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Tracing pollution

by Philip Schuler

In depth

This is no way to keep spring water clean

This is no way to keep spring water clean

A village in northern Jordan depends on polluted water from a spring, as four German and Arab students discovered. Their final report shows how matters could be improved. By Philip Schuler

The Jordan village of Um Qais suffers severe water scarcity. The Water Authority Jordan (WAJ) only provides households with water for 36 hours per week. Its service is intermittent because the nation’s water resources are under severe stress. Jordan is one of the world’s ten water-poorest countries according to the UNDP. A nation is considered water-poor if it has less than 1000 cubic meters per person and year. The figure for Jordan is a mere 140 cubic meters per person and year.

Public water supply in Um Qais is not sufficient. The citizens have to rely on other resources. In the wet season in winter, rainwater harvesting is an option: people collect water and store it in tanks. The other option is abstraction of water from the local spring. This spring has discharge during the whole year. The students calculated that, in winter, the village receives about 10 % of its water from this spring. In summer, this figure increases to about 30 %.

There is, however, the issue of quality since the source is contaminated with e.coli and nitrate, as samples showed. The WHO defines nitrate concentrations above 50 mg/l as dangerous, especially for children. High nitrate levels affect the blood’s capacity of carrying oxygen. “Blue baby” symptoms include troubles in breathing as well as vomiting and diarrhea.

E.coli are bacteria that live in humans’ and animals’ intestines. Since e.coli can transmit illnesses from one host to another one, e.coli contamination makes water unsuitable for drinking. Even a single detected bacterium is an indicator for fecal contamination of water.

Causes of contamination

There are several reasons for the contamination in the village area.
– First of all, extensive agriculture relies on nitrate-based fertilisers. The northern part of Jordan is famous for its olive oil. Its olive trees mark the landscape.
– Second, animal feces are used as fertilisers too. That makes sense because feces are a cheap and readily available resource as chicken and cattle contribute considerably to local income generation. The downside is that rain and irrigation water carry particles into the soil from where they percolate into the ground­water.
– Third and most important, Um Qais is
not connected to the national sewerage system (as is true of 40 % of Jordanian households). People either discharge wastewater into ancient Roman caves underneath their houses or into leaking cesspits outside their homes. Cesspits should have a lining underneath to prevent pollutants from trickling into the groundwater. They must, moreover, be emptied frequently to prevent overflow. Because such services are expensive, they are hardly made use of in Um Qais. On the contrary, people in the past used dynamite to enlarge cracks in the already fractioned karstic geology with the result of supposedly natural emptying of the cesspits – but also of groundwater contamination with e.coli. This is no longer being done, but people have begun to put salt into their cesspits, which similarly leads to leakage.

The village is on the top of a hill. The spring is located 200 meters below the village. The distance is 1,5 Kilometers. The average slope between spring and village is about 20 %.

To tackle the spring’s contamination, the first question is: Where does the water come from? Geo-hydrologists try to identify the catchment of a spring. Their answer includes a topographic boundary, in which rainfall infiltrates the soil and then concentrates towards this spring. The catchment basin of the Um Qais spring includes agricultural fields and about half of the village.

The challenges are daunting, but matters can in principle be improved. Sustainable spring protection would have to tackle various aspects. It would make sense to prepare a comprehensive land-use map of the affected area since “a map says more than a thousand words” as cartographers say.

Maps are powerful, visible tools for decision making. Moreover, they allow a community to understand its issues. A good map will indicate where contamination is caused. So far, however, the use of maps does not seem common in rural communities in this region.

A possible way forward

Based on a good land-use map, groundwater protection zones around the spring could be defined. There are three categories of zones that serve to prevent hazardous contamination. Accordingly, specific guidelines of what not to do, depending on its proximity to the spring, are needed, but they are likely to cause tensions:
– The first protection zone is closest to the spring. This area needs to be fenced off, which may prove controversial. For instance, shepherds may want their herds to graze around the source and let the animals drink from it – something that must be prohibited to prevent infiltration of feces.
– In the second zone, the use of fertilisers and herding must be prevented. Opposition from farmers and shepherds is likely.
– In the case of Um Qais, the third zone would cover the whole catchment basin. Industrial-scale farming and the application of pesticides have to be forbidden. Usage of fertilisers, however, could be permitted with some quantitative constraints.

So far, the citizens lack awareness and knowledge. The general attitude is “why change behavior that I have done for my whole life?” Causal relations are not always well understood. This may also be the reason why people don’t shy from using carcinogenic kerosene to clean their fresh water tanks.

In any case, the implementation of protection zones will affect long-standing traditions and well-established practice. Dialogue between the various stakeholders is important and can lead to broad acceptance of the new rules. It is crucial to make people understand the scientific facts in a culture-sensitive way to avoid open conflict, which would be the worst result of such a project.

The greatest challenge, however, is that the village needs some kind of wastewater treatment scheme. Decentralised facilities are an option, but they cost money the villagers cannot afford. They would, in principle, be willing to pay, but they are too poor to take loans and finance investments in advance. Many people expressed their frustration with having to pay monthly fees for the national sewerage system that does not cover their community.