Use Fossil Water Now, or Save It for Later?

Jordan's groundwater from the desert will be transported to Amman, a trade-off between consuming a strategic resource, and keeping the country up and running.

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This segment is part of the Engineers of the New Millennium: The Global Water Challenge Special Report.

Transcript: Jordan's Ancient Water Problem

Othman Kurdi: We're not just mining water. We need water, urgently need it.

Francesco Ferorelli: Othman Kurdi is in charge of an ambitious plan to pump groundwater from Jordan's desert and transport it all the way across the country, to Amman. It's called the Disi Water Conveyance Project, and Kurdi's office at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation is buzzing with activity.

Othman Kurdi: The project is meant to convey about 100 million cubic meters from the Disi area to Amman through a piping conveyor system.

Francesco Ferorelli: That's 3.5 billion cubic feet of water that will travel 200 miles, mostly uphill. A cubic foot is roughly the size and weight of a bulldog, so in one year, they'll pump the equivalent of 3½ billion short, stocky dogs through a pipeline.

Othman Kurdi: It's not rocket science, but it is a challenge, it's a megaproject.

Francesco Ferorelli: Amman's residents will be drinking water that dribbled into the ground during the Pleistocene era some 35 000 years ago. This water basically hasn't moved since mastodons and Neanderthals prowled the planet. Susan Kilani is a water ministry official, and she considers the fact that any amount of Disi water they drink will be irreplaceable.

Susan Kilani: Any amount you withdraw, it will be somehow beyond the safe yield.

Francesco Ferorelli: Deciding to pump this water is a trade-off between consuming a strategic resource and keeping the country up and running.

Susan Kilani: We have increasing demand, increasing population, increasing investment in the country, which needs more water. Always the demand is rising up.

Francesco Ferorelli: Demand is rising for water that was scarce to begin with. Nisreen Haddadin, a resource planner for the ministry, explains.

Nisreen Haddadin: Our main water resource is the rainfall.

Francesco Ferorelli: She just said that one of Jordan's main sources of water is rainfall. That's puzzling, because 80 percent of Jordan is desert.

Nisreen Haddadin: The desert area, the rainfall there is less than 100 millimeters per year.

Francesco Ferorelli: That means most of Jordan gets considerably less rainfall than the Gobi Desert. So rain in the highlands, the remaining 20 percent, is the real water resource.

Nisreen Haddadin: And in the highlands, the evaporation is very high, like it reaches more than 90 percent.

Francesco Ferorelli: In other words, Jordanians don't get nearly enough water. With Amman's population booming, more extreme measures start to sound reasonable—such as tapping into nonreplenishable resources 200 miles away. There's even a twist: This water happens to be highly radioactive. And that raises a whole other set of problems. But Kurdi says he has a simple solution.

Othman Kurdi: We don't need any treatment for Disi water except for blending.

Francesco Ferorelli: Blending the water with Amman's current supply might dilute the radioactivity down to acceptable levels. For now, no one can be sure that the water will come out clean and safe to drink. Kurdi is convinced he'll make it work.

Othman Kurdi: We gonna implement this project for sure, inch'allah, we say, God willing. We'll implement this project because this is what we need. And by the way, this will not solve the problem of Jordan; this will just maintain the status quo of the supply, i.e., once a week.

Francesco Ferorelli: Residents will continue to have water deliveries just once a week. Radioactivity aside, drinking fossil water buys Jordan time for what the water ministry really dreams of building: the Red-Dead Canal, a man-made waterway that would connect the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, remaking Jordan's landscape along the way.

Francesco Ferorelli: For Spectrum Radio, I'm Francesco Ferorelli.