Science, Talk

What’s That You’re Drinking? Azraq’s Shrinking Wetlands

One in every four cups of water used in Amman comes from the Azraq wetland. Commercial pumping began in the 1940s, and the amount of water pumped from this delicate oasis in the middle of the oasis increased steadily, drying up the underground streams and reducing the wetland into a minuscule fraction of its size. Some estimate Azraq today is only 10% of its original blueness. It is barely maintained by the man-made pipes that deliver constant little streams of water. I cannot help but be skeptical about the statistics. The sun-baked mud and few stagnant pools of water do not conjure up images of a vast oasis that stretched across for miles and miles and provided shelter to hundreds of wildlife species. Apparently, buffalo, oryx, lions and aurochs once roamed this area. None are in sight today.

Azraq continues to serve as a major source of water for the people living around it. (There is also a Syrian refugee camp there, housing almost 11,000 people.) Migratory birds atavistically visit this area every year. While my family and I visited Azraq during the dry season, there were various types of herons, coots, and wading birds in the water, a sight I never expected to see in Jordan. There are also fish in the water; some are endemic only to this wetland.

Even today, with the impact of over-pumping publicized internationally, the people of Jordan continue to pump more than 50 million cubic meters of water from Azraq annually. In addition to public pumps that transport the water to Amman, there are at least one hundred illegal wells, all adding to the water deficit. Some call Azraq an “ecological collapse,” one that will undeniably impact not only the local flora and fauna, but also the local community of Azraq, and the food and water security of Amman. The death of Azraq will signal the death of many.

As we left the Azraq Wetland Reserve, founded in 1978 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, we came across a disturbing sight: a dead heron lying next to a building, its eyes half open, ants tearing away its flesh, its soft plumage ruffled by the soft wind.

Drip, drip, drip.