top of page
Humans climate change Jordanie Samuel Tu
#1. The mother of gardens


  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Jordan: The waters of discord

HCCS Jordanie-1.jpg

Harvest of wheat in the valley of the Mother of the Gardens

The mother of gardens
PORTRAIT Fares dessin.jpg

You can see my whole village from here. It's been my favourite place since I was a child. I was caring for my herd every day, before and after school, until I was 16. All around, there were fields and orchards. "

Farès - a Bedouin, and tour guide, from the Garden Valley

our podcast

A story broadcasted on
Radio Suisse Romande (RSR)
Radio France Internationale (RFI)
Radio nationale Belge (RTBF)
Length : 25mn


"It was the best farmland in the region. The crops grown here fed a large section of the population of Amman. That's why it's called "The Mother of Gardens". Everything was green. Can you see how dry everything is today? There are hardly any fields any longer."


Or shepherds either. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. The farmlands have been replaced by fields of olive trees "because it's easy. They don’t need looking after. They're tough. You harvest them once a year and it pays well". And the olive trees can withstand periods of great heat, while at the same time using little water.

Farés is getting on for 40 years old. He was born here, in Umm Albassateen, to the west of Amman, mid-way between the Jordanian capital and the Jordan Valley, which marks the border with Israel. The topography of the village paints a picture of half a century of history. On top of the hill, the first "permanent" farms, built in the early 1960s, now exist cheek-by-jowl with Saudi-style luxury villas. What was still agricultural land only 20 years earlier has now been replaced by houses, gardens and sometimes swimming pools, sheltered from public view. "It's the wealthy people of Amman who come to live here now, to escape the noise and pollution", Farés explains. The population of the village tripled in less than 15 years and the calls to prayer ring out between the mosques which followed the waves of new property developments. At the foot of the hill, modern buildings – flat-roofed two-storey white blocks – open their metal shop-window shutters on either side of the road: hardware stores, suppliers of building materials, car washes, mobile phone shops, take-aways, sellers of toys "Made in China" and flatscreens, amid crockery and chichas – all seamlessly packed together in a row, under thick plastic sheeting to protect it from the dust.

The road then snakes on towards the service station and the freeway leading to Amman.


Farés is building the family home on the plot next to his parents'. His older brother, a mechanic, lives on the top floor. Farés, his wife and three children occupy the first floor. The ground floor opens onto the grocery store which provides for his parents in their retirement. It is a customer magnet, an Aladdin's cave, like the other shops, stocked with necessities of life ranging from telephone chargers to bars of chocolate, and fizzy drinks to pre-packaged hummus.



As soon as the heat goes out of the day, the covered terraces provide a spot of shade and a welcome to the regulars who come to drink in the first cooler moments of the day around a steaming teapot. This evening we are the ones immersing ourselves in the Garden Valley.


Hydro diplomacy is defined as " a concept which incorporates the ambition to build peace on the basis of water, a resource vital to humankind ", according to its designer, Dr. Fadi Comair

"The whole family used to live together in Bedouin tents", says Ismaël, Farès's paternal uncle. He is the oldest member of the family. "Until I was a teenager. During the winter we had to take refuge in oases with our herds, as it was cold. There was a lot of snow. The village could be cut off from everything for several days at a time. Can you believe that? The army came in to clear the snow and bring supplies to the Bedouin. We called that time the seven snows. By the seventh, the Bedouin knew that winter was over. The last snow that I saw here was in 1997."


1997 - the year when Farés left the village to go to secondary school and then on to the University of Amman. "I'd never left the village before. I was a shepherd. I was a Bedouin. I lived with my family. I didn't really know what to do. I was not a good enough student to study medicine or business, and I didn't want to be a soldier. So, I enrolled on a foreign language course."


Farés discovered that he had a talent for French, just as Jordan entered a turbulent period. The Jordanians were enjoying the new personal freedoms that came with the gust of wind from the east which, in 1989, blew the university revolt all the way here. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Arab bloc ended up breaking apart over their relationship with the oil monarchies and rolled the dice on a new form of regional geopolitics. Having been deprived of his main energy partner, King Hussein realised that his arid country had become the centre of gravity for regional balance. Amman signed international trade deals, became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), joined the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, secured the financial support of the United States and, in 1994, signed a historic peace agreement with Israel, giving up its right to the West Bank, conquered during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Jordan entered the Western sphere of influence, becoming the antechamber of regional diplomatic mediation, and of water diplomacy.

Jordan then set to work to make itself "fashionable" and dusted off its cultural treasures to attract tourists looking for the "authentic" desert. Farés became a tour guide, moving from Bedouin songs to a tune from Joe Dassin, Charles Aznavour or Hervé Villard. Timeless. "That's how I learnt French. From songs and films." Farés has never actually visited France.

"The Real France", he says.

HCCS Jordanie-21.jpg

Farès' father and mother run the family grocery store

HCCS Jordanie-47.jpg

Farès controls the water level in the tanker of the house where the family lives

1,300,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in Jordan today since the start of the civil war in 2011

Jordanians have an average of 123 m3 per capita per year, compared to 9,000 m3 for an American. 

By 2050, the demand for water is expected to increase by 55%, under the pressure of a growing population and consumption.

The WHO estimates that 2.1 billion people in the world still do not have access to drinking water. 

"You see, my grandfather had dug wells here. Today they're completely dry. There was also a lake down the hill. By the end of the winter it held enough water for the whole village. It disappeared in the 1980s", Farès recalls. On the spot, a new Mercedes garage now rises into the air. If you look up, the tool factory buildings and the rainbow arc signs in the colours of Coca Cola and Ikea meet your gaze. "When I was a child, Amman seemed so far away to me. Today, Amman is reaching out toward us – but we don't want to be closer to Amman".

Amman doesn't ask for anyone's opinion. It had 636,000 inhabitants in 1980, more than a million in 2000 and the population broke through the two-million barrier in 2019, around one third of them refugees fleeing the Israeli-Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, and packing into the eastern part of the city. Amman consumes more than necessary, like all the world's capitals. Amman is growing obese – and Amman is thirsty.



The aquifers that have supplied it for centuries have run dry. So, the country has dug deep into its sub-soil to pump out the groundwater at Disi, which for 300,000 years had been trapped 600 metres beneath the Wadi Rum desert in the south of the country. The water is said to be affected by radioactivity 10 to 20 times higher than acceptable levels. That's just too bad. 100 million cubic metres of water – a quarter of the country's water needs – are extracted every year and pumped to the capital through a 300-km pipeline. Saudi Arabia, which shares the aquifer, siphons out 10 times more. So, what is the life expectancy of this treasure? That's an unknown factor, because the precise volume of this reservoir is not known, but it should provide a reprieve of 50 years, at least.



"The tank's full, let's go!" says 20-year-old Kais. He is Farés's nephew. He screws in the filler cap of his water truck after filling up at the fitted-out village water source. It's a two-hour wait before his lorry is at the head of the queue and he can fill up with 10 cubic metres of water in under 15 minutes, then begin to make the rounds of his customers. He delivers water on demand, right across an area of 60 km. Orders come in by text or just in a phone call. "Everyone here calls on the water trucks, because the national water supply is not enough", Farés explains. "At my home, for example, the water is only on from Monday afternoon to midday on Wednesday. The rest of the time I have to buy water. That's why you see water tanks everywhere on house roofs."



In Amman too, the water is only on twice a week. Life is organised around the periods of availability. "Three or four years ago I was still delivering to Amman every day", Kais continues, as he sits at the wheel of his truck, "but with the supply coming from the source at Disi, I'm working less and less. Soon business will no longer be viable. The competition is constantly increasing, and there is ever less water – but I don't know what I'll do if I stop running the water truck service". Like most young men of his age in rural areas, Kais started out working on the family farm. His father's plot covered 25 hectares 10 years ago. Today there are only 5 hectares left, and this is given over to olive trees. They sold the rest on the property market. Today Kais comes to buy water from the springs that watered his grandparents' land and then resell it at a meagre profit of two dinars per tanker. Adopting a cynical view.


Jordan is one of the 5 most water-stressed countries in the world and consumes 160% of its available reserves every year. The aquifers have no time to replenish. A study for the Stanford University Jordan Water project suggests that the country's water resources will only be able to meet the needs of two million people [according to the standards established by the UN].

Two million was the recorded size of the national population in 1975. Today it stands at 10 million.

HCCS Jordanie-8.jpg

Farès and his nephew Kaïs fill the tank at the source

The large increase in population, the variability of the rains and the water topography are not the only factors involved, however. The distribution network is antiquated and poorly maintained, plagued by meter fraud, illegal water tapping and illegal wells, coyly referred to as "commercial" or "administrative" losses. Under pressure from international backers who fund major renovation projects, the government points to the closure of 1,000 illegal wells and 36,000 illegal water connections during the past five years – but this toughening up of action on violations is causing irritation. For Bedouin culture, water is the symbol of respect for all visitors. Water has always been a gift given freely, in the eyes of those who understood how precious it was. Now, today, they are being asked to pay for it.


"Jordan is a revealing example of water management in the Middle East", says the World Bank [Beyond scarcity: Water security in the Middle East and North Africa, 2017]. Faced with the growing water stress, the country's reflex reaction was to increase the supply by drawing on its groundwater without setting any limits, disregarding the fact that these are resources that are not easily renewable. An untenable stop-gap policy, which has now shifted towards reducing demand, clamping down on wastefulness and monetising water, which until then had been free of charge, or almost. Then, at the end of the chain, social choices: privatisation of the supply network, illegal water tapping and corruption, supply cuts, deteriorating water quality and a growing element of discrimination between those who can afford it and those who have to make do without. Today, its scarcity leads to unofficial arrangements and personal deals being negotiated between the leading families who run the Kingdom of Jordan.


"Everything that is scarce is sought after, and therefore expensive. That's exactly what's happening in my village," says Farés heatedly. "Water is life."


Life, yes, and also big business! Until supplies come to an end… The annual replenishment of the river basins of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will probably not be sufficient to meet the basic human needs of their populations in 20 to 30 years' time [Jordan Water Study by Stanford University] – much less the industrial, agricultural and environmental needs.

In Jordan, water reserves have evaporated by one third in less than 30 years, and could shrink by the same amount again by the end of the century. In the early 1990s, each Jordanian had 260 m3 of water per year on average. Today this has been reduced by half.


The mother of gardens
Copyrights HCCS
Directed by: S.Turpin and M.Esnault
Length : 02mn15s
  • HCCS - Mali - La chaleur du Sahel
HCCS Jordanie-14.jpg

The Zarqa River -one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River- is dry almost all year round. Its waters are polluted by waste and industrial activities

The coveted waters
carte eau MOrient.jpg

"I really began to notice the water problem after the second wave of Palestinian refugees," explains Farés's friend, Abu Alhed.  He notes ironically that he is "a refugee myself ", as he crinkles up his blue eyes in a conspiratorial smile. His family fled Hebron in 1951 to settle here, in the town of Zarqa. At the time it was a big village located in a fertile valley between Amman and the northwest border. Today it is the country's second city. It has become the foremost industrial hub, thanks to the expertise of half a million Palestinian fellahin [peasant farmers] who have settled there since the first war, in 1948. Further out, living on the fringes, there are now more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who are making a life for themselves in Azraq camp, while awaiting the prospect of returning to the other side of the border.


Abu Alhed urges us to head uphill a little to escape the bustle of the district, which is beginning to stir again after Friday Prayers. The terrace overlooks the whole of the town, cut in half by its river. On maps, Zarqa river is one of the main tributaries of the River Jordan – or, rather, was, because now it barely exists for more than 2 to 3 months of the year, right in the middle of winter. The rest of the time, it is no more than a great whiteish trench in which all of the bleeding scars from the pollution congeal. It swallows up all of the waste from the marble-cutting, dye-production and rock-cutting businesses, packed together on its banks. The town is covered in a silky coating of dust which clings to everything.

"Less than 30 years ago, there were still lots of trees everywhere on the surrounding hills. You would see herds in the town, and we drank the water from this river," Abu Alhed recalls. Today the water trucks linger in the streets to fill the tanks set up on the roof of each building. Packs of plastic water bottles are hawked outside the shops and end up in the drains and the river bed. "It's true that there is also a problem with educating people about water use and plastic pollution. We all know that water is precious. We're told about it on the news, for example, and we know that the effects of climate change will mean there is ever less of it, but no one is really tackling the root of the problem," Farés notes, with irritation. The authorities are raising awareness of the problem. They are also creating and announcing waste water recycling programmes and plans to promote crops that consume less water.


Abu Alhed grows agitated. His voice becomes louder and his tone more strident. The conversation turns into a debate, scrutinising the politically correct arguments. "There's a lack of rainfall, true; a rise in temperatures, true – but the real problem, you would have to say, is Israel. They are grabbing up all of the water reserves", Abu Alhed contends.

View the map of the territories occupied by Israel after the 6-day war in 1967, and the water resources

If Israel conceded in the 1994 Peace Accords a formal sharing of the waters of the Yarmouk and the Jordan, it is because there is an obvious interest behind it

Water, or rather the lack of it, has always turned up the heat in any Arab-Israeli conflicts.


Since it was first created, Israel has been fixated on the dream of and the need for food sovereignty. So, it launched its founding project in 1953: the immense system of pipelines, canals and reservoirs of the National Water Carrier was to drain all of the water in the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee in order to supply Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the vast greenhouses of the Negev desert, 350 km to the south. 150,000 Bedouins who have lived in the Negev for centuries were invited to work on the farms – either that, or to leave. Amman responded by building the Ghor Canal, which runs alongside the River Jordan. The leading Jordanian families have taken over the valley, with the help of the new Palestinian refugee workforce, turning it into a green space and a natural border between the two countries. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon secretly made plans to divert the flow of the Hatzbani and Banias rivers into the Yarmouk River, to prevent their waters from being captured by the Israeli canal network.

The catalyst for tension had been primed.

In early 1967, Nasser tipped things over the edge by closing the Strait of Tiran and, in so doing, access to the Red Sea for Israeli shipping. Israel launched a blitzkrieg – the Six-Day War – and took control of East Jerusalem [which had been administered by Jordan since 1948], the groundwater on West Bank lands, and the Golan Heights, which gave it both a military post overlooking Syria and control over the Sea of Galilee and the many water courses that flow into the Yarmouk River. So, Israel got its hands on the biggest "water taps" in the region, giving the Six-Day War the subheading "the first water war".



Despite the peace agreements which, since 1994, have established a fair distribution of water resources, based notably on the seasonal sharing of the flow of the River Jordan, Israel reportedly continues to divert 70% of the water flow. The Golan Heights meets 15% of its water requirements and the aquifers of the West Bank, 25 to 30%. "The water issue" now openly seeps into regional negotiations, and the sphere of elections. In January 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, experiencing difficulties and accused of corruption, badly needed to attract voters to achieve another general election victory. In a winning move, he announced the annexation of new settlements established on the aquifers on the banks of the Jordan. This was less than a year after the two countries had marked the 25th anniversary of the peace accords.



Water cooperation is drying up – and not just in the Jordan Valley.


The context of tension is infecting the whole of the Middle East. To the west of the Jordan Valley, the harnessing of the Nile is stepping up the pressure between Egypt and Ethiopia. To the east, Turkey is accused of grabbing the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates - the two big rivers that cross Syria and Iraq, before flowing into the Persian Gulf.


With the impact of climate change, the River Jordan could lose 80% of its water flow by 2100, and the Euphrates 30%.

The experts

Using the expression "water wars" to refer to zones of tension around water reserves shared by different countries may be overstating the case."

Pierre Blanc, Professor of geopolitics at Bordeaux Sciences Agro. Consultant to the CIHEAM (International Center for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies)

It should be noted that such conditions [water wars] are not yet in place, or at least not in the form of conflicts motivated mainly by access to a scarce water resource. It might be more accurate to call it "water-motivated violence", because while there is conflict over the water issue, it cannot be perceived as the only aspect of the war […]


The agricultural sector bears the greatest responsibility for inter-state tensions arising from sharing the same river basin. […] The focus on the geopolitical dimension of irrigation seems all the more natural since there are two variables that combine to make it increasingly difficult to resolve the water issue in a region that is also marked by power struggles: demographic growth does not appear to be tailing off, while at the same time troubling forecasts are being made with regard to climate change. […]


Pierre Blanc
Editions Sciences politiques 2012

Copyrights HCCS / Samuel Turpin

HCCS Jordanie-2
HCCS Jordanie-18
HCCS Jordanie-20
HCCS Jordanie-6
HCCS Jordanie-9
HCCS Jordanie-50
HCCS Jordanie-51
HCCS Jordanie-12
HCCS Jordanie-17
HCCS Jordanie-45
HCCS Jordanie-43
HCCS Jordanie-42
HCCS Jordanie-40
HCCS Jordanie-41
HCCS Jordanie-37
HCCS Jordanie-35
HCCS Jordanie-36
HCCS Jordanie-29
HCCS Jordanie-27
HCCS Jordanie-23
HCCS Jordanie-24
HCCS Jordanie-28
HCCS Jordanie-6
HCCS Jordanie-33
HCCS Jordanie-53
HCCS Jordanie-32
HCCS Jordanie-69
HCCS Jordanie-68
HCCS Jordanie-66
HCCS Jordanie-65
HCCS Jordanie-63
HCCS Jordanie-59
HCCS Jordanie-67
HCCS Jordanie-56
HCCS Jordanie-54

Trade in virtual water [See definition below] may help to improve both water security and food security, assuming that the associated risks are properly managed. "

World Bank report, 2017. Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa.

To guarantee water security in the Middle East and North Africa, we need to look at water management from a different perspective. As a consequence of the flaws from which the policies, the incentives and the institutions of many countries suffer, water is used inefficiently and has a low added value; the water utilities are not reliable and neither water consumption nor the removal of waste water are regulated […]


The interconnections between water, food and energy resources, climate change, episodes of drought and floods, water quality, cross-border water management, and the management of water resources in a fragile situation, or in situations involving conflict or violence, only serve to aggravate the challenges posed by water shortages.

Trade in virtual water [See definition below] may help to improve both water security and food security, assuming that the associated risks are properly managed. The region of the Middle East and North Africa is the biggest importer of wheat, and seven countries in the region feature among the world's 30 biggest importers of foodstuffs. In the case of these countries, their agricultural and trade policies must, therefore, obviously be adapted to align with their water security goals.

Certain countries do not wish to become too dependent on imports, because food and water are both viewed as elements of national security (Swain et Jägerskog 2016). The impact of food prices, disruption of transport and other systemic risks can also have repercussions for the trade in virtual water. In addition, countries must manage certain social risks posed by this trade, as large sections of the population make a living from farming.



Visit the Mother of gardens

with Farès

What are the international legal instruments of reference on the issue of water?

"Before us, to the north, lie Syria and the Golan Heights; to the east is Iraq; and to the west, just at the foot of that mountain, are Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the Sea of Galilee." We had "floored it" on the road from Zarqa to get here, the country's most northerly border post, overlooking the small Sea of Galilee. It is the biggest reservoir of fresh water in the region, with panoramic views out over the map of the world.


Farés showed his business card to the soldiers at the check point and his passion for books to us. His grandfather had been a soldier here, at this outpost, until the mid '80s. "Jordan is the cradle of civilisations. The crossroads of religions and trade. All of the caravans passed through here."

It's a real hotspot of friction between the tectonic plates of various civilisations. The Roman, Nabatean, Byzantine and Ottoman empires confronted each other here. People were massacred in the crusades here. Lawrence of Arabia defeated the British Empire here. Fabrics and spices from India, rice from Egypt, incense, perfumes and myrrh made their way through here, linking together currencies, tastes and continents. Petra prospered here. Moses is said to have stopped to die here after his time in exodus in the desert. The Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths chanted their psalms here, and tolerated one another.



It has also been the epicentre of Arab-Israeli wars for 70 years. Three periods of open warfare [1948, 1967 and 1973] and 50 years of latent conflict have ensnared international diplomacy and displaced around a million Palestinians, including fedayin fighters who would lead the struggle against the State of Israel on this side of the border, undermining every attempt to ease the tensions between Amman and Tel Aviv for 20 years.



"You see, down there, near the Sea of Galilee – that's an Israeli kibbutz," notes Farés, pointing to it. "You see how green the fields are? Can you also see all the infrastructures for market gardening and fish farming?"  It is from here that the Jordan Valley guides its holy river towards the south, like a lifeline flowing down as far as the Dead Sea. The Yarmouk River, which forms the natural border with Syria, meets up with the Jordan River a few kilometers further south. Between them they account for around half of Jordan's water resources.


The gospels described the valley as being a kind of Eden, a bread basket amplified by pastoral activity and transhumance. It was at the end of the first war – in 1948 – that the new map of the land turned it into a militarized zone, and the balance was shattered.


The over-exploited Jordan Valley can no longer conceal its blemishes today: dug over, criss-crossed by wadis which snake their way between the sand dunes to water the fields of water-hungry citrus fruits and bananas, destined mainly for export to the European Union. At the end of the pipe, just a mere trickle of water is left to feed into the Dead Sea.

HCCS Jordanie-15.jpg

The Jordan Valley, border between Jordan, the occupied territories of the West Bank and Israel

HCCS Jordanie-49.jpg

The Dead Sea is retreating by an average of 80 centimeters per year. It has lost a third of its surface in less than 50 years

Twenty centuries after they were written, the manuscripts discovered in the Qumran caves by Bedouin herders in 1947 continue to fascinate researchers.

Studies say that it would take 800 million m³ per year just to stabilise the level of the Dead Sea

Viewed from the air, the Dead Sea presents the sorry spectacle of a bombed-out land, pockmarked by thousands of sinkholes. "These are craters that form when the salt deposits that have gradually sunk into the ground collapse", Farés explains.


The one that held the world's oldest manuscripts, found just 70 years ago by a family of Bedouins, is being scrutinised today. The tour operators persist in showing only the best side of the Dead Sea, the northern side, lined with luxury hotels and semi-private beaches, to sell "the experience of weightless bathing" in turquoise waters with levels of salt 15 times higher than the Mediterranean. You'd better be quick though, before it disappears! Because the Dead Sea has become an enclave that has lost a third of its surface area in less than 50 years. That's shrinkage of around 80 centimetres per year on average – primarily as a result of natural evaporation, with temperatures in the region of 50°C, but also due to its intensive exploitation, which on the south side is barely concealed. Big Jordanian and Israeli companies (the Arab Potash Company and Israel Chemicals Ltd) are scraping it out and searching its depths, rich in magnesium and potassium, to turn them into industrial fertilisers and cosmetics. At this rate the Dead Sea will begin to look like a salt-crystal desert by 2050.



Amman and Tel Aviv are agreed on one thing, at least – that what is a very lucrative treasure, for both countries, must not be lost. It must therefore be fed with water. To begin with, Tel Aviv undertook to open the gates of the dam constructed upstream of the Sea of Galilee - cautiously. The Sea of Galilee had fallen to its lowest levels in 5 years, as a result of repeated droughts and ever-increasing use. All hopes therefore shifted to Aqaba and the "Two Seas Canal" project, based on research conducted 15 years ago. The idea is to pump 200 million m³ of water into the Red Sea each year to desalinate it, then to channel it towards the Dead Sea through a 200-km pipeline, at a total cost put at 10 billion US dollars. This is thinking on a colossal scale, worthy of the symbolic nature of the location - a display of the reconciliation between the two countries and above all an example of realpolitik, which is not greatly concerned with the potential environmental impact.

"The pipeline is due to pass through a known seismic zone", warns the environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). Should it break, the influx of saltwater would ruin the region's soil for decades and the Dead Sea's precious mineral content could be upset by the discharge of the saltwater.


Despite the periodic announcements, the project is faltering and reflects the stormy moods affecting regional diplomacy. Israel has begun the construction of five desalination plants along its coastline, which should soon supply it with half of its drinking water. There is certainly no sense of urgency on this side of the border. So, Tel Aviv pouts and bides its time, fearing that the project will, first and foremost, benefit Jordan "which is desperately seeking a solution to its water shortage ". [Yaakov Garb, environmental specialist at Ben Gurion University. The Time, 2013.] Jordan only has this narrow opening onto the Gulf of Aqaba and must share all of its water resources with its neighbours. So, Amman grins and bears it, and puts its trust in water cooperation to avoid being starved of water.

It's a fool's game.

HCCS Jordanie-44.jpg

Ismael's house was the first farmhouse built in the Garden Valley in the 1970s

HCCS Jordanie-26.jpg

Ismael's wife (left), daughter and two granddaughters

A Bedouin life
PORTRAIT ismael dessin.jpg

When I was a child, we had hundreds of goats and chickens. Seven years ago, I had about a hundred goats. Today, I've held onto just twenty of them - and two horses, because horses are the pride of the Bedouin!" 

Ismaël, 69 years old, Farès's uncle and the eldest of the family

Ismaël is dressed in his white thoab [djellaba], and a red and white keffiyeh; his smile widens and an impish look crosses his face. He is Farés's uncle, the eldest member of the family. He lives on the upper slope of the hill that looks out over the Garden Valley, in the old family home, the first permanent house built in the village, in the early 1980s.


It's 6 am and the Muezzin's call to prayer rings out. The sun is already very harsh and will not abate for another 12 hours. Ismaël begins his tour of the vegetable garden and the orchard. To harvest whatever is ripe, and to water the plants. Every day. He turns on the water tank tap and lets the water trickle down the hand-dug channel towards the tomatoes, looking as if it knows the way. The plot of land is dotted with small channels that frame and feed the plants, like umbilical cords. Ismaël contemplates the small thread of water as he sips lukewarm goat's milk. His wife has only just finished the milking, and is already climbing the two ladders to check on the water level of the water tanks on the roof of the house. She attaches the hose that will be used to top up their water supply when their son's water truck comes round. One tap with a shovel and the water flows to feed the aubergine plot, then the courgettes. Any patches the water misses along its path, Ismaël waters with a bottle. "We can't rely on the rain any longer. It turns up like the cousin who comes from far away, who visits us when he's passing by. He's always welcome." They mustn't let too much escape – just enough to dampen the ground, so that it doesn't evaporate too quickly.

"We've been seeing the effects of climate change since the '80s. Less rain, less snow, with increasingly long, severe droughts – but this has really accelerated during the last seven to 10 years", Farés notes. The family met up over a family lunch to tell us about their experiences over the last half century. The words flow, sing and praise the earth, bearing witness to the time. "The cattle have been increasingly thirsty. The rain has become too scarce for the seeds to grow. We had to start watering them."

Litres of water are drawn from natural sources and brought to the fields of crops. Ever deeper wells are needed – it's laborious, expensive and destructive to the groundwater reserves. Rainfall in the region has decreased by a third on average during the past 30 years, while global temperatures have risen by 1.3°C. These two figures could double by the end of the century.

"A little further south, 50 km from here, they haven't seen a drop of rain in about 50 years, but for us this winter was the first time we'd seen so much rain in almost 40 years." The anecdotes of the two brothers – Ismaël, and Farés's father – flow, telling the tale of climate change symptoms: the shifting seasons, the unpredictable weather. The conversation takes place over dishes of rice with vegetables, kibbeh and mansaf.  "There are dishes that we can no longer cook in the same way today, because we don't have the right ingredients any longer", Farés's mother explains. "We also notice that food has lost its flavour – meat, milk, vegetables and fruit – because the animals are given chlorinated water to drink, and flour."


Farés thinks back to his childhood and exercises his talent as a guide. "We used to have a legend here that said that when you cut up a watermelon the whole village would come running, because you could smell it from several kilometres away."

HCCS Jordanie-38.jpg

Ismael waters the vegetable garden every morning. The farm is supplied by tanker at least twice a week

Chasse au phoque. Elle est maintenant pratiquée

essentiellement comme une activité de loisir

Today, only 5% of Bedouins in the Middle East are still nomads. The vast majority began to adopt a settled way of life in the early 20th century, on coming into contact with the colonial powers, and with the establishment of new borders.

"Then we had to abandon livestock raising and farming, and change our way of life. Bedouins moved closer to the towns. Things had become too difficult and we were losing our money", Ismaël continues. So, they had to adapt. From the 1990s, he started life as a bricklayer, then as a bus and lorry driver, travelling many kilometres to load up cargo in Syria and Iraq.


In the 1970s, big irrigated farming programmes were developed in the Jordan Valley to make up for the loss of the river's right bank after the Six-Day War and to encourage the Bedouin to give up their nomadic way of life and settle down. These programmes rapidly gave way to fountains of the "black gold" and the sound of factory sirens. "Industries began to be established around the edge of Amman. It was easy to find work. Life also became easier." Irrigated farming suddenly became subject to targeted measures. Drastic measures. The water supply in the Jordan Valley was reduced, favouring concentration of land ownership.

"The real turning point, though, came in 2003-2004, with the arrival of the refugees from the second Iraq war", Farés continues. More than a million Iraqis left the country before its complete collapse, taking as much of their assets in cash as they could, to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, Jordan first and foremost. In their haste to invest their money, they started buying land, triggering rampant land speculation. This created a windfall for the Bedouin, who were beginning to eye their fields sceptically as piles of unusable sand that no longer produced anything. "All this money changed our way of thinking, our attitude towards solidarity. Take the beautiful house opposite, for example. There's a swimming pool full of water behind it, whereas the little farm next door has no water. For me, this is what the conflict between the past and the present is about. We don't even pay any heed to others any longer. It's just each person for himself. The way I see it is that we're in the process of losing my village."

Ismaël sits upright to sip his tea. "It's true that climate change has made everything more difficult, but it's also our own fault. To begin with, the state didn't protect the livestock breeders and the farmers. Quite the opposite. And we didn't pass on an affinity for the land to the younger generation. Out of my 17 children, today only one still continues to do a bit of livestock raising and farming. We have also failed to pass on our Bedouin traditions." What does it mean to be Bedouin? "It means being free. No land or property restrictions. Before, wealth was in the land that you cultivated, which provided for you. It was the rainwater sent by the sky. Now, wealth means showing that you can afford to buy big houses and large cars."

We turn to one of his eight sons. Ahmed is 20. He drives his own water truck. He has his nose glued to his smartphone, in the middle of an online chat with friends and the latest "tout love" trending video clips, which receive thousands of shares. "What is being Bedouin about? Well, it's…" Silence. He doesn't have an answer.


2010 was a year of extremes in the Middle East, punctuating four years of record temperatures and droughts, which were at the root of the first popular protests in Syria. In Amman, every Friday became an occasion for prayers in the grand stadium, at a time when the country was suffering from a deficit of 500 million cubic metres of water. The new Al-Wahda [Unity] dam, celebrated five years earlier against the backdrop of an anticipated bright future for water, was almost empty.

"Maybe you don't give a damn about it in your country, because there is still enough regular rainfall, but if we don't do anything to fight the effects of climate change and your factories continue to emit greenhouse gases, we won't have any rain here any longer," says Ismaël.

HCCS Jordanie-22.jpg

Ismael's son is a water delivery driver with his water truck

HCCS Jordanie-30.jpg

Ali - Farès' cousin - controls the irrigation system

of a fig tree plantation

PORTRAIT Ali dessin.jpg

But I want to believe in it. I wish to be a farmer.

My dream is to continue working the land of my ancestors !»

Ali, 20 years old, Farès's cousin

Ali is 20 years old, like Kais. He is Farés's cousin. He lives at "La Source", a storehouse of abundance in contrast with the arid nature of the village where Farés was born, less than 10 km away. Dressed in a close-fitting shirt and slim-fit jeans, and sporting a fledgling moustache, he has the understated look of those who weave their dreams and thrive on them, with a persistent determination always to see the glass as half full. He had kept his distance during the family gathering, inviting us to meet up with him later in the fig fields he tends. "Figs, yes! but also grapevines and market garden crops", he says. "Everything grows here. The spring flows all year long, the aspect is good and the land is very fertile."

He nurtures a belief in the traditions and love of the land – against all advice, particularly that of his father, who encourages him to embrace a career as a civil servant "for protection against adversity" and to benefit from a pension scheme. His father has sold almost all of the family lands without having any idea that they could be what his son dreams of. Ali will have to buy land, but not here, in the village where he was born. Property speculation has destroyed that ambition. Prices have increased tenfold in 20 years. "Look at that house opposite us, which is growing. It's a château now. Before, there were farmlands everywhere. It's become so expensive that I'd have to try out my plan a long way from here, on the edge of the desert – but I wouldn't have the water. I'd still like to believe in it though. I love working the land. For us, the Bedouin, it's part of our identity. It's my dream to continue working the land of my ancestors." In the meantime, Ali works part-time in fields belonging to others. He has several other jobs on the side: an administrative position at the local health centre, a job in the village café and another at the car wash.


"The authorities don't have any kind of policy to encourage farming", Ali continues. "On the contrary, they open imports up to include all products, even those that we produce in large enough quantities here. Goods sold in the supermarkets come from neighbouring countries, and are cheaper than what we produce here." Why? "Because we Jordanians are taxed more heavily. If you compare with the agricultural policies in Egypt or Iraq at the time of Saddam [Hussein], for example, it's really disheartening. In fact, even if I want to work on farms here, it's really difficult for me as a Jordanian, because I'm expensive."


Jordanian farmers prefer to employ Egyptian workers, who are paid only half or a third as much. When they're housed and fed, it's a viable deal for Egyptian workers, coming from a country where the average GDP per capita is 40% lower [World Bank, 2018]. "We can't compete with that. With the sales system here and all of the middlemen you have to go through before selling at the souk [market], I would have to sell a box of tomatoes for 80 piastres so that I didn't lose any money. I'm not talking about making a profit. I'm talking about just not losing any money." He is paid 50 piastres. The trade unions and associations do nothing to fight this. There's no real consultation and little coordinated action or mobilisation. Individual action has won out over working together as a group.


Farés agrees. He feels that the authorities have created a toxic narrative. "They say that Jordanians are idle and don't want to work their land, that they don’t like hard work." To the point where Jordanians actually believe it, falling in line with this manufactured agreement. Why? "Because those who own the big farms, who want to keep the prices down are the same ones who also take the decisions and have the money. Our elites are corrupt and encourage this entire system." As with the management of the water, for centuries now clientelism and family business dealings have helped to build alliances to maintain their economic and territorial privileges.


There have certainly been agricultural policy announcements – with each tough moment in history that made it necessary to invoke patriotism and "true values". Policies that were always ambitious, often ideological, and sometimes disproportionate, wrapped up in promises of food sovereignty and self-sufficiency, against the backdrop of a security crisis. Colossal amounts of money would be announced for the sector, which represents only 4.3% of national GDP, prioritising big water-guzzling greenhouses and "innovative" concepts full of promise, aimed at winning the obscene battle against the barrenness of the desert – and all of this buried in denial, like the economic plan presented in 2015, staking everything on technology, communications and tourism. Family-owned farms were notably absent.


Farés describes the dangers of disaffected young people who are beginning to rumble with discontent. In 2017, the rate of unemployment was approaching 15%, while the national debt hit 96% of GDP. The country was unable to absorb the successive blows of the crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring and the arrival of more than hundreds of thousand Syrian refugees. In addition to the fiscal measures imposed by the major backers supporting the country [the World Bank and the IMF], the reforms abandoned by the wayside the thousands of Jordanians who were trying to make a living from the informal economy. In June 2018, the prime minister resigned as a result of protests against the plans for tax reform and an increase in fuel and electricity prices.

Concerned about this situation, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait played the solidarity and geopolitical interest card. Jordan is the buffer zone that maintains the current fragile balance in the Middle East. A fresh social crisis would give a boost to the radical parties which have been making headway for the past 15 years and could trigger a new Arab Spring. "Too strategic to fail", the Gulf newspaper headlines regularly proclaim.

HCCS Jordanie-58.jpg

Fares is meditating in the desert of Wadi Rum at sunrise

HCCS Jordanie-70.jpg

The futuristic tents of a tourist camp in the desert of Wadi Rum

Silence wraps itself around us, with the sun just beginning its daily ascent. "Here, this is home to me. It's only here in the desert that a Bedouin really feels at home." "Here" is the Wadi Rum desert. Farés has brought us to the summit of Siq Nuqra, which looks out across the whole expanse of land towards the east. "In your country, when you're at home and you look down the valley you see water. We see sand – pink, red and orange."


He's talking in his just-awake voice. Muffled and slightly hoarse from the Bedouin songs and poems of the day before. "Can you imagine that here, in my grandparents' day, they tended fields? Yes, you could grow crops in the desert. There was enough rain and humidity to grow cereals. There were also wild animals and birds. There were plants that grew and survived, but the temperatures really are too high now, and there is hardly any rainfall or dew any longer. Particularly in the last 10 years. What do you hear around you? There is nothing. There is no life any longer. All there is, is sand."

Burning hot sand and tourists. The Wadi Rum desert has become an adventure playground for groups of people in trendy pataugas boots, who come to camp under Bedouin tents nestled in the shaded hollows of the majestic red cliffs. The pickup trucks criss-cross one another. Luxury campsites are set up, and business is being done by a few families who know how to hold onto their custom without really concealing its underside. At the entrance to the site is the factory, and everyone turns their head away so that they see only the beauty of the place, giving the impression of a collective lobotomy. The guidebooks work their magic: Lawrence of Arabia; steaming hot tea as the sun goes down; the blockbuster movie, "The Martian", filmed here. The setting itself suddenly overwhelms the symbolic aspect. Fiction is diluted by reality, which is water and the conquest of the desert for the survival of the human species.

"Maybe it's good for business, good for Jordan's economy. It's good for me too if I can work more and help people to discover my country... but mass tourism is also killing our country…" Farés worries. He has heard on the news that the government would be giving its permission to open the tourist sector up to international tour operators. "This would mean that they would no longer have to go through local agencies. They would come with their own staff - their own guides too, who would talk about the country without having any connection to it."


"But life is good", Farés would repeat every day.

Texts : Samuel Turpin / Marion Esnault

Photographs : Samuel Turpin / Marion Esnault

Transaltion: Karena Keeley

bottom of page