Monday, June 17, 2013

Azraq, Water In The Desert: 15 June 2013

         At a confluence of mighty highways that link Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in Jordan's great Eastern Desert, lies a small dusty oasis town. Al Azraq was the gathering place for mighty caravans on their way from the Gulf states and weary bands of Bedouin watering their thirsty herds in the shimmering sun. Today, greasy mechanic shops service long haul trucks pounding their way through the sand and asphalt, and the camels are relegated to the few Bedouin tents on the outskirts of town. Azraq as an oasis town is long gone...and today even the water is going away.
         Azraq sits on a mighty aquifer that lies underneath the desert, the oasis, a huge wetland full of birds, fish and plant species was once over 12000 km in area. European explorers had surveyed the site and determined that it was exceptional in quality and importance to migrating birds and mammals. They began a reserve to protect it. But far to the west, the ancient city of Amman was expanding. One of the oldest settled cities, Amman was becoming a burgeoning metropolis. Its new population needed water, and the eyes of the government settled on the aquifers of Azraq to the east. Pumping stations were placed around Azraq in the 1980s, and the drawing down of the mighty Azraq aquifer began.The end for the oasis was not long in coming, by 1993, the huge wetland was dry, and the birds and animals came no more to its shores.
        But the natural ecosystems were not alone in their suffering, the local populations of Druze, Chechen and settling Bedouin began to feel the effects of the dropping water table. Wells dried up, and the city began to be rationed water, six days a week, five, four and finally three. Wealthy and promiment former government officials dug illegal wells along with some of the locals to feed their farms. The remaining few acres of wetland, hastily saved from complete dessication in the late 1990s, were rationed water as well. Outside the tiny remnant of marsh, huge dead clumps of reeds and phragmites remain as stark tombstones to what once was.
      Today, the water returns for the first time in three days, there is quiet celebration, but nothing spectacular, hair is washed, laundry is done, and storage barrels filled, here, no one knows when the water will go off again. Across town the manager of the little wetland turns the big valve, and the soft noise of running water tinkles among the reeds in the dry desert air.

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