the second most water-scarce country in the world. Ministry of Water and Irrigation data states that each person in the kingdom has access to around 61 liters of water per day, compared to the roughly 350 liters used by the average American.

Dawoud Isied is a hydrogeologist and CEO of Straight Light Consultants, an environmental firm. He told Al-Monitor that the current situation in the wetlands is not sustainable. “If the government needs more water, they will stop [pumping to the reserves] for people. Humans are the priority.”

He added that over-pumping is heavily straining Jordan’s water resources. He said that the Azraq basin can safely provide 30 to 35 million cubic meters per year, but twice that amount is being taken.

Isied said that destroying the water collection ponds around the reserve would not necessarily recharge the depleted aquifer, though decommissioning some would help. He said, “The sustainable solution is to use [what floodwater still comes], which is around 40 to 60 million cubic meters a year,” to recharge the aquifer and bring water to the wetlands.

Isied explained that his company has been testing a method called managed aquifer recharge in another area, with some success. “That is, I hope, the solution to the water problem in Azraq,” he said.

Engineer Hesham Halal Al-Hesa, director of the Dams Administration in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, told Al-Monitor that the water collection sites around Azraq actually benefit the local area. He stated that larger solutions than simply ending collection at the ponds are needed to address the country’s water scarcity.

Bewilderingly, he added that the Azraq area actually needs “more water harvesting because it recharges the aquifer and [provides] drinking water for the animals … and controls flood risk management.”

Al-Hesa added that the ministry is searching for additional water resources as well as working on “efficient management of water distribution.”

Al-Monitor was directed to contact an engineer in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation who is the point of contact for the project, but no responses were forthcoming.

Hreisha feels the Ministry of Water and Irrigation should be doing more to ensure the future of the reserves. “This is part of the natural heritage in Jordan,” he said. The ministry “should provide and also search for new techniques, new technologies, new alternative resources.”

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