'We don't have money for meat': Jordanian farmers' crops dwindle due to poor rainfall

Many feel effects of drier season, although some have illegal access to water

A farmer tends to his goats that roam close to the sinkholes in Ghor Haditha in Jordan. Getty
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

Jordanian farmer Abu Mohammad earned $2,800 every season from an apricot crop north of Amman, until the trees died two years ago.

“Rain lessened and spring water became too weak,” says Abu Mohammad, who tended to the trees in Jerash governorate on behalf of their owners in return for half the revenue.

His loss illustrates the risks of farming in Jordan, an arid country with some of the least rainfall in the world, and the social-political conditions that influence who receives water.

Rain across the kingdom this season averaged 168 millimetres, according to data by Jordan Meteorological Department. This was 88 per cent more than last season, but still below the 210mm average.

In Jerash, an agricultural area since Roman times, rainfall this season reached only 57 per cent of its 340 millimetre average, according to the official data.

Yields of other crops in Jerash have also fallen.

In March, Abu Mohammad harvested 180kg almonds from his trees — a far cry from the 1.7 tonnes he picked from the same plot last year.

A prime, four-hectare olive grove he manages made only 120 litres of olive oil in the previous picking season, in October, less than one-fifth of the olive oil pressed the season before.

This decline has heavily affected Abu Mohammad’s livelihood, who is now struggling to make payments on his tractor, paid for by one of his employers. Iftar meals of his five-member family this Ramadan have been devoid of meat.

“Meat has been written off from our shopping,” he says.

“We no longer have the money.”

Desert competition

Abu Mohammad does not only have the weather to contend with.

Increasingly, over the past decade, desert regions to the east of Jerash have been planted with olives, apricots, peaches and other crops traditionally grown in rain-fed areas in the kingdom.

The desert plots are irrigated by wells dug into water reservoirs that cannot be replenished.

“The people there are accessing water non-stop and can produce a high quality crop consistently,” Abu Mohammad says.

“It is hard for Jerash to compete.”

Instead of apricots, Abu Mohammad and other farmers in Jerash have been planting sour green plums known as janerik.

“Luckily, cultivation janerik did not succeed in the desert,” he says, expecting low margins this year, even for the janerik, because it has rained so little,” Abu Mohammad says.

Contrasting fortunes

In Al Mafraq, an area north-east of Amman near the Syrian border, a relative of Abu Mohammad is making enough to live a comfortable life as farmer.

His relative, Mouafaq, manages an olive grove and other farmland in the area, on behalf of tribal landowners. From the olives alone in October-November last year, he made $30,000.

Falling prices of solar panels in the past decade have encouraged more people to dig wells in Al Mafraq, often illegally, and use the solar energy to pump the water for newly established olive and fruit farms, he says.

“Some of the farm owners may have obtained a license to dig one well,” says Mr Mouafaq. “They end up digging a dozen.”

In the north of the governorate, along a border strip with Syria, olive groves dot the landscape, connected by unpaved roads.

One farm, manned by Syrian refugees, has a large pool of water, filled from a pumping station connected to a well. A private solar farm provided the energy.

Agriculture professor Jawad Al Bakri says that while illegal water-use should be curbed, water should be priced according to how efficiently it is used.

At the same time, he suggests connecting rain-fed areas to wells to compensate for the lack of rain, while reducing the overall draw of groundwater.

“We need better water management,” says Prof Bakri, who teaches at the University of Jordan.

“I am against planting olives in the desert,” he says.

“Using much less groundwater, more olives can be planted in rain-fed regions.”

Preventing illegal water use

Until recently, influence enjoyed by tribes and clans in Al Mafraq, and other outlying regions, have contributed to keeping illegal water use out of the realm of public discussion.

Inhabitants of these areas have traditionally underpinned the security forces and acted as a bedrock of support for the country’s political system. Last year, however, the authorities started a campaign to curb water theft.

It was partly in response to requests from Western donors, who are the main financiers of water projects in the kingdom.

Seventy wells that drew “large amounts” of water were shut down across the kingdom in the last several months, Water Ministry spokesman Mohammad Salameh said in early April.

“A number of the aggressors have been arrested, in addition to large fines,” Mr Salameh said, pointing out a total of 570 illegal wells discovered so far.

Many of the wells near the Syrian border are 400 to 500 metres deep. But in Al Azraq, near the border with Saudi Arabia to the south, water can be reached significantly closer to the surface.

A farmer in the area says one businessman had invested $1.5 million to build in a solar plant to power a cluster of illegal well in the area.

The Jordan Water Authority discovered the infractions and recently fined him $1.7 million, the farmer says.

“The authority is getting better at knowing where the violations are,” the farmer says.

“But there are limits to how forcefully it can act.”

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Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:50 PM