A Rainy Jordan: Where Does All That Water Go?

There’s no doubt about it, the talk of the town, if not the country this past weekend, has been about the “bad” weather, which in dry Jordan is actually considered good weather by the majority. Rain has been avoiding this little Kingdom like a kid avoids asparagus. Watching those meteorological reports these past few weeks it seems rain has touched ground in even the driest of cities in the region and just when it was approaching Jordan, it would take a sudden detour, snubbing us in the process. It is kind of ironic since the gift of natural resources, including oil, seems to have graced everyone near us except us, and now the same goes with natural phenomena like rain.

In any case. Everyone has been praying for rain – sometimes literally – and it has arrived. Rejoice. In fact, it’s even started to snow and the schools are all closed today. It’s doubtful that the snow will “stick” around, so to speak, but nevertheless, the point of this particular post is not a mere weather report.

I often wonder about how much water we waste in this country. We are one of the fourth poorest water nation in the world and we rarely act like it. If anything, we often find ourselves living and behaving as if we have an abundance of water. Yes, we have a bunch of dams, some which remain relatively empty throughout the year, but much of our water comes through neighboring nations who we often do not get along with. In other words, Jordan is a country that controls little of its water destiny.

Here in hilly Amman, the geography of the city gives you the opportunity to see just how much is wasted, especially with every street overflowing with water. In some cases, like Ras il-Ein, water descends from every surrounding hill and floods the streets, turning City Hall in to an island, if not a basin, if only temporarily. While granted, we don’t have a “flooding” problem like some countries do, our street are flooded, if only temporarily, partly due to geography and partly due to questionable infrastructure.

But that being said, I’m reminded of the fact that in Jordan it usually rains for about one week of the year. Perhaps all together, we are lucky enough to get 10 days of full-impact rain. Yet, for a country as dry as Jordan, are we doing all we can to capture that rain fall?

In Petra, the Nabateans etched an irrigation system in to every hill, so that when it did rain, anything falling from the top of the hill would find its way to a reserve. Nearly every hill in that stone city in the middle of the desert, has an engraved drain pipe running along the side of each hill. The same can be said of Wadi Rum, where even in the middle of a desert you can find a prehistoric water well that still collects water from surrounding mountains to this day using the same technique.

And I think to myself, if these “ancient civilizations”, the supposed fore-fore-fathers of this land knew how precious water is and that every drop mattered, why don’t we? If they managed to create something that simple in order to harness it, why is so much of our rain water being wasted?

My emphasis here is on rain water, so I am putting aside all the other ways in which we, as a country, as a government and as a people are wasteful when it comes to water.

Yes, feasibility comes into question. Yet, I’m pretty positive that if the Japanese lived here instead of us, you would see the most sophisticated technology being utilized to capture every drop. It’s one of the most common things in Jordan to see people open their rooftop water tanks when it rains to collect rain water. I’ve even seen buckets being used.

And in the context of a country that not only gets little rain, but lacks any control over its water destiny – in its geopolitical context – maybe the state should consider implementing a completely innovative solution or system instead of waiting for the western world to think of one before we copy it several decades later.

Necessity is the mother of invention, isn’t it?


  • I read once that around 47% of all of Amman’s water supply ends up being wasted because of old or leaky pipes. I can’t remember the source of that information and it has been a couple years since I read it, but having seen evidence of this many times, I’m inclined to believe it.

    I hear that the government has contracted out to a US engineering organization to begin changing out the old piping infrastructure and it will be several years before the project is complete. This might just be hearsay, but my source was a more reliable one who is normally “in-the-know”. It seems like an insurmountable task, however, given the chaotic design of the city in some places.

  • One of the questions I always have is why the government doesn’t build more damns in the north and in areas where the rainfall is high. Also there must be new ways to gather most of this wasted water, the nabateans did long time ago, can’t we?
    good post

  • Speaking about Jordan’s water problems, did you read about the Duke university study that found high levels of carcinogens in the Disi water in Jordan? I first read about the story on Ammon, and it was followed by a quick dismissal from the government. Here’s the abstract for the research paper:

    Vengosh, A., Hirschfeld, D., Vinson, D.S., Dwyer, G.S. Raanan, H., Rimawi, O., Al-Zoubi, A., Akkawi, E., Marie, A., Haquin, G., Zaarur, S., and Ganor, J., High Naturally Occurring Radioactivity in Fossil Groundwater in the Middle East, Environ Sci & Technol (2008) .
    (last updated on 2008/12/20)

    High levels of naturally occurring and carcinogenic radium isotopes have been measured in low-saline groundwater from the Disi sandstone aquifer in Jordan. The combined 228Ra and 226Ra activities are up to 2000% higher than international drinking water standards. Analyses of the host sandstone aquifer rocks show 228Ra and 226Ra activities and ratios that are consistent with previous reports of sandstone rocks from different parts of the world. A compilation of previous data in groundwater from worldwide sandstone aquifers shows large variations in Ra activities regardless of the groundwater salinity. Based on the distribution of the Ra isotope quartet and the ratios of the short- to long-lived Ra isotopes, we postulate that Ra mobilization is controlled by the balance of radioactive decay of parent isotopes on aquifer solids, decay of the dissolved radium isotopes, and adsorption of dissolved Ra on solid surfaces. The availability of surface adsorption sites, which depend on the clay content in the aquifer rocks, is therefore an important constraint for Ra activity in sandstone aquifers. These findings raise concerns about the safety of this and similar non-renewable groundwater reservoirs, exacerbating the already severe water crisis in the Middle East.

    The response of our esteemed and very capable new government was to express its “astonishment” at these “sayings” given that “there’s nothing wrong with the water.”

  • Some people build rain water collecting wells for their houses, but they are usually not very big. But at least that’s a start.

    The subsidized price of water is causing totally wrong consumption patterns. Just go to any rich neighborhood in the summer and just have a look at the water wasted by egyptian gardeners and guards to wash pavements. It’s criminal!

    If the government even attempts thinking about raising water prices, all political hell will break loose. It is one of the the “unthinkable” thing in Jordan.

    It’s one of the many deformations of the Jordanian life style and economy. Foreign aid, a remittance based economy and other perhaps cultural factors have totally screwed up our production and consumption patterns.

  • The subsidized price of water is causing totally wrong consumption patterns. Just go to any rich neighborhood in the summer and just have a look at the water wasted by egyptian gardeners and guards to wash pavements. It’s criminal!

    In some cities in the US, watering restrictions are enforced when the city undergoes a drought season. Of course, the “drought” I’m talking about here is more like torrential rain by Jordanian standards, but my point is that the government can impose restrictions on watering lawns or hosing cars and pavements at homes in order to preserve consumption.

  • Absolutely. More must be done. My husband and I talk about this everytime it snows and rains. Where is it all going? We have even thought that they should come around and scoop up all the snow and store it for melting. I know it is not very feasible, but it sounds good. Ha.

    I think you were right on about waiting for someone else to do it first and then we’ll copy it. Ha. Just like pretty much no one in this country has an original idea to name their store…easier to copy someone else. Are we really that lazy and unimaginative? Sure didn’t use to be this way, Arabs used to innovators. What happened????


  • If we had to carry water from a well as in the days of old, we would be a lot more careful about using it.

    I think this would be a good 7iber interactive topic. Let the young folks take the lead in changing consumption habits.

  • The water that runs down the hills of Amman used to be channeled in the old Amman Seil that was the main water body in the Kingdom moving down to Russeifa and Zarqa. The seil was the heart of Amman and the reason why the city was even inhabited. The seil is now “roofed” because of the pressure of urbanization and the water runs down on asphalt and gets evaporated instead of recharging the groundwater wells.
    Water harvesting is the most importantb tool for collecting water. The newly developed Water Demand management plan for Jordan requires that each building should have a water collection system that will provide drinking or irrigation sources to the building as a reservoir. This is one major step forward if it is implemented better than the “no smoking” policy!

  • To this day, my nephew shuts the water when he is brushing his teeth! Screams at me when i do not. He learnt that in school in the USA! He is in Amman and is still saving water! We need to make it part of education. He is now 9!

  • There needs to be a storm water system, separate from the sewer system that would direct the rain runoff to dams or reservoirs. That of course is a huge undertaking and reflects the lack of vision and planning, as the kingdom’s streets were dug up when the sewer system went in the last two decades.

  • My husband’s from the “seil” in Haddadeh. Thanks for that info, Batir. Sounds like you are involved in this kind of work? (water preservation?)

Your Two Piasters: