One of the joys of National Geographic is that because it's not a newspaper the editors find nothing strange about an author wandering so far afield the article is actually two or more in one writing. This style of reportage can be hard on those who just want the basic facts but the fun part is that readers unexpectedly learn about a topic they hadn't even considered before.
So it is with Peter Schwartzstein's eyes-on-the-ground report for National Geographic, Biblical Waters: Can the Jordan River Be Saved?
published February 22, 2014.
The lede is, "With the swelling ranks of Syrian refugees in Jordan, an overstressed river is at risk of going dry." Actually, as the report makes clear, there are factors going back many decades before the refugee crisis that primed the world's most famous river for extinction.
And if the objective was to ask whether the river could be saved, a couple paragraphs about the impact of Syrian refugees would have sufficed. Nonetheless Schwartzstein and his editor decided it was high time for readers outside the world of humanitarian aid to understand a little about how human nature can act when it finds itself a refugee.
At one point in the reading I couldn't help bursting into laughter. Sure there's nothing funny about the crisis but it was the laughter of recognition. As soon as I got myself oriented in a refugee camp I too would want to get hold of a washing machine.
Schwartzstein's mini-article inside the Jordan River article also points up the resourcefulness of the independent-minded refugees, who didn't sit around and wait for the International Community to organize their way of of life in the camps, as this gem from Thomas Palo, the UN's on-scene water advisor to Jordan's government, conveys:
"There's been a lot of privatization of water resources," Palo said, putting a euphemistic spin on the semi-criminal activity that has included some strong community leaders assuming ownership of public wells.
Most of the refugee population lives in underdeveloped pockets of Jordan's cities, but 6 miles (10 kilometers) east of Mafraq, 150,000 or so Syrians have made their home in Za'atari, the second largest refugee camp in the world and now the fourth largest settlement in Jordan. (Related: "First Person: Five Things I Learned in Syrian Refugee Camps.")
It frequently appears on the news as a devastating illustration of the human toll of the Syrian conflict, but it's also a compelling reminder of the additional strain levied on the region's water resources.
Four million liters (more than one million gallons) of water a day is brought into the camp by 255 tankers, which works out to about 40 liters (10.5 gallons) per person; an emergency daily standard is 18-20 liters.
It's an excessive amount, UN officials admit, but camp occupants have made a habit of taking matters into their own hands, and additional supply is needed to ensure there's enough to iron out the imbalances.
Some 71 percent of Za'atari residents have installed their own toilets, 8 percent have their own water tanks, and many families have hooked up personal hosepipes.
There are even 1,500 private washing machines, all of which tap into the camp water supply.
And it's not just water that's reappropriated: Many washrooms and other communal sanitation facilities, which are needed to reduce the risk of disease, are often dismantled soon after they're built, with their parts plundered for private use.
You can bet the washing machine owners do a brisk business in renting use of the machines.
Of course this frontier capitalism hasn't set well with Jordanians who feel overrun by Syrian refugees (it's been the same in Lebanon
, another host to large numbers of Syrian refugees):
An old farmer sleepily perched next to his fruit stand outside Mafraq sadly shook his head and just repeated "too many people, too many people," when asked about the influx of new arrivals.
Now why why why are the refugees profligate with water supplies they know are very precious? Schwartzstein doesn't go into the question beyond this passage:
"People do pretty much what they want," said Kilian Kleinschmidt, the German UN official who administers Za'atari. "They've connected themselves to electricity and water, whether we would have done it that way or not," he said.
Syrians are frequently accused by local Jordanians of having a cavalier attitude to water use, and it's not an entirely groundless charge. Many refugees come from parts of Syria where there's an abundance of water, and most haven't yet accustomed themselves to Jordan's more straitened environmental circumstances.
"They're not water conscious," said Kleinschmidt, who's trying to phase in a system of water meters, which he hopes will assuage the complaints of locals resentful of the Syrians' access to free water.
It might be more accurate to say many came from parts of Syria where there was
an abundance of water. Surely all Syrian adults in the camps remember the catastrophic drought that struck their nation from 2006 to 2010 and lingered in some parts to 2011. I don't know of a published estimate of how many Syrians fled their country before the war and because the drought destroyed their livelihoods and livestock. But I'd say it's a fair guess that several refugees fit that category.
In any case it wouldn't take a Syrian more than a few days in Jordan to realize that even for many Jordanians the water situation is difficult. This wouldn't rule out water extravagance, for want of a more descriptive term. I learned from a report about Iran's water shortages that people in Tehran are in the habit of leaving their house water taps open all day. And a report I featured recently on Pakistan's water shortages quoted an official who said that Pakistanis were extravagant with water.
This kind of extravagance could even be noted in the reaction of many Californians when they were first asked by the state's governor to conserve water after the drought deepened last year. Water usage spiked.
However, I think there's an even bigger psychological component to the kind of water usage that Peter Schwartzstein described, one that doesn't specifically relate to water. When people have to flee to what is in essence a homeless shelter, a healthy defense against mentally crippling trauma is to attempt to control some aspect of their environment, especially as it applies to the most personal needs -- toilet, bathing, keeping clothing and private surrounds clean.
So I think the behaviors Schwartzstein described relate in great measure to humans trying to make some kind of home for themselves under conditions that are almost as dehumanizing as prison. The Jordanian government's soft-pedal approach to the Syrian water hogs, which is reflected in the attitudes of UN advisors, could well be tacit acknowledgment of this.
It's just that Jordan isn't situated in a rain forest.
From the National Geographic report:
But long before the Syrian war exploded, Jordan had greatly overstretched its water resources.
The oasis at Azraq, in the desert to the east of the capital, dried out in 1990, with the water table dropping from 4 meters above the surface to 20 meters below it today. Groundwater is now being pumped into the oasis, once known as a bird-watching hot spot, to keep it alive as a tourist attraction.
Both of Jordan's principal aquifers have been overpumped by 300 percent, which means a fall of about a meter a year—far quicker than they can be replenished.
Such excessive extraction is also having a grave effect on water quality.
"When you're overpumping aquifers like this, you're mobilizing a lot of salt water, so it's not drinkable," the UN's Palo said.
Once giving the reader a tour of the refugee camps from the unusual vantage point of water usage, the report turns to issues with the Jordan River that greatly predate the Syrian refugee situation, These form a kind of Rubick's Cube involving the Sea of Galilee, Red Sea, Dead Sea, Jordan River, and human nature at work in Israeli, Jordanian, Syrian, and Palestinian disputes about water.
The upshot is complex Eleventh Hour projects to save the river and create additional potable water. The simple part is that too many people have converged on too few freshwater sources. This reduced the Upper Jordan River to a creek so polluted Schwartzstein avers Jesus would have injured himself if he'd stepped in its waters today.
For an overview of the complex part, and as introduction to the National Geographic article, I'd recommend reading, in sequential order, three brief reports from Phys.org:
Jordan River could die by 2011 -
May 2, 2010
Jordan, Israel sign deal to help save Dead Sea
- Feb 26, 2015