Engineering a Drought in Jordan

Swirling claims and counterclaims surround the decision to drain a dam, an action causing misery for local farmers and the economy

Engineering a Drought in Jordan
At a community water well in Jordan, water overflows / 2021 / Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A tsunami 27 stories tall, cutting a path of destruction to the Dead Sea — such was the nightmare scenario offered by Jordan’s former water minister as a pretext for partially emptying the Wala Dam last year.

“Tourists were terrified; residents were terrified. How can I sit by the river with my kids when the dam could collapse suddenly?” Jihad al-Janadeba, a local farmer and business owner, told me during a recent visit to the dam. “What a huge mess.”

In a September 2021 interview on Jordan’s Roya TV, previous Water Minister Motasem Saedan said he had released about 400 million gallons of water from the Wala Dam in February to prevent the structure’s catastrophic failure, which would have spawned — in his estimation — a deluge in the middle of the desert. His ministry had learned in late 2020 that the dam’s expansion, begun three years earlier, was faulty and in danger of collapse if it were filled beyond its original capacity of more than 2 billion gallons. “The design has proven to be a failure around the world,” Saedan told his interviewer.

But a month later, one of the kingdom’s top-ranking dam officials shot back in a TV interview of his own. Hesham al-Hesa, deputy secretary of the Jordan Valley Authority, said the Wala Dam was “intact, safe and stable.” He labeled the tsunami narrative “illogical and unrealistic.” He noted that of the two foreign experts Saedan had cited to bolster his case of possible structural failure, the first had never visited the dam in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the second was an expert in groundwater, not dams.

As officials exchanged rhetorical salvoes, residents of Dhiban district, which is home to the Wala Dam, took stock of the economic devastation that had befallen their farming community. The release of hundreds of millions of gallons from the dam in the winter during an unusually short rainy season, followed by an increase in the daily discharge rate over the summer — done for unclear reasons after Saedan left his post — meant the dam was dry by September 2021. Only a small, olive-green puddle at its base remained. Agriculture is Dhiban’s lifeblood, and the district’s source of irrigation water had evaporated at the peak of the planting season.

“Our water pump started pumping mud,” said Zayd al-Jamaani, one of the area’s large farm owners. He lost his entire crop of potatoes from the drought and says he owes approximately $170,000 in production costs and labor. “People are calling in their debts — I’ve got to pay workers and pay for the land.”

“All of my crops died,” said a small-land farmer sitting along the banks of the seasonal Wala River that extends 9 miles southwest from the dam. The man, Abu Hamza, said he lost about $21,000 planting eggplants last season. “Production went down to zero, but my debts stayed the same.” Local farmers have recently taken to keeping their phones off to avoid debt collectors, a cattle owner named Aatef Tawalbeh told me. He was trying to arrange interviews with people impacted by the drought, but none of his calls were going through.

The wells that authorities opened to help compensate for the water shortage proved too little too late. “A few lost everything, while a 50 to 70% loss was more common, depending on the area,” said Mohammad Ubaydat, a well-to-do teacher who owns a farm near the dam. This is to say nothing of an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 fish that perished from lack of water, per the national Fish Farmers’ Society, dealing a blow to Dhiban’s nascent fish farming industry — or of the seasonal laborers whom the drought put out of work.

Dhiban is hardly in a position to absorb such a shock. The impoverished desert district is home to a recurring, yearslong demonstration called the “unemployment tent’ organized by over-educated young men demanding jobs. It was the birthplace of Jordan’s nationwide 2011 hirak movement, an alliance of largely youth-led activists protesting for democratic reforms and against a stagnant economy and corruption. An investigative report by online magazine Hibr details how Dhiban was decimated by nationwide liberalization reforms in the 1990s, which shrunk public sector employment: Outside of agriculture, government and military service had been the area’s main source of jobs since the 1970s.

With no plausible explanation forthcoming, residents have come up with their own theories for the Wala drought. These range widely in scope but are linked by a sense that successive governments are bent on keeping the district mired in poverty and despair.

“[The government] told young men to embrace agriculture and allowed them to take water from the dam,” said Afaf Tawalbeh, who runs the local Jidhb Foundation for Training and Development. “They paid everything they had, even took out agricultural loans. And then after a while you come and take away the dam. To what end? There are unclear things going on behind the scenes,” she added.

Mohammad Sneid is an outspoken engineer and early organizer of the hirak opposition movement whose political activism has repeatedly landed him in state detention. He champions a view of the Wala fiasco shared by many residents. “The government’s excuses that the Wala Dam would collapse are baseless. The truth is there was no choice: The dam was polluted. It was emptied so that the [underlying] ground basin wouldn’t be polluted,” said Sneid, who today runs the area’s governmental agriculture station.

For years, national media have aired citizens’ complaints that during the rainy winter months, a wastewater treatment center south of Amman discharges filthy water into surrounding wadis that lead into the Wala Dam. In a December 2018 TV interview, the head of the treatment facility division at Miyahuna, which administers the plant, admitted it had released excess effluent that month. Given that the Wala Dam’s primary purpose is providing drinking water for Madaba province, enough pollution in the dam waters could spell a public health crisis. “Whoever decided to put that [Amman] facility where it is should be tried in court because they didn’t take into account the existence of a dam with drinking water,” Sneid said.

Both the Ministry of Water and the Royal Scientific Society tested the water in the Wala Dam after a major suspected pollution incident in early 2021 and declared the dam’s lake to be free of contamination from the south Amman plant. But these explanations are met with disbelief. “The color of the dam water changed: It was gray,” said Ubaydat. “If the color, taste or odor of water changes, then it’s polluted — you don’t need to go to a lab!”

Perhaps residents are quick to discount official narratives because they have grown accustomed to empty government talk. “No university, no agricultural college, nothing — for decades we’ve been hearing about these things, but nothing has reached Dhiban,” remarked Afaf Tawalbeh. During a February 2020 visit to Dhiban, the head of King Abdullah II’s Royal Diwan (court) said that developing the local agricultural and tourism sectors was a priority of the monarchy. A former water minister told the king’s adviser and accompanying ministerial delegation that farmers would be provided with abundant water from the Wala. The next year, the dam dried up.

“I’ve got national duties towards the leadership and the country while I don’t have bread, and my kid is going to school cold and nearly barefoot?” asked Fuad Qabilat, who was among the hirak movement’s early Dhiban organizers. His olive and cactus farm barely produces due to lack of water, and he complains of invasive strip searches recorded on prison cameras during his arrests for political activism. “The pressure, the frustration, the citizen trampled, his rights taken away, his dignity violated” all sap the enjoyment out of life, says Qabilat. His anger is palpable.

The Wala fiasco crippled Dhiban’s moribund economy. But its symbolic significance extends far beyond the district’s borders, as it represents one of several questions hanging over the administration of the national water sector — where the margin for error is nonexistent. Each Jordanian citizen’s share of water has shrunk from about 900,000 gallons annually in 1964, to 25,000 gallons today, a fifth of the threshold defined by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization as “absolute water scarcity.” Meanwhile, the country loses over 90% of its rainfall to evaporation, its groundwater basins are depleting, and the weather is only getting hotter and dryer.

Governmental water expert Muna Hindia alluded to another question in a recent Mamlaka TV interview. She said that 25 billion gallons of potable water a year, nearly a tenth of the entire 2019 annual water budget, irrigates several private farms that grow citrus fruits for export. She declined to name the farms’ owners. Yet another question was raised by an April 2021 press release from the national Anti-Corruption Council. It stated that a former (unnamed) water minister had awarded a 14.8-million-dinar contract ($20.9 million) to a company he owned a stake in, to dig water wells that experts had previously deemed “extremely hot, highly salty, and containing alpha and beta rays 20-50 times the Jordanian standard.”

Suspicions of corruption have been raised about the Wala Dam’s expansion contract as well. Last December, the government’s Audit Bureau republished on its website, without comment, an investigative report by news website Saraya, which reads as a full-throated defense of Saedan for swiftly emptying the dam and preventing a tsunami. The Saraya investigation describes the dam’s expansion as shoddy and tinged with graft. It includes a leaked letter sent by the Audit Bureau’s chief to the Ministry of Water in August 2021, asking why the value of the expansion work had been increased more than 25% without going through proper legal channels — and why a previous overpayment to the contractor had yet to be corrected.

Yet these queries are not proof of corruption, and current authorities insist the dam is sound. Manar Mahasana, chief of the Jordan Valley Authority, emphasized to New Lines that the government intends to fill the Wala to its post-expansion limit of more than 6 billion gallons, saying that “there is no fear the dam will fail.” She attributed last year’s drought to a combination of poor rainfall, high temperatures, and local farmers’ excessive use of irrigation water. Mahasana added that the government’s decision to discharge water from the dam during the rainy season was meant to ensure a gradual rate of fill for the Wala — recommended practice for a newly completed structure — rather than to avert disaster.

The structural failure narrative advanced by Saedan presupposes an astonishing level of negligence from the four companies involved in the dam’s expansion, including the Turkish contractor AGE INSAAT, the Pakistani designer NESPAK — both with decades of dam-building experience — and their two Jordanian counterparts. It also presupposes that from the time construction began on the Wala’s expansion in 2017 until Saedan assumed his post in 2020, no one realized or spoke up about the structure’s potential for catastrophic collapse.

Who to believe? Inured to neglect and empty promises, Dhiban’s residents seem largely to have given up on learning the truth. The recent distribution of compensation payments, which brought a small measure of relief to some impacted farmers, is probably the best resolution to the Wala fiasco they could hope for, given that government accountability in Jordan is as far-fetched a concept as a tsunami in the desert.

“You need to remove the phrase ‘taking personal responsibility’ from your dictionary in Jordan. Delete it entirely,” Aatef Tawalbeh said. “The Jordanian official is always right. Even prophets might make mistakes, but the Jordanian official does not.”

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