Jordan University of Science & Technology (JUST) is an oasis of sorts; its leafy canopy, extensive fruit and nut orchards, and elaborate topiary sculptures come as something of a shock on a campus situated in one of the most arid regions of the world.
In fact, the term “arid” barely captures it.
Over 90% of the territory within the Kingdom of Jordan receives less than 50mm of rainfall per year, 94% of which evaporates. Groundwater supplies in Jordan are consequently meager, in addition to being historically overexploited, and often just plain inaccessible due to border disputes with neighboring Syria and Israel. According to USAID, yearly per capita share of fresh water in Jordan is among the lowest in the world — less than 200 cubic meters. Compare that to the average U.S. citizen’s annual use of about 9,000 cubic meters. Even the richest neighborhoods in the capital Amman receive running water only once per week.
If current pressures on available resources weren’t sufficient cause for concern, the population of Jordan is expected to double by 2029.
Abuse of fresh water resources at institutions of higher education is unforgivable in this context. Abuse, however, has its reasons; water is provided free of charge to college campuses. Some, such as JUST, are further able to exploit underground reservoirs via on-campus wells. In this context, lush campus landscaping could be understood as an inappropriate but unpunished extravagance.
JUST’s Groundskeepers would balk at any suggestion of irresponsible water use, however.
The truth is that the irrigation system for this verdant campus relies on neither well nor municipal fresh water sources.
“We are the only campus now that has its own water treatment facility and water reuse program,” explains Vice President Omar Al-Jarrah. “It’s considered a showcase — for Jordanian farmers, for students of this university and many other universities, and for people from around the world.”
The Water Reuse Project: Showcase for the World
JUST’s pioneering water reuse project, led by Civil Engineering Associate Professor Ziad Al-Ghazawi, makes use of a vast and relatively untapped source: Jordan’s sewage stream.
Every drop of wastewater from campus drains, toilets and showers is treated on site at a plant designed to manage up to 2,500 cubic meters of effluent per day. Reclaimed water is then stored for future use in a 132,000 m3 lined catchment area, affectionately referred to as the Duck Pond.
Water from the Duck Pond serves as a primary irrigation reserve for campus landscaping. Indeed, providing a leafy campus canopy in a region where summer temperatures routinely reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit is one tangible and very visible benefit of the wastewater project. The Duck Pond itself has even become a favorite hang out for students on break between classes.
However the primary justification of this project is not to transform the face of campus landscaping. Rather, it targets Jordanian food production.
Feeding a Water-Starved Nation
Jordan’s agricultural sector is responsible for 66% of all water consumption despite the fact that the sector returns a paltry 4% of annual GDP. According to Al-Ghazawi, increasing “crop per drop” will depend on farmers abandoning water inefficient and economically unstable products such as bananas and watermelon. But another answer lies in his JUST’s vast agricultural fields.
“We planted each and every crop variety that Jordanian farmers use and we irrigated each variety with freshwater and with treated wastewater,” explains Al-Ghazawi. “What we wanted to do is prove to the Jordanian public and to the Jordanian scientific community how safe wastewater reuse is.
Color-coded pipes (pink for reclaimed water, black for freshwater) conduct water through a series of high-efficiency irrigation systems to nourish field crops (barley, vetch, alfafa), fruit and nut trees (apple, almond, carob, pomegranate, pistachio, olives, figs, grapes, cactus), as well as decorative tree species on 72 hectares of land. The scale of JUST’s plantings are comparable to those of a commercial farmer’s; the campus boasts 33,000 olive trees alone.
Soil, water and crop analyses conducted since the project’s inception have consistently supported Al-Ghazawi initial claims; produce grown using treated wastewater is on par in terms of chemical and microbiological contamination, nutritional content, and quality with both control produce as well as randomly selected produce from the markets of Irbid and Amman. In some cases, the experimental crops have even outperformed their conventional counterparts.
However, convincing Jordanian consumers that food grown using treated sewage is not only safe but also acceptable is an uphill battle. Aside from commonly held social and cultural misgivings, another barrier to adoption is Islam’s specific injunction against the use of water classified as “impure.” Although certain reputable religious scholars argue that treated sewage can achieve the purity required for agricultural use, consumers’ gut-level aversion may prove to be more powerful still.
According to Dr. Samer Talozi, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at JUST, the key to overcoming this “ick factor” and other barriers to widespread use of marginal water sources is perceived urgency of the water crisis. And this why Talozi works to systematically cultivate that sense of urgency in all of his courses.
Farming Student Leaders
“Even in my Fluids Mechanics class, the first week is usually a focus on the water situation in Jordan,” says Talozi. “Our resources, our demands, the gap between them, and the problems that we face.”
Talozi typically shows his students before and after pictures of some of Jordan’s principle water features: The Jordan River, the Dead Sea, the Zarqa Creek, and the Azraq Oasis. Talozi often lingers on the example of the ancient Azraq Oasis, which was completely drained in the course of only nine years to serve Amman’s tremendous thirst for freshwater.
“What bothers me the most is the very short memory span that our students have. They live in Jordan now thinking this is the way it was for the longest time.” When asked to characterize JUST students’ awareness of environmental issues, Talozi calls them “unhealthy.” However, he is convinced that educators working in higher education can have a huge impact on student attitudes and behaviors without investing excessive amounts of time or effort.
“When I show these pictures and I say, ‘This was done by engineers,’ that creates a shock in their minds.” And that shock, according to Talozi, does seem to lead to a changed worldview and changed aspirations for how their own careers will contribute to solving problems rather than creating them.
“We need to find ways to spotlight these things. Otherwise, we are into a future with more destruction of our ecosystem.”
Talozi’s current research project analyzes the suitability and methods of cultivation of high value drought-tolerant crop species, which could prove attractive to Jordanian farmers. He is encouraged by steps that JUST has taken to model sustainability in action, such as greywater systems in two of the
campus dorms. But he laments the fact that there are few visible indications of the university’s commitment. A short-lived campus experiment with recycling may have ended up sending mixed signals.
“For a period of about a year or a year and a half, you could walk around campus and see labeled trash bins for plastic, for glass and for other waste,” recalls Talozi. “But when the project ended, the university did not carry on the practice. Had these practices been carried on, the students would learn more and become more environmentally aware.”
Expanding the Field
Recently, a Smarter Campus Committee was formed at JUST to provide guidance to the university regarding more efficient and effective resource use. Smart buildings and a new cross-disciplinary elective dealing with energy and water conservation are just a few of their draft recommendations.
A large scale solar farm is also being considered as a possible next step in reducing the campus’ dependence on fossil fuel resources. Jordan may be nearly as poor in energy as it is in water, which is why desalination has not proven a viable solution to water shortages as it has in the oil-rich nations to the south.
What it lacks in natural resources, however, the country makes up in human capital. Jordan has emerged over the last few decades as a leader in higher education for the region as a whole; JUST now draws over 5,000 international students from 61 nations, many flocking to its biosciences and engineering programs which rank among the best in the world.
That kind of expertise will need to be critically engaged if the country is to tend to the needs of its ever-growing population. Nationwide, Jordan’s annual water use is 890 million cubic meters (MCM), with a need for 1,600 MCM per year to meet its 2015 forecast requirements. Now, prepare for a shock: The total renewable safe yield of groundwater resources in all of Jordan is an estimated 275 MCM per year.
Drop by drop, JUST’s wastewater project is striving to fill that gap. With water, yes. But also with another renewable resource: Educated students and consumers. Fittingly, all the proceeds from sales of the campus’ produce fill the coffers of the Needy Student Fund, making the project that much more valuable.
“Jordan’s water strategy for many decades had stated it loud and clear,” asserts Al-Ghazawi. “Every drop of wastewater is a precious resource.”
For more information on the water reuse project at JUST, contact Professor Ziad Al-Ghazawi. Further details are also available in “UNITEN ICCBT 08 Waste Water Reuse for Agriculture-Pilot Project at the Jordan” (2008, PDF download). Professor Talozi’s research project will be specifically addressed in an upcoming Parlez-Vous Green Campus piece. In the meantime, his website (under construction) provides background on the drought-tolerant species under investigation.