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Farmers toil amid water scarcity, trade challenges

'Immediate gov’t interference needed to remedy sector woes'

By Imke van Smoorenburg - Feb 16,2022 - Last updated at Feb 16,2022

A vegetable vendor at his roadside stall in the Jordan Valley in this recent photo (By Imke van Smoorenburg)

JORDAN VALLEY — Jordan's agricultural industry has a significant impact on the country’s water crisis, placing the financial situation of farmers under high pressure, according to farmers and experts. 

For the past 10 years, the agricultural sector in Jordan has been under severe strain, facing issues such as extreme weather, water scarcity and difficulties in trading, according to experts. 

According to World Bank figures from 2020, the agricultural sector, which includes agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, accounts for 5.2 per cent of total GDP.

Within this agricultural sector, the area annually consumes 60 per cent of the total domestic amount of water, according to the Ministry of Water and Irrigation. 

According to country director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Vrej Jijyan, much of this freshwater is obtained through overdrawing from highland aquifers. 

"This phenomenon remains very unsustainable, because it leads to lowering water tables and the declining of water quality. The freshwater needs to be accessible for domestic use in the future," Jijyan noted. 

According to the IFAD, Jordan's agricultural and food trade has been under strain since the Syrian crisis delayed the valuable stimulus growth in this sector. Profits from these exports have been affected since 2011. 

"Aside from the Syrian crisis, climate change has led to more extreme weather in Jordan, which, when combined with more frequent drought events, has created a slew of problems for Jordanian farmers," Jijyan noted. 

He added that many farmers in Jordan “have been struggling to keep their costs down as a result of the growing water scarcity”.

Furthermore, the use of scarce water in the cultivation of some crops remains inefficient.

“Some crops being sought by farmers, such as melons and peaches, have a low return on yield per unit of water utilised, which has economic and environmental consequences,” he said.

The IFAD has been working together with local farmers to encourage them to produce crops with high water value that can be productive concerning water consumption.

Farmers in the Jordan Valley

The farming community in the Jordan Valley village of Ghour Al Safi expressed their ongoing financial struggles in an interview with The Jordan Times.

According to Abdal Jawad Khalil Oshebat, a tomato farmer who owns 37 dunums of land in Ghour Al Safi, the way of farming has changed over the past years.

“Nowadays, farming output is turning to a more quantity viewpoint, through expanding the usage of fertilisers, rather than a quality perspective,” Oshebat told The Jordan Times during a farm visit.

“The government has been increasing our water bills and, in some cases, cutting off our water supply totally,” Abdal Oshebat said.

When farmer Seleman Jawad Oshebat’s harvest failed last year, he faced financial difficulties.

“Last year’s tomato harvest failed due to the heat and the fact that I couldn’t irrigate my crops because the water supply had stopped,” he told The Jordan Times.

“I switched to planting chickpeas on my land, which consume less water than tomatoes. But in no time, all farmers around started copying me, which dropped the price of the chickpeas,” he said. 

Farmers are facing many economic difficulties due to the increasing water bills and the drop in prices of the provided goods, said Adnan Khaddam, president of the Jordan Valley Farmers Union.

“This water scarcity worsens the already difficult economic position of farmers, also because of the lack of export due to closed borders, high production costs and low markets prices in rural areas,” Khaddam added. 

“Solutions to reduce the water consumption, such as hydroponics, remain very costly, and therefore often unaffordable for small farmers,” he noted. 

Export opportunities

Besides the water cuts, the prohibition on exporting commodities to the worldwide market leads to discontent among the farmers in the Jordan Valley. 

“We are legally only authorised to sell our products in the Jordan Valley and to the Central Market in Amman, not directly to other cities in Jordan, which puts extra pressure on our economic condition,” farmer Abdal Oshebat said. 

“The farming sector, as it is currently regulated, is a dying business. Small and local farmers would vanish if the government does not support us in this direction,” he warned.

According to farmers in Jordan Valley, the government should intervene to avert the collapse of this industry.

“The government could support us in this frightening scenario by controlling the production of goods to overcome surpluses in one product, allowing us to directly export our goods to other cities or abroad, and providing us with farming techniques and education to reduce our water usage,” he concluded.

The Ministry of Agriculture has, despite several attempts, not been available for comments or an interview. 

Water-saving techniques

Advance Consultancy, a firm operating in Jordan and funded by the Dutch government, established the “Holland Horti Support Jordan” project in 2019. This project aims to provide new innovations and knowledge about farming to 70 local farmers in the pilot phase. 

“The focus of the project in the past three years has been on developing a more competitive agricultural market in Jordan,” Cedric van Oene, project coordinator of Holland Horti Support Jordan, told The Jordan Times in an interview. 

“Jordan’s agricultural industry has been under pressure since Syria’s crisis cut off trade lines to importing countries, and the industry should now look for a new competitive market,” according to van Oene.

In the project, farmers receive training and new ideas that potentially increase the efficiency of the farming process, are tested.

“Our project focuses on various types of innovations, but we supply the farmers with a water meter when it comes to water-saving strategies. This meter serves as an indicator for the irrigation pipes, measuring the entire amount of water that will flow across the area,” he added. 

“With this technique, farmers will have a better understanding of their total water consumption for their lands at various periods,” he stated.

Furthermore, the Holland Horti Support Jordan provided farmers with soil moisture sensors, analysing the soil moisture of the ground and providing information on when to irrigate their crops.

“Farmers frequently lack the knowledge and equipment to perform these water-saving practices, which could lower their water consumption, and therefore water bills,” he said.

“By sharing this information and knowledge with local farmers, their economic prospects may increase, combined with a reduction of consumed water in the agricultural sector,” he concluded.

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