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Slow death

by Elke Zimmermann
In the desert, an artificial paradise

In the desert, an artificial paradise

The level of the Dead Sea is dropping by one metre every year. Large hotel ­complexes on its shore should do more to use water sparingly. [ By Elke Zimmermann ]

Water is becoming scarce in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: demand is constantly rising, while resources are limited. In 2004, 160 cubic metres of water were available per year for each resident. In 1946, the figure was 3,600 cubic metres. The growing shortage is caused by economic development, rising standards of living and fast population growth.

There has been too much pressure on renewable water resources for a long time. Jordan has already been tapping fossil groundwater reserves for several years. The results include falling groundwater levels, which in turn cause wells to dry up. Springs and soils are becoming saline – with serious consequences for flora and fauna. Climate change will aggravate the situation even more through higher average temperatures and a higher incidence of extreme weather.

The dawning crisis is already strikingly evident at the Dead Sea. Since 1960, its water level has dropped by a staggering 24 metres. The Jordan River barely reaches the Dead Sea anymore; its water is used for agriculture. The river carries far less water than it used too, but the concentration of pesticides has increased. Wadis, river courses that only carry water after heavy rainfall, scarcely debouch into the inland sea any more. Their water is diverted to supply the growing capital city of Amman.

Nonetheless, there are few signs of water scarcity in the lush green grounds of big hotel complexes on the Dead Sea’s shore. These artificial paradises have large swimming pools, and their oasis-like ­vegetation seems surreal in the desert landscape. On average, hotel guests consume 500 to 1,000 litres of fresh water per day. Local people make do with less than 100 litres.

The constant overuse of regional water resources is threatening the unique ecosystem of the Dead Sea. Its surface has shrunk by a third in the past 50 years. The flora and fauna, which has always been sparse, is suffering.

The dropping of the water level also implies economic costs. Infrastructure damage must be repaired, and the coastline must be constantly stabilised. Riverbeds are eroding. More and more public and private expenditure is also needed due to sink holes.

The technology to drastically reduce hotel guests’ fresh water consumption is available, but most private-sector investors do not prioritise sparing use of resources. The water price is fixed by the government at less than two euros per cubic metre. This price is much too low to provide an incentive to invest in up-to-date technology.

Despite the distorted water price, multiple-use concepts are gradually gaining ground. The main reason is that public water utilities are chronically overused and their service is intermittent. Therefore, all the large hotel complexes at the Dead Sea also rely on private-sector water suppliers. All hotels, moreover, already use treated wastewater to irrigate their abundant gardens.

Greywater recycling

The Dead Sea Spa Hotel is one step ahead of the others. Thanks to a pilot project, which was set up by the GTZ and the German engineering firm Pontos, this resort is recycling “greywater”. Lightly polluted wastewater from showers and bathroom sinks is processed in a biological-mechanical facility and then re-used to flush toilets. The scheme allows the hotel to save up to 15 cubic metres of water per day. The volume is equivalent to the average daily consumption of more than 150 Jordanians.

Whether the technology is catching on in other hotels is questionable. In relation to the current water price (both from public- and private-sector providers) the investment costs are still relatively high. Under prevailing conditions, the pilot system will not break even soon.

The institutional environment is not conducive either. Jordan does not have any regulations on greywater recycling in buildings. As a consequence, quality management is difficult. Normally, it would do to simply meet the legal standards. Jordan’s construction law, moreover, does not include rules on indoor water recycling either.

Retrofitting greywater systems in existing buildings is difficult and expensive. The reason is that, apart from the recycling facility itself, an additional pipe system is needed. If the pipes are not included in the plans from the outset, retrofitting – if possible at all – is extremely expensive.

Of course, greywater recycling would make sense on a large scale. Dozens of new tourism projects are planned for the Dead Sea. For resource-poor Jordan, tourism is an important source of income. The tourism industry is the country’s second-most important employer. Last year, it generated 18 % of GDP. The government wants to attract more holidaymakers to the country, and the Dead Sea is a popular destination.

Much needs to be done to stop the Dead Sea’s water level from dropping further. The government should set incentives nationwide for implementing water-saving technology. It also needs to reform the legal framework and raise awareness. If leaders act fast, they can ensure that new hotel complexes are planned and built with greywater recycling systems.

In the meantime, the level of the Dead Sea continues to drop. It will soon become impossible to ­ignore the environmental damage. Tourism is not the only cause. Jordan uses most of its water resources in agriculture. Approximately 70 % is used to cultivate fruit and vegetables, which do not even generate four per cent of GDP. To a great extent, farmers’ irrigation schemes already use treated wastewater and water-saving technology.

Reforms in the water sector would trigger enormous resistance. The low water price is politically desirable since it helps to ease social tensions. In the long run, however, the low price is compounding the problem. Experience shows that resource-saving technology is used primarily in places where the economic incentives are right. The royal house knows it has to act, but reforms take time.

Positive effects will probably come too late to save the Dead Sea. The World Bank estimates that its water level could drop by another 100 metres if the current trend is not stopped. The surface of the Dead Sea would shrink to a minimum, and most of the shore area could no longer be used. There would no longer be any scope for generating income from tourism at the lowest point on earth.

Investors in the tourism sector should bear these hard facts in mind. Their business model depends on the unique landscape and its ecosystem. They should assume environmental responsibility voluntarily. Higher water prices, of course, would set the right ­incentives.

The cost of water is a hot issue everywhere in the Arab world. As a general rule, the price should cover the costs for development, transport and treatment. Jordan is still a long way from such a state of affairs. But even if water was produced and handled in a way that covered costs, questions of distributive justice would not figure in business managers’ cost calculations.

Not only local people need water, the ecosystem does too. The paradox of the Dead Sea’s hotel complexes is that their non-sustainable business practices contribute to the destruction of the unique environment that their business model depends on.

This scenario reflects the drama of the entire ­nation. All summed up, water scarcity is the limiting factor for economic growth in Jordan. The government-sponsored water price does not reflect this ­simple truth.