Water in the desert: Aqaba farming project nurtures hope in Jordan’s arid south

Technology to use desalinated water from the Red Sea could help to address severe water shortages in the country

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The hot and arid desert in southern Jordan is an unlikely spot to find an agricultural project using seawater to produce colourful crops all year round. But the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) is doing just that, using a sustainable energy model, while actively encouraging female participation in the farming sector.

In a water-scarce country like Jordan, finding alternative water sources is a priority and SFP sees its approach as the future for desert farming.

Although still in its testing stage at a site 20 minutes’ drive from the port city of Aqaba, the Norwegian agricultural project was a major supplier of produce to local businesses and cruise ships before the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to its saltwater-cooled greenhouses.

SFP aims to scale up its operation from its 2,000 square metre launch site to a 60,000 sq m commercial project, beginning its expansion next year. From 2021, it will supply a range of produce to Norway's largest fruit and vegetables importer, BAMA.

“Jordan is one of the water poorest countries in the whole world [so] our concept is to use seawater,” says SFP country director Frank Utsola.

“We use the sun to create energy with solar panels and we are using that energy mainly [to power] a [reverse osmosis] unit so we produce fresh water which we use inside the green houses.”

The leftover brine is then used to cool down the greenhouses, which are positioned to optimise use of the predominantly northerly wind. Following this, the waste brine is then evaporated to produce salt which can also be sold. In the winter, pre-heated water is circulated through pipes to heat the greenhouses.

Jordan's water supplies are declining at a critical rate. Its water table has dropped to tens of metres below ground as a result of lenient policy allowing water to be pilfered, in addition to leaking pipes and the impact of global warming, according to the scientific journal Nature.

Ten of Jordan’s 12 groundwater basins are being pumped at a deficit and in many parts of the country groundwater is being replenished at half the rate it is being extracted, according to the Jordanian water ministry.

Jordanian hydrogeologist Marwan Al Raggad fears some areas of Jordan may only have a 50-year supply of groundwater remaining.

Agriculture in Jordan consumes more than 50 per cent of the country’s overall water supply. Farmers are already having to drill deeper to access water supplies, whereas others receive a limited water supply from the government which could be as little as two hours per day, says Mr Utsola.

The Aqaba project is only the second one of its kind in the world, according to SFP – the other being a separately-run farm in Australia.

“The technology is easy but, to be frank, the price of fresh water is too low,” says Mr Utsola, explaining why more people are not utilising seawater. “Most farmers have subsidised water from the government, or they drill wells and use the groundwater.

He says the initial investment is high but the operational costs of the project are almost nothing.

For the time being, SFP relies on trucks to deliver the seawater from the Red Sea but there are plans to build a private pipeline to supply the commercial project. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, supplying water through a pipeline will be dramatically cheaper.

Mohammad Al Shakran, chief executive of the Aqaba Development Corporation, says he expects the terms of the project to be finalised within the next month and construction to start immediately after that.

“By the end of 2021 the project will be up and running,” he says.

Mr Al Shakran hopes SFP will pave the way to a change in agricultural methods among local farmers by demonstrating how to succeed in this approach, and in doing so, changing their attitudes towards water conservation and sustainable agriculture.

Another way in which SFP is doing this is by partnering with the Al Hussein Technology University (HTU) to provide further training for women who studied in related fields but have yet to find employment. The university offers theoretical education over three months and SFP provides the hands-on experience.

The first group of women who visited in October learnt to carry out a range of tasks, from preparing a compost blend of peat moss and ground coconut shell, to planting bok choy and harvesting green peppers.

For Lozan Al Ajouz, 24, the trip was her first time away from family. “My parents were not convinced initially but now that I have been able to do this, hopefully I will have more independence from now on," she said.

Ms Al Ajouz studied Water Management and Environment at Hashemite University and currently works at a start-up that recycles wastewater for agricultural use.

“It’s really important to raise your children in a way that they are aware of recycling, saving water, knowing what you eat and the efforts that go into growing these plants,” she says.

"We have such an issue with water in Jordan and we have to focus more on resolving it."
Reem Khashman, co-ordinator of industrial links and international co-operation at HTU, says the university's aim is to create upskilling opportunities for the community through a range of courses.

The university’s collaboration with SFP provides the project with a pool of people to recruit from, Ms Khashman says.

“We are serving the whole sector by providing equipped women.”