Dispatch from Turkey and Jordan: Conservation of the wetlands

June 11, 2007

In a series of dispatches produced by Research/Penn State magazine, Josh Ambrose, a recent Penn State graduate from the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, writes from the Middle East while exploring soils of ancient and modern civilizations. Ambrose and five classmates will spend four weeks traveling Turkey and Jordan with Kate Butler, senior lecturer in soil science. Stay tuned for dispatches as Ambrose discovers and describes the relationship between soils and society.

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Dispatch 4: Jawa and Azraq, Jordan

Would we ever find our way back to the highway and out of the desert? A plume of reddish dust rose from the barely discernible outlines of a road as we began to travel south through Jordan, within sight of the Syrian border, on our way to a remote archaeological site named Jawa. Our SUVs were doing something you don't normally see them do in America--being put to good use. The "road" we were on wound through the sand and rocks, marked only by small piles of stone. The landscape was absolutely barren in every direction, bringing a new appreciation to the term "wandering in the desert."

Yet, once we eventually arrived at our destination, the environmental resourcefulness of those that used to live in the tumbled piles of stone that now topped the desert hill was striking. Cisterns and water channels ensured that every possible drop of water could be caught and utilized. It was an ingenuity that was mirrored in several other Nabataean sites we saw on our three day trek through the most arid regions of Jordan, part of an extensive trading kingdom based out of Petra that flourished around the time of Christ.

Several days later, we were back in the relatively wet area of Jordan, in the occasionally rain-fed mountains surrounding the Jordan River Valley. While riding between archaeological sites, we stopped at several interesting agricultural fields we spied along the roadside. Almost all had a sizable olive grove--one of the main cash crops of Jordan and uniquely suited for its arid climate. According to our guide, olive trees are normally cut from shoots that develop around the base of the trees. These trees take ten to twenty years to come to fruition, but can have a lifespan of hundreds of years. Recently, new cultivation strategies have developed a process where shoots are cut from the top of the tree and then immersed in plant growth hormone treatment. This leads to the new trees coming to fruition in only a year or two. The trade off, however, is that the trees only last for a maximum of 10 years or so before they cease to bear fruit.

Our soil sampling at these sites often indicated ground with an unusually high pH. Our guide told us that they plow three times per year, on such a regular basis that people refer to first, second, or third plowing as a seasonal marker. We fingered the pebble-filled soil and looked around. Nearby wheat fields waved in the breeze, causing more than a few in our group to reference the movie Gladiator.

The difference in the complexity of dwellings and cities according to the type of soils available is readily apparent, even within the relatively small geographic confines of Jordan. Out in the desert, small, typically nomadic Bedouin communities have been the norm for thousands of years, while areas with richer soils have led to the growth of cities that today number in the tens of thousands. Still, even the more agriculturally gifted areas of Jordan are increasingly feeling the strain of her expanding population. Thanks to its strategic geographic and political location, Jordan has an extremely high level of immigrants settling in her borders--including over an estimated million refugees from Iraq. Long pressed for good water sources, this has contributed to an ever growing water need in Jordan that runs a constant risk of hitting crisis levels.

This was eloquently spelled out in the oasis of the Azraq wetlands preserve we visited. Home to thousands of birds and a staggering array of biodiversity, the Azraq wetlands have been an oasis in the desert for hundreds of years. However, within the last generation, that oasis has almost completely dried up due to extensive pumping--one in four glasses of water drunk in the capital city of Amman comes from Azraq. Today, the only reason the diverse oasis continues to exist is thanks to reclaimed wastewater being pumped back into the wetlands' reed-filled banks.

The conservation of the wetlands is spearheaded by Jordan's parallel to America's National Park Service--the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). A non-governmental organization, the RSCN has nonetheless been given the responsibility of protecting and managing Jordan's natural resources. Early on in our trip, we met with the director of the RSCN, Mr. Chris Thompson, during a meeting at their headquarters in Amman. The building we met in was designed with the utmost of environmental considerations, recycling a wide variety of used consumer goods and building materials. With a motto of "Helping Nature, Helping People," Mr. Thompson eloquently described the organization's challenge of finding ways to make environmentally-friendly practices reap a greater profit for the burgeoning, resource-challenged population of Jordan.

Increasingly, eco-tourism is being seen as a way to augment the already thriving historical tourism business of Jordan that provides an income for so many of her people. Additionally, the RSCN is striving to find ways to disseminate information on protecting the country's natural resources. For example, in addition to pumping the wetlands for drinking water, the RSCN is helping to raise awareness of the value of wetlands as a living filter for water tainted by various contaminants.

Jordanians are well aware of the value of water, so such arguments carry great weight and have seen increasing success with the public. Resourcefulness is a trademark of a country that has repeatedly been listed among the ten water-poorest countries of the world. None of the places we have stayed at are linked to city pipes--all water comes from rooftop containers and are refilled by a steadily circulating fleet of water trucks. Jordan's water ingenuity can perhaps best be epitomized by the water channels of Petra, where we're headed next--the towering Nabataen city carved into a remote rock canyon and featured in the movie Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

Stay tuned for the fifth and last update and a plethora of pictures from our journeys!

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See additional photos and previous dispatches at http://www.rps.psu.edu/undergrad/ambroseintro.html online.

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  • Most of Jordan's land is not arable, but wheat and barley grow in the rain-fed uplands.

    IMAGE: terhaal.com

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Last Updated July 28, 2017