Agricultural exploitation of water resources: the cases of Aral Sea and Azraq Oasis

By Nour-Middle East Asia Correspondence: Surface and groundwater exploitation is common in most part of the world and agriculture is often the fundamental causes of fresh water depletion. In some parts of the world, however, agricultural policies have led to the complete loss of the natural resources particularly the depletion of surface and groundwater in a dramatically unsustainable level.

The desiccation of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest freshwater body, is known as the 20th century’s worst man-made environmental disaster. In the 1950s, the Soviet authorities promoted agricultural policies that targeted the promotion of cotton production, a very water-intensive ‘cash crop’. To achieve that, water that flowed in the two rivers that naturally feed Aral Sea, Amu and Syr river, was diverted toward the irrigated lands. Deprived of four fifths of its water source (the rest being rainwater), the sea  almost immediately started to shrink and its salt concentration to increase. By 2011, its area diminished to a tenth of its original 60,000 sq. km and salinity increased by more than 10 fold, preventing the survival of aquatic organisms. The impact did not stop at that, chemical pollution resulting from intensive agriculture (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) and sand-storms threatened the lives of millions of people. Roughly 40 million people live within the Aral Sea basin who consequently suffered malnutrition, tuberculosis, congential issues and cancer among other maladies due to the large scale usage of the pesticides and herbicides.

Azraq Oasis, Image Credit: Rania Faouri, IUCN

Azraq Oasis, Image Credit: Rania Faouri, IUCN

Azraq Oasis- a Ramsar designated wetland for international importance for migratory waterfowl- situated northeast of Jordan, is another example of a thriving and an ‘outstanding’ ecological habitat turned to desert. Not only it poses aesthetic and religious significance and serve as an important ‘open air’ resting post for the travellers en-route to perform the religious pilgrimage or commonly known as  ‘Hajj duty’, it is also internationally acclaimed as an important ‘roosting and feeding ground’ of migratory waterfowl and other aquatic birds of high conservation concern. Under misdirected policy framework, serious governmental exploitation of groundwater started in the 1950s to supply the growing cities of Amman and Zarqa. Today, however, governmental potable water abstraction does not exceed 17 million cubic meter whereas more than 45 million cubic meter is being explored for legal and illegal agricultural activities. These caused the drying of the springs, water table depletion and salinity of soil and water. As a consequence, the Oasis had shrunk to nearly 0.04% of its surface area of more than 25 sq km by early 90s. The Azraq Wetland Restoration Project succeeded in officially guaranteeing 1.5 million cubic meter per year of water to be pumped into the wetland by the Water Authority (in reality that does not reach 200,000 cubic meter annually). However, with an average minimal rainfall, surface water flow are not sufficient to counter-balance the growing municipal and agricultural demands.

In both cases, misdirected and unsustainable agricultural policies resulted in exceeding the thresholds of surface and ground water supply coupled with rampant misuse of the water resources taking its toll in terms of compromising the lives and livelihoods of millions of people who are in desperate needs and shortage of potable water. While politically-driven decisions are inevitable, they nevertheless require serious social, ecological, and environmental assessments and consideration.

Nour Habjoka is an agricultural and plant biologist with professional work focuses on water resource management. She serves as a Middle East Asia coordinator of the Ecoblogs.

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