Tags: Middle East/North Africa
By James Garza, Water for Food Institute student intern and global studies major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln
A team of Water for Food Institute staff and four student interns traveled to Amman, Jordan March 18-26 to learn first-hand about the impacts of the Syrian crisis on neighboring countries and the difficulties local governments face in providing water and food to thousands of refugees. The students also explored Jordanian culture and history, including visits to world-famous archeological sites. The team showcased what they learned during the conference, “Water Scarcity, Human Security and Democratization: Aspects and Impacts of the Syrian Crisis,” April 19 at Nebraska Innovation Campus. WFI intern James Garza shares his experience.
Jordan’s relative stability and motivated government make it a central place for international cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa. Various organizations have been in place for decades in Jordan, but only recently has the country received attention due to its response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
My recent visit to Jordan highlighted international cooperation that is being used to respond the crisis, as well as the history of cooperation between the Jordanian government and various organizations before Syrian refugees were in the minds of every Jordanian.
After interviewing officials from organizations such as USAID, the Arab Countries Water Utilities Association and the University of Jordan, a common theme emerged of two sides of a solution to the water scarcity issues facing Jordan.
The element of cultural and community inclusion in solving water distribution issues was advocated by regional organizations such as Eco-Peace and GIZ Jordan at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation.
Water user associations were created in order to give small communities of farmers and other water consumers a voice in the decision-making process regarding water distribution. Often times, disputes over water and where it should go originate from tribal claims that date back hundreds of years. Navigating centuries old norms regarding water usage with projects utilizing modern technology is proving difficult for the Jordanian government and the Jordan valley.
Although Jordanian and Arab water professionals advocate for such associations as a smart solution, western professionals in Jordan seem to not agree. When speaking to organizations from western countries such as the United States, these water user associations were described as a waste of money. Some feel that the money and time spent on these associations can be better used to fund the many projects the kingdom needs to use their water more efficiently.
The farmers that make up these water-sharing associations are also criticized for the crops that they insist on growing as well. Crops such as bananas and tomatoes require amounts of water that are not sustainable in Jordan, and yet are still being grown. Although there are efforts by researchers and the government to replace the crops grown with ones that require less water, some of these plants have a cultural significance that is a challenge.
One crop in particular that is widely grown in Jordan, yet requires irrigation is the olive tree. It is believed among Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad said, “anoint yourself with olive oil because it comes from a blessed tree.” The olive tree is referenced in the holy texts of Islam and remains today a significant part of agriculture in Jordan and the Levantine area.
One American official working on projects to help Jordan use its water more efficiently in agriculture expressed his dismay for the growth of olive trees in Jordan. Olive trees are meant to be rain-fed, yet are irrigated due to the arid climate they are grown in.
Although many of the organizations working on water scarcity and drought prevention in Jordan would love to see the farmers give up plants such as the olive tree, there is a cultural barrier set in place with deeper roots than some people may believe.
The solution to this problem needs to address the financial requirements for the projects while balancing the cultural norms associated with farming that date back hundreds and even thousands of years. This is where international cooperation is crucial between western and eastern oriented organizations. From what I saw in Jordan, I believe all organizations are aware of these issues and are not wasting time to work together to solve a water problem that is turning into a crisis.
James, originally from Laredo, Texas, is a junior undergraduate student working on a bachelor’s degree in global studies with minors in Arabic, history, and national security studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. James’ regional specialization is the Middle East and North Africa, with an emphasis on security issues in the region. James is president of the Great Plains National Security Education Consortium, a student organization affiliated with UNL’s national security program. In addition to management and leadership of the 60+ member organization, he is also working on research regarding deterrence of cyber-attacks on U.S. space assets in addition to developing an intelligence simulation to compete for a contract with the Defense Intelligence Agency. James has spent time studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan in addition to traveling with a University of Nebraska delegation in Oman.
He hopes to help guide policy on the Middle East for U.S. decision-makers and work in diplomacy to build relationships with other countries in the Middle East. He hopes that his experience at WFI will give him insight on critical environmental issues that are drivers in issues in the Middle East and North Africa today.