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Permaculture for Pastoralists in the Jordan Valley – Part I

Awassi sheep ready to go to market (and random standards inspector)

I’ve been to the Greening the Desert “Sequel” site three times now. Once was in 2011 when we were at the IPC in Jordan. Once was in 2012 when I went there to take an internship with Geoff and Nadia. This year I was able to go back there to teach a PDC myself. So I’ve seen some of the development of the site over the past three years as the trees have grown up, formed a canopy and started to alter the microclimate of the site quite appreciably. And it’s been a huge success. Most of us who came across Permaculture in the last ten years will remember the first time they saw Geoff’s original Greening the Desert video. The “Wow! That’s really possible?!” feeling it gave was an inspiration for a lot of us to get into Permaculture in the first place. For me at least, with the site also being so close to Palestine, and the Middle East conflict in full swing, the idea that we could enact some form of practical non-violent action to improve the lives of the local population by facilitating new approaches to management of resources through less input-intensive techniques than the typical western models was truly mind blowing.

Now it’s nearly ten years down the line and since then Geoff and Nadia have faced some serious set-backs. But they have patiently struggled on and managed to pull it all together, break through the bureaucratic thorn-bush thicket, get a piece of land, set up a new project (i.e. the "sequel" site), form a local NGO to operate it and turn it into a flourishing Permaculture demonstration site and international training centre. The site is in Jawfah, the small dusty town almost 400 metres below sea level at the bottom of the Jordan valley, where Nadia’s family settled after being kicked out of their ancestral homeland in the Negev desert in 1967. In fact most of the population of the town are refugees. When they arrived, nobody thought they would stay for long. But tents gradually turned into shacks, and then into homes and now it is a real town with roads and everything. I guess people eventually realised they were here for the long haul.

So, the site is the exemplar of the master plan concept, a local Permaculture training and demo site in a developing country where international students come and pay international rates for training which yields a surplus — enough to sustain the project economically and at the same time train locals in Permaculture at a cheaper rate or for free depending on their circumstance. And this is exactly what we were able to do on the PDC Salah Hammad, aka “Sidi Muaalim” (approximate translation: the Knowledgeable Master), and myself ran there last April. We trained three local girls from Amman, all of who work in NGOs promoting environmental stewardship and community development, as well as, thanks to the kind support of some of Zaytuna’s own interns, we were able to train two local NGO staff from Jawfah itself as well. In fact Geoff and Nadia are running another course there right now!

Well that is all fantastic, however anybody who knows me will know that I am a natural pessimist, who often fails to reach up to his own high standards! But such people do have a purpose in life! So Sidi Muaalim and I were joined during that PDC program back in April last year by Mohammed Eribani, a vibrant bearish young Moroccan who had recently cast all his inhibitions and a well paid career as a chef into the wind and, ignoring a heavy drone of complaints and warnings from his family, set off into the east to dedicate his life to the Permaculture cause in service of Geoff, the PRI and Almighty God (in reverse order). First he went to Yemen where he was to help set up the PRI project in Tarim. They ran a PDC there with Rhamis Kent, which went well, but following that things were not really set up so that he could get down to work on developing a site, so Geoff moved him up to Jordan instead. This was fantastic for us because we really enjoyed his company and his input. He had already been there a few weeks by the time the course started, and being a native Arabic speaker, he had made plenty of contact with the local community of the town. And this gave him a chance to gauge their view of the project. The thing was that most of them didn’t really seem to know what it was about, beyond that it was a garden with date trees and olives that was seen as belonging to Nadia’s family. So, Mohammed and I would both brave the neighbourhood dogs on a daily basis (well he would brave them, I would just walk behind him) and make time to sit and chat with the local lads about life, the universe and everything, including Permaculture and ideas relating to the project. (Well, he would chat, I would just get the occasional translation, but it was enough!)

So, we soon realised that these guys are mostly of Bedouin heritage and not farmers. In traditional Arab society there is a big distinction between the Bedouins, who are nomadic pastoral people, and the fellaheen, who are settled cultivators of the land. Now these people have been forced into a settled lifestyle by the constraints of being refugees, trapped behind the borders of modern nation states implanted over the traditional tribal/social systems which had governed their society for thousands of years, by foreign planners, bureaucrats and politicians. It’s a common story in today’s world. But they have not lost their love of their animals. And almost every house in Jawfah has a flock of sheep, some goats and some even have a few dairy cows as well.

So we started thinking. Well, Permaculture is not just about food forests. It’s a design system that can be applied to any mode of life, so how can we make it more relevant to the majority of these locals who are more interested in animal husbandry than in growing trees. And as we continued to brave the dogs day by day our idea would grow. Each time we passed the neighbour’s house, we would notice a pipe sticking out of a wall, which was often gushing grey-water out onto the ground. We were in the middle of a totally barren and arid landscape, which even as early as April was almost devoid of any greenery at all (except for the copiously irrigated commercial farms down at the bottom of the hill). But a little profusion of green albeit noxious, spiky, poisonous little weeds, had sprung up lining the mini-erosion rill this stream of grey-water was etching down the bank on the side of the road. And where it met the road it then ran along the edge of it for some 10–15m. Mmm… we thought… grey-water.

So we talked more about sheep. How much water did they need? How much food? Are they profitable? What are the major costs? We asked them lots of questions. This got them interested, but I don’t think they really thought we could do much about their situation, which they evidently weren’t very happy with in the first place. The lowdown on the sheep went as follows….

The local sheep breed in Jordan is called the Awassi sheep. It’s a fat tailed sheep which is extremely heat and water-stress tolerant. The breed is the only local breed in the region around Jordan, Palestine, Syria, western Iraq and north-western Saudi Arabia. The Israelis have also adopted it and tinkered with its genetics somewhat to produce a beefier, woollier and more milky animal, but let’s stick with the good old traditional Awassi we know and love from the days of old, for now.

An Awassi sheep should get around three litres of water per day. For lambs it will be less, but for pregnant or suckling mothers it will be more. In the winter this will fall down to 1 litre or less, especially when green food with moisture in it is available, but in the summer when the temperatures get up to 40°C+ and the only food is dry, they will need 4.5+ litres per animal (PDF).

So a flock of 30 sheep would consume 90 litres of water per day, on average, which is 630 litres per week and 32.8m3 per year. Well that’s quite a lot of water, we thought. But how much will it cost? The fact is that these guys, like most poor people, don’t really care when you tell them you can save the world, they are too busy worrying about how they are going to feed their family, pay the bills, etc. Saving the world is for people who can afford to go on holiday! Like us. Ironically we are the ones making it such that the world needs saving in the first place! But anyway….

At Jordanian Dinar (JD) 1.75/m3 (about US$2.50) water is pretty expensive in Jawfa. It’s not surprising since Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Hence this much water will cost around JD 57.30 per year, which is a bit of money in local terms, but it’s not going to revolutionise their living condition.

So how much money do they get from their sheep and what are the major expenses? Well, making it simple, a flock of 30 sheep would generally comprise 15 ewes with their lambs. The lambs would be sold off around Eid times (the two annual Muslims festivals when everybody buys animals to slaughter for sacrifice and to give charity) when they are in greatest demand and hence most valuable. By this time the ewes should be pregnant again. An average lamb at one year may fetch around 200 JD, more if it’s big, a bit less if it is small. The lambs can also be sold just after weaning at 4 months, in which case they will fetch less, but then they will also cost less to raise in fodder and water, so to simplify let’s assume the normal amount we get for a lamb is 200JD. So, 15 lambs per year is JD 3000. Nice. So what are the costs? Well, each sheep needs an average of 1kg of grain per day. Again more for pregnant or lactating mothers, less for the lambs, but on average 1kg per head. So 30 sheep will consume 30kg per day, which is 210kg per week and 10,950kg per year. The wholesale price of grain in Jawfa is around JD 0.2/kilo so total for 30 sheep through one year is JD 2190. There will be other costs of course such as medical care for the animals, costs of repairing their housing, transport to market, etc., but the basic costs of food and water give us an estimate of the basic (maximum) profitability of 30 sheep:

Income from selling the lambs Cost of feeding flock Cost of watering flock Annual Profit (JD)
3000 minus (2190 + 57.30) = 752.70

The grain, by the way, at least back in April, is commercially grown wheat and barley imported from Ukraine. That is a big energy expense, since we know that the amount of energy used to grow grain in commercial industrial systems is around ten times the calorific value of the grain itself and then there is transportation to think about. But perhaps more importantly, for the local guys, is that the price of grain is very unstable due to erratic supply. And we all know that the political situation in Ukraine at the moment is a complete mess! As Bob Marley said “war in the east, war in the west…” So how do we build a raft of stability in the midst of all this mess?

A grey-water system!

Well, a combined grey/black water total domestic waste water treatment and sheep fodder production system, to be precise.

“You really can solve all the world’s problems in a garden”. So first let’s treat the domestic waste water from the house to a suitable standard, so that it’s safe to be drunk by the sheep. How much waste water do we get from a household? Well, the average Jordanian uses 80 litres of water per day. Enquiries indicate it may be more than this in Jawfa, but let us work with a low estimate for now to be well and truly sure we have enough! So, five people in a house use 400 litres/day, which is 2800 litres per week, plenty to water all our sheep with. So if we take out the additional cost of watering the sheep:

Income from selling the lambs Cost of feeding flock Cost of watering flock Annual Profit (JD)
3000 minus (2190 + 0) = 810

That would increase the profitability of the flock by 7.6%, a modest increase. So how much water do we have left over? To be up to health and safety standards in a developed country like Australia, waste water should go through primary treatment which is a septic tank and reed bed for black-water or just a reed-bed for grey-water and then secondary treatment, sufficient to remove any remaining parasite eggs or bacteria, which in this case would be slow sand filtration followed by UV irradiation. Now, putting the water through all that, we may lose say 10% in evaporation, so if we started with 2800 litres weekly domestic water use and 10% is lost then we have 2520 litres of treated waste water. Then the sheep take 630 litres so we have 1890 litres left per week, which is 1.9 cubic meters, plenty of water! We could grow a lot of fodder with that!

Now anybody who’s been to Jawfah will notice several things about the place which combine to detract from the general pleasantness of the environment. We westerners can usually see these things right away. And many a self-respecting Ammanite (not a prehistoric marine snail-like creature, but a person from Amman) would prefer to drive the 45km back to Amman climbing 1200m in altitude in the process in their nice air-conditioned car rather than sleep in Jawfah, for the very same reason. Now if you think about it, that is going to use a lot of fuel over the course of two weeks! So what are these things which make it so unbearable? Well one is the flies, ever present, in their billions. The other is that all those sheep produce a lot of manure. And the sheep owners tend to heap it up into piles. Which make perfect breeding grounds for flies. Not only that but being very rich in nitrogen, as soon as the temperature starts to warm up, all that manure off-gasses clouds of ammonia, making for an air of general effervescence most city-folk find a bit strong. I mean for me it’s OK — I live in Ethiopia so I am used to most things you can throw at me but….

So people often asked during the course what can we bring into our system to eat the flies? Well, one of the PC principles is to “intervene at key points”. Flies are bloody hard to catch. And even if you do manage to trap thousands of the little blighters there is a perennial stream of new recruits flowing from the neighbour’s dung heap. So let’s intervene at the larval stage. Remove the breeding ground, remove the flies!

At the moment the neighbours are selling off the manure for a small amount of money. What we can do though, if we have 1.9m3 of free water at our disposal each week, is show the neighbour how he can turn that manure into compost (hot compost to kill the fly eggs) and use it to grow copious amounts of sheep fodder (elephant grass, lucerne, lablab bean, laecaena, sesbania, etc.) Hence we get rid of the breeding ground for flies, the off-gassing of ammonia and we grow tons of sheep fodder for free, which, of course, can replace the major expense of rearing the sheep — grain. Not only that but we would also have reeds from the reed-bed as a source of fodder too.

How much cost can we save? Well that will depend on exactly how much fodder we can grow. I want to go into more details on the system design in the next article I hope to do next week. But, just to give you an idea of what’s possible, these figures show how much we would be able to increase the profit margin for the keepers of sheep in Jawfah with a given amount of production from that water and nutrient supply:

Income from Sales % Substitution of fodder Cost of feeding flock/yr (JD) Profit (JD) Increase in profit % Increase in profit
3000 0% 2190 810 0 0%
3000 10% 1971 1029 219 27%
3000 20% 1752 1248 438 54.1%
3000 30% 1533 1467 657 81.1%
3000 40% 1314 1686 876 108%

If biomass produced by the water treatment system and downstream water use could be used to substitute just 10% of the fodder ration currently supplied as grain, it would increase the profitability by 27%. If 40% of the fodder ration could be substituted it would more than double the profitability of the flock to JD1686/year. Now that looks pretty good, I think.

So I put the idea to Geoff and Nadia that we build a system like this on a local household as part of an internship program. The idea being that this would promote more links between the project and local community, helping them get a better idea about what we are really up to and that Permaculture is not just about making fancy gardens for foreigners to come and stay in!

On my own project in Konso, South Ethiopia we had a similar problem. It came to be seen as a foreigners’ place by the locals, doing things which were based on romantic western ideals, but when it comes down to it, won’t put enough bread on the table to keep the family well fed, in school, and clothed, etc. People would come from abroad and we’d get groups of locals in to do the PDC alongside them and we’d make compost and plant veggies and have lots of fun, run around the school gardens, etc., but then when it was all over and the foreigners had all gone home it was all about the pocket money. It seems to be a weakness of the Master Plan model (don’t get me wrong here I am not meaning to be critical in a negative way, this is constructive appraisal!) that the clients funding the whole show are the foreigners, coming in to be trained, so what happens on the ground can end up being more tailored to their needs — and foreigners want fancy things like food forests, aquaponics and worm farms — than the needs of the locals which may be quite boring, like sheep or maize. But anyway, this is an attempt to address that issue with the local community in Jawfah.

As I say, I put it to Geoff and Nadia and they agreed that we can implement a system like this during an internship in May 2015. So if you want to be a part of that, click here for details. The internship will be half spent building the waste water system on a local household and half spent on the Greening the Desert "Sequel" site maintaining and expanding the systems in place there. Understandably, the PRI can only front funds for project we do on the site, so we are currently seeking partners to help support the project. Please contact me if you know anybody or any organisation that can help.

I’ll also be running a shorter, more general course on using Permaculture for development projects at the PRI Australia, Zaytuna Farm, starting January 19, 2015.

Continue on to read Part II.


  1. What a fabulous idea Alex! Having just done the PDC in Jordan it was easy to see that one of the major problems was the overgrazing of the animals. Maybe this could be a solution to not only providing more profit for the community, but eventually also reducing grazing in the area! Great article, I can’t wait for the next one!

  2. Have you considered the time (labor) and costs of growing the feed? What about land access? Fencing to protect the crops as they grow (from prematurely being eaten)?

    I took my PDC there in 2012 and like you said its harsh down there.

  3. No mention of Allan Savory here so I wonder whether his methods of grazing management could be of use here. What better companion for the Greening the Desert II site in Jordan than a Jordan version of Polyface Farms!! :)

  4. You may take a look into this project by visiting it in Google Earth @, ( 31°52’20.18″N, 35°37’53.18″E ) ( copy/paste )

  5. @ Rhiannon: Thanks for the positive feedback. Yes I really hope you are right. But the important thing, when you want to have any influence on people at all, is to understand how they think. Fundamentally, what makes most people tick in this era of capitalism, privatization and commoditization is money. People are just struggling to keep food on the table. When it’s like that you don’t have time to look around and admire the landscape. People will cut down the last tree for 1000 miles if that is what it takes to put food in the mouths of your hungry children. Now if we can show people how to feed/ clothe/school their families and as a by-product of that we happen to re-green the landscape, we could be onto something…
    @Abdullah: Yes I have thought about this all A LOT. I will be putting a lot more technical details into part 2 of this write up so stay tuned for more… inshaAllah.
    @Brendan: Alan Savory’s system is a rangeland management system. For it to work the land manager(s) has to have control over access to the land. The problem here is that in Jordan and most of the ME nowadays the majority of land is government land, which is effectively commons, unless they have rented it out to some large-scale investor. So unless you are one of those, there is no way to stop everybody else from grazing freely when/where-ever they want. Now, traditionally in the ME there was a very effective community-regulated system of rangeland management called the Hima system. It was an ancient Arabic institution, controlled by the tribal chieftains, which the prophet Mohammed modified to be a community regulated. It persisted for 1400 years right up to the beginning of the modern era and was one of the (if not the) most effective rangeland management systems in known history. Unfortunately the post-colonial system of nation states has done away with it, disempowering tribal structures, nationalizing land, often displacing populations and/or forcing them into fixed settlements, often as refugees. So in such situations it is the “tragedy of the commons” all over (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons). As for the Hima, there have been some attempts to re-reinstitute it in some places with some successes but it’s on way too small a scale to have a national level impact. But that is not feasible without national level backing or massive resources to play with. If we had these then we could set up 20,000Ha ranches all over the ME. That would be great! But as it is we have to see how we can empower one small family with a few $1000, a 400m2 back yard and 30 sheep, which is all the capacity we have at the moment… one step at a time!
    FYI More info on the Hima: https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/al_hima.pdf

  6. Alex,
    This is an amazing article and I look forward to part 2.
    Would it be possible to get some of the funding through crowd funding sources?
    what about microfunding initiatives?

  7. This is very inspiring–a perfect example of making connections and stacking functions. I look forward to part II.

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