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Greenhouse Effect

As The world warms, the dry areas of the globe are growing even drier. in Jordan, some villages are already working on what to do when the rain stops coming. Words by Allison Ford. Photography by Josh Estey/CARE. Originally published in Jo Magazine.

The last time rain fell in Bayoudeh was February 10. The land has only gotten dryer since then. People in and out of Jordan like to talk about how water poor the country really is, but 2008 arrived to prove it with a vengeance.

Um Mubarak increases the yeild of her trees with
mulch, and grows cactuses with gray water.

Bayoudeh is a small village of about 3,500 people. It sits wedged between the Jordan valley and its highlands, perched on the slopes among the few remaining wild oak trees and stretches of olives. It’s been a dry year, but compared to the over-grazed hills deep in the Valley, Bayoudeh looks positively lush. Most of the modest stone houses are nestled in pockets of vegetation; even dried out vegetation is better than none, and in this year of almost no rain, the brown patches under the trees are crisp with dried grasses and low-lying, water-hardy plants.

In the last rainy season, the land got only about 60 percent of the average rainfall expected from the wet season, according to Sameeh Nuimat, the permaculture project manager at CARE International, Jordan. The average is about 400mm of rain, in a season lasting from November to April. This year, the rains came from December to February, and deposited only 302 mm.

Farmers all over Jordan are feeling the water crunch. The Jordan Valley Authority has banned planting during the summer months, and has limited the amount of water available per parcel of crop land.

For several years, scientists have been predicting that global climate changes might shift rainfall towards the poles and away from some already arid temperate areas. Whether Jordan’s recent dry spell is just a fluctuation, or a sign of things to come, is anyone’s guess. But it begs the question, what is the future of Jordan’s rural farming villages if the country’s already sparse rainfall gets even sparser?

In Bayoudeh, eight small family farms are trying to create a model for that future.

Orderly and domestic, the farm could be seen as the antithesis to nature. But permaculturists say this is not the case.

A villager holds out handfuls of rich soil,
composted from organic waste.

Australian scientist Bill Mollison, credited with coining the term “permaculture,” called it “a design system for creating sustainable human environments,” by integrating the built environment with natural cycles.

So, for example, instead of building a cement house that traps heat and depending on large amounts of energy to cool it electronically, permaculture encourages using local materials that are naturally heat resistant (such as mud) and positioning the house to protect the its interior from the day’s heat.

As a philosophy, permaculture begins by looking at sustainability at a household level and working outwards—household to yard and farm, and farm to community.

The farms in Bayoudeh participating in the project are run by local families, with technical assistance and support from CARE International and funding from HSBC bank.

Getting twice the mileage out of household water means substantial savings for farmers

Nuimat, the project manager, proudly shows off the elements of a holistically designed house and farm system.

Rainwater is collected in catchments on the roof of a house, and flows through pipes into a filtration system that uses gravel and sand to collect debris. It is then stored in an underground well, where it can be pumped for use by the family.

Leftover food feeds chickens, which root around under the trees, aerating soil. Mobile chicken “tractors”—simple wire and wood structures that can be moved around to contain the birds in different areas—let farmers manage the spread of chicken manure, which acts as fertilizer.

Pests are controlled with natural mixes made out of onion, garlic, tobacco, and neem oil. In addition to being efficient and non-toxic to people or plants, the homemade pesticides are cheap: conventional ones are often petroleum based and prone to volatile price leaps.

Organic waste is composted into nutrient rich soil, which is applied to plants and covered with mulch, which prevents moisture evaporation. Contours in the land create water catchments that allow plants to drink their fill, and prevent erosion. A compost toilet reduces the need for water.

In permaculture, there is a use for just about everything. One particularly clever system makes beneficial use out of the eucalyptus tree’s tendency to suck up water, crowding out other plants in the vicinity. Often demonized by ecologists as the quintessential invasive species, at the CARE Visitor’s Center, the eucalyptus was intentionally planted next to the cesspit, where waste from the latrine is composted under ground.

“It acts as a water pump,” Nuimat explained, “sucking up waste water and purifying it.” Furthermore, bees are attracted to the plant; keeping bees could be the next step, allowing people to effectively make honey out of human waste! Indeed, there was nothing around the site but the faint but pleasant scent of eucalyptus.

Gray water systems, which reuse household waste water from sinks, showers, and washing (not toilets), are another important component of coping with scarcity. Getting twice the mileage out of household water by cycling it through the farm means substantial savings for farmers, as well as minimizing the impact of pumping water out of natural systems.

Khadeeja, from bayoudeh, sits atop sacks of compost waiting for sale.

Mulch is one of the keys to ensuring efficient water use on the farms. It traps the water in the soil, preventing evaporation, which causes a significant percentage of water loss. This is key to maximizing the use a farmer can get out of a drop of water.

According to Nuimat, the high natural evaporation rates of water from the land is crux of the region’s water struggle. The whole region around Bayoudeh gets an average of 350-450 mm of rainfall of year, he says, but evaporation rates are as much as 1,500-1,600 mm a year.

“The rainfall levels in London are about that much—300 mm a year,” Nuimat says. “But they have an equal evaporation rate, so it’s not the same.”

Working in conjunction with the Volunteer Society in Bayoudeh, CARE has helped set up eight demonstration farms and refurbished the Volunteer Society building to use as an educational center. The building itself is a part of the demonstration. Built in a time when energy for heating and air conditioning was not readily available, the 120-yearold mud-and-stone house provides welcome reprieve from the intense summer sun, with walls more than a foot thick.

The project itself came about after CARE participated in another project, EMPOWERS, which asked local people to analyze their water demand, in the hope that that would lead to better conservation practices.

“We were looking at water, but not what people were needing that water for,” explains Harriet Dodd, country director of CARE.

“Unless we looked at land use, it didn’t really matter what we found out about water.”

Industrialized agriculture is increasingly under fire for being damaging to the environment, using up water resources, depleting soils and pouring pesticides and herbicides into land and water. It’s easy enough to demand that agriculture become more sustainable, but at the heart of the problem is how to grow enough food to keep feeding the world.

Pests are controlled
with natural mixes
made out of onion,
garlic, tobacco,
and neem oil

It is a constant refrain amongst environmentalists that Jordan’s agricultural sector uses about 70 percent of the country’s available water, while contributing a modest 4-6 percent of its GDP.

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a regional environmental non-profit holds that position that if Jordan is to realistically deal with its water shortage, export agriculture is not a viable economic activity.

“We should not export our water outside the region,” says Abdel Rahman Sultan, of FOEME. “We export our products at [a] minimum economic yield … Our water is being subsidized to benefit other countries. This is not a wise practice. Agriculture should be limited for domestic use only.” He further points out that in spite of unwise water use for export agriculture, Jordan has never reached food-supply independence, “so there is no point in putting more pressure on natural resources.”

But doing away with agriculture in a country where just about everyone has some kind of rural roots is not such an easy task.

While numbers highlighting the disparity between water use and contribution to GDP are hard to deny, CARE’s Jordanian director argues that this statistic doesn’t paint the whole picture:

“How many people are being fed by agriculture that falls under the GDP radar?” Dodd asks.

And agriculture is much more than the Production of food. “Agriculture contributes hugely to identity, if not GDP,” Dodd says. “I don’t think that Jordan wants to see its rural societies completely diluted. It goes much deeper than GDP. It’s about tribal lands, cultural history.”

Tribal elders from al rajef, in the eastern badia, make a visit to bayoudeh to see the
benefits of adopting drought-tolerant crops like pistachio and rain-fed okra.

Khadeeja pours excess water into an
underground storage system, for later use.

This attachment to rural lands and the water that sustains them could be the crux that eventually pushes people towards finding a solution to the problems. In addition to the cultural value of agricultural lifestyles, Dodd questions the alternative to the employment that agriculture offers. Without farming, people in the villages would have few options. There would be a huge influx of people from the rural communities into Amman— one that could easily be unsustainable.

“Does Amman want to have a sprawling ghetto around its edges?” she asks. The alternative, she says, is finding ways to maintain rural lifestyles. The CARE project is small scale and rural, and that’s one of the reasons it seems to work.

“We don’t come in with a blueprint,” Dodd says; the focus is on experimentation on what is right for a particular community.

In just over a year, the demonstration farms are flourishing. Plants grown using permaculture techniques have been shown to have more vegetation and a healthier appearance. Almond trees that were mulched and fertilized with compost had a 30 percent higher yield than those that weren’t.

The benefits of the gray water system have been evident in the substantial decrease in cost to the families that use them: the water bill for drinking water has decreased by about JD20 per month, per household.

“How many people
are being fed by
agriculture that
falls under the
GDP radar?”

The water saved has been used to grow fodder for livestock, saving the families another JD55 a month that they previously spent on animal feed. The compost toilets have done away with the need for septic tank pumping, eliminating another JD30-a-month fee per household.

Permaculture food production is also helping families deal with rising food prices. Nuimat attests to this fact, pointing out that he never used to keep chickens, but since the prices of meat and eggs have increased, he has found it more cost effective to raise his own.

Three of the demonstration farms have achieved complete self-sufficiency regarding chicken products; this means they save an average of JD10 a month in egg costs, as well as making a small profit from selling their excess eggs. Families have also begun raising ducks for eggs and meat.

Only eight households are considered demonstration farms, but more than 20 households in the area now use composting. And the project will be expanding soon, CARE officials said, because the four surrounding villages of Seyhan, Jareesh, Gussyb and Alegoon have asked to be included.

American permaculturist Ethan Young points out that in order to create systematic change, such as a wide scale move towards sustainable water practices, a minority movement must bring a society to a tipping point.

“Most people just want to try to make do in whatever system exists,” he writes. “But only 15 percent of the population has to be… organized in order to change the system for the rest of the 85 percent … in the end, small scale, personal activism is all there really is.”


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