Life Returns to Jordan's Parched Oasis

AMMAN, Jordan, October 8, 2001 (ENS) - The overexploited Azraq oasis in Jordan's eastern desert is enjoying an ecological recovery. "Many of the birds for which the oasis was renowned are coming back," said Chris Johnson, director of development of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), a non-governmental organization devoted to the protection of nature in Jordan.

"Over 160 bird species have returned to the wetlands," Johnson said. "We have created new jobs ranging from reserve management staff, rangers, ecologists, community liaison officers to arts and craft workshop managers," he said.


Azraq Wetland Reserve (Photo courtesy Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature)
"By creating these jobs, the RSCN hopes that the local community will support its efforts to protect the Azraq wetlands and the Shaumari wildlife reserve," said Lina Al-Fayez, the Azraq Wetland Reserve manager.

The US$6 million rehabilitation effort is funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a member of the World Bank Group.

For centuries, the Azraq oasis was a verdant spot in the middle of the arid Kingdom of Jordan. The site comprises a formerly permanent spring fed wetland and a large, seasonally flooded mudflat. The oasis once supported many varieties of plants and was a major stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds during their seasonal flights.

Increased demand for water in the greater Amman area with about half of Jordan's 5.5 million people and agricultural use, including hundreds of illegal wells for farming, resulted in large scale pumping from the Azraq basin.

The area was designated a Ramsar Wetland of international importance in 1977. But on November 15, 1980 the Amman Water Authority began pumping water to the city of Amman from the springs at Azraq. So much water was taken that the springs were reported to have dried up completely by 1991. By 1993, fires burned across the parched landscape.

It has been confirmed that the groundwater being pumped from beneath Azraq is derived from fossil reserves and that pumping is, by definition, unsustainable.

Now water is being pumped back to the basin of the oasis, providing habitats for water buffaloes, blue-necked ostriches, Nubian ibexes, dozens of varieties of dragonflies, and the re-introduction of the killifish, a fish species found nowhere else in the world.

Guided tours and desert safaris are planned for the protected areas of Azraq and nearby Shaumari wildlife reserve, which is the first wildlife reserve in Jordan and a breeding centre for the Arabian oryx, one of the most endangered animals in the world.


Roman fortress in the Azraq Oasis used by Lawrence of Arabia as his headquarters (Photo courtesy Petra Moon Tourism)
A long term solution for the Azraq will require fundamental changes in national water policy to ease pressure from growing urban demand. The government of Jordan is moving in that direction. A water management project to supply 100 million cubic metres per year of additional water to Amman is planned to replace water from the Azraq wetlands.

The requests for proposals to build the 325 kilometer (201 mile) pipeline from the Disi aquifer in southern Jordan to Amman were issued in August. Cost of pipeline construction is estimated at $600 million to be spent over a four-and-a-half year period.

The government is contributing $200 million of the total financing, with the rest expected to come from the private sector, said Dr. Kamal Khdier, director of Water, Environment and Tourism Department in the Ministry of Planning.