For those of us living in Ithaca it is hard to conceive of a future when water could run out. But water scarcity impacts every aspect of Jordanian life.
It seems like water is a common theme in my travels lately. Jordan is actually the third poorest country on earth in terms of water resources. Jordan is confronting its worst drought in decades and the situation is only expected to worsen with climate change. Most of the country receives less than 100 mm of rainfall per year (Ithaca gets 2500 mm of precipitation). The rate of water extraction from the Azraq Aquifer in northeastern Jordan, the primary source of water for Amman, is approximately double the sustainable amount per year, and Jordan is expected to "run out" of water within the next 10 years.
The water situation is exacerbated by the burgeoning refugee population. Basically, the total population is increasing while water resources are rapidly diminishing. On Fridays in Amman, huge government water trucks fill the tanks seen on every rooftop in the capital. This is the main source of water for families for the week to come until the trucks return again.
One possible solution is the Red Sea Dead Sea Canal project. The idea is to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and along the way desalinate some of the water for drinking purposes. What's left, which would be saltier, would go to he Dead Sea which is currently sinking by a meter per year. However the project is fraught with major obstacles: huge expense, environmental concerns and a large carbon footprint (it takes a lot of energy to desalinate water). In addition Jordan needs to negotiate the plan with Israel which also has a boundary on these two seas. Access to water is becoming an achilles heel for Jordan as it tries to thread a political needle with its warring neighbors.
For those of us living in Ithaca it is hard to conceive of a future when water could run out. But water scarcity impacts every aspect of Jordanian life.
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth's surface, almost 1500 feet below "sea level." It is also the saltiest body of water on Earth, almost 10 times the salt concentration of the oceans. The high salt content makes it very hard for normal sea organisms to survive - which is why is called the Dead Sea. The high salinity also make the water especially buoyant. In fact, while it is very easy to float on your back, it is actually very hard to swim. This didn't really make sense to me until I tried it out. Basically you bob like a cork and it is hard to generate much forward motion. Your are much more likely to just flip onto your back if you thrash about too much. In this video you don't get to see me bobbing like a cork but you can see a simple experiment I did with an egg to demonstrate this point.
Most of Jordan is desert. The Wadi Rum area is actually quite famous and has been used as the setting for many movies, including Star Wars and Martian. This was really the first time I have traveled in a desert area and I thoroughly enjoyed the stark scenery.
There are also a lot of interesting mathematical patterns in the desert. The ripples in the sand, the patterns of dried hard pan and shapes of the shifting dunes all have relatively simple mathematical models.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with some Bedouins who shared some basic understanding of life in the desert. One thing I learned is that you will be more comfortable if you are well covered, although it seems counterintuitive. Basically you don't want anything exposed to the sun. You might think that wearing long pants, sleeves and head covering would be stifling, but because the desert is so dry your perspiration evaporates immediately. If you do it right you can be quite comfortable. Of course you want to stay hydrated and be in shade whenever you can. Bedouins drink a lot of tea and often travel at night if there is a moon, and stay under a tent during the day. The tents can be surprisingly comfortable and cool. Bedouins are also known for their friendliness and hospitality to strangers.
One fact about Jordan that I find very compelling is the huge number of refugees it has absorbed. Because of its location and the many ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Jordan is now home to some 3 million refugees, which is almost a third of the total population of the country. In fact in 2016 Jordan had the largest per capita number of refugees in the world. The majority of refugees are from neighboring Syria, Iraq and Palestinian Territories.
A related question is how does Jordan manage to do it? People I spoke to, while acknowledging the social stress of hosting so many refugees, also took pride in what the country is doing. There has been a lot of leadership here from the King Abdullah and Queen Rania who have campaigned extensively at home and abroad for more support for refugees. The Queen referred to the refugee crisis as, "a crisis about human dignity and decency, and one that reflects the future of our interconnected world."
For comparison, the United States used to take in the largest number of refugees per year of any country in the world, about 30,000 per year. But that situation changed dramatically under the Trump administration. In 2017 the number of refugees taken in by the US decreased more than any other country in the world - at a time when the number of refugees world-wide is at its highest in history - about 26 million.
Recent changes aside, while the US has taken in a total of about 3 million refugees since 1980 this is still only about the same number as in Jordan where the population is much smaller. Put another way, about 1% of the US population consists of refugees while in Jordan it is about 30%. There is no comparison. Obviously hosting that many refugees puts a huge strain on a country both economically and socially. Both the US and Jordan have about 3 million refugees, but the US has a GDP of about $20,000 billion as opposed to Jordan's GDP of $40 billion. The cost of resettlement of refugees is actually a significant portion of the Jordanian national budget, and it is unsustainable. While there have been promises of international support, in 2018 Jordan received only 7% of the funding promised from western countries to help alleviate the costs of resettlement.
People I spoke to in Jordan had a hard time understanding why the US does not do more to help refugees, and I had no good answers. It was awkward to stand on the front lines of a global crisis bearing witness to such selfless humanitarianism, as a representative of a much better resourced country that has clearly backed away from its humanitarian commitment.
The flag of Jordan has a star with seven points. Heptagrams have some unique mathematical properties, so from my perspective that would be sufficient to want to have one on your flag. But there are cultural reasons why 7 is an important number for Jordanians (and Muslims in general).
Al Fatihah, which literally means “the opening” is the name
of the first seven verses of the Quran. This section is
recited in almost all daily prayers as well as on other
occasions. It is said that these seven verses contain
the central themes of the Quran. The star on the Jordanian
flag has a point for each of the seven verses of the Al Fatihah,
indicating the importance of Islam in the lives of Jordanians. This is why 7 is an important number for all Muslims and shows up in unexpected places.
The coins in Jordanian currency are all 7-sided polygons, also in reference to Al Fatihah. I am not aware of any other country that uses polygonal coins, particularly heptagons. You can imagine how thrilled I was to walk around with a pocket full of heptagons.
Amongst the many interesting mathematical features of heptagons is the fact that it is the smallest number of sides that permits two distinct star shapes (technically a 7-2 and a 7-3). You can see several layers of these in this sketch.
Jordan has a very deep and rich history dating back thousands of years. In addition to being at the cross roads of critical trade routes, Jordan also has important religious sites from biblical times. The arid climate has helped to preserve many important archaeological artifacts and ruins.
Some of the earliest inhabitants were the Nebataeans who carved the famous city of Petra out of the sandstone mountains. I spent two days walking through these ruins. It was well over 100 degrees but the interiors of the buildings remain quite cool and comfortable.
The Nabataeans were displaced by the Greeks and then the Romans. There are substantial remains from this period in the sites of Philadelphia, in Amman, and Jerash further north.
It is an amazing feeling to step along abandoned avenues from ancient civilizations. We don't really have anything comparable in the US. Below is a photo of yours truly lost in reflection walking along the cardo maximus of a Roman city.
This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan, a country about which I know very little. Here are some basic, introductory facts.
If you picture a large desert kingdom then you are halfway there. The northern part of the country is arable with substantial spring rains, and there is a chain of mountains along the western portion of the country There are some substantial urban centers, including the capital, Amman, but for the most part Jordan is desert. Unlike many Middle Eastern countries, Jordan does not have any oil resources. Despite this Jordan has one of the freest and most robust economies in the Arab world.
Politically, Jordan is located in a pretty tough neighborhood. To the west is Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To the south is Saudi Arabia, east is Iraq, and to the north, Syria. Because of its location Jordan has had to play a diplomatic balancing act to stay out of the many regional tussles. Jordan has avoided armed conflict for over 50 years and is one of only two Arab countries to recognize Israel. Most Jordanians I met credit their current monarch: King Abdullah II, and his father before him, King Hussein, with maintaining the country's peace and prosperity
Jordan has about 10 million inhabitants and the majority are Sunni Muslim. Jordan is one of the most progressive muslim countries in the world, ranking number one amongst Arab countries in the Human Freedom index. It is one of very few Arab or African states in which homosexuality is not a crime. Queen Rania is a prominent social and political figure; she eschews traditional head covering and is known for championing progressive causes.
In my last post I wrote about the critical role that water plays in village life. Of course water is just as important in urban areas, however access to clean drinking water is not as straightforward as drilling a borehole. Many african cities simply do not have sufficient infrastructure to provide clean water. (I don't mean to single out just african cities, Flint Michigan comes to mind as a poignant example of how pervasive the problem is).
One solution is bottled water. But along with bottled water comes plastic. The same overburdened infrastructures are in no position to effectively manage the surfeit of plastic garbage. When I traveled in Ghana I saw plastic waste everywhere: in the millet fields, caught in the acacia trees, blowing through the marketplace (where single use plastic bags are rampant), choking the drainage ditches, and eventually making their way to the canal that runs through central Accra and drains into the ocean.
In addition to single use plastic bags, plastic water "sachets" are a major culprit. These are plastic bags that hold about half a liter of drinking water. They sell for pennies on every street corner and they are transported more efficiently than bottles. You simply bite off the corner of the bag and drink the water. Then you are left holding an empty plastic bag with nowhere to recycle it. So guess where it goes.
To me this is a perfect metaphor for how technological innovations often come wrapped in their own toxic dilemma. I believe every human has a right to clean water. I understand that in many instances the best way to provide this water is to transport it in plastic. And yet walking through Accra or Kumasi where litter is ubiquitous and the air smells of burning plastic, one has to wonder if our human thirst has been quenched, or simply exploited.
Fresh water is a major focus of daily life in the village. Access to clean drinking water is directly related to reduction in poverty. World-wide over 2 billion people are affected by water scarcity. In 2010 the United Nations recognized a human right to drinking water. This is an important step because there is often a conflict between human need versus commercial or agricultural water consumption.
The village I stayed in was fortunate in that they have several pumps, or boreholes, that provide fresh water throughout the year. There were two pumps in my location and they were almost always in use. In sub-saharan Africa the work of acquiring and transporting water falls largely to women and girls.
An experience I highly recommend is to try hauling your own water for a couple of days. To get the full effect you should fill a couple buckets from a hose and then carry them around the block. Try limiting yourself to those two buckets for everything. I managed to get my consumption down to 5 gallons per day, which is what the UN considers minimal. That included drinking, cooking, cleaning, and one bucket bath per day. 5 gallons weighs about 40 pounds which is about as much as you would want to carry in one trip.
By comparison, the average American consumes 80 gallons per day. That's a big difference. If you had to carry 80 gallons it would weigh 640 pounds. You would not be hauling that by hand. If you flush a toilet 3 times in a day, you have already exceeded the 5 gallon limit. If you take a shower for more than two minutes you have exceeded the 5 gallon limit. You can start to understand the stark differences in water consumption and why simple transportation of water is such a big deal in an african village.
It is also important to remember that clean water is a finite resource on our planet, and a resource that is particularly threatened by climate change. We don't think about it much in Ithaca, but when you live in an area with no precipitation for 9 - 10 months of the year, it is always in your mind.
In the U.S. we laud "farm to table" as a sort of elite social movement, but in african villages it is a way of life. The village I stayed in, Pelugru, is up in the northern part of Ghana and is fairly remote. They only get three months of rain during the year, so all their crops and food have to be adapted to that climate. Of course that's precisely what people in that area have been doing for hundreds of years, so they are pretty good at it. Most meals consist of a starch and a meat soup or stew. During the rainy season there are also vegetables like okra, tomatoes and peppers. Starches include plantains, cassava, millet and taro roots (believed to be one of the very earliest cultivated crops), all of which grow locally and store well (for the 9 months of dry season). And the meat comes from pretty much anything that moves: chickens, guinea fowl, goats, sheep, pigs, cows and donkeys. These are all animals that can fend for themselves and graze on what's available, so of course all their meat is organic, "free range" and "grass fed." In the U.S. we pay a premium for that, but in africa that is just what is sustainable.
In addition people make their own cooking oil, from ground nuts and palm nuts. They also make their own alcohol: pito is fermented millet and there is also palm wine further south. Villagers even make their own charcoal by burying smoldering wood under dirt.
I don't want to romanticize village life, it is not an easy existence, particularly during the dry season. But it is interesting to me that over centuries people have developed an agriculture that is well suited for their climate and sustainable. It is equally interesting to me that in the U.S. we are only just discovering the benefits of such a lifestyle.