Jordan: Opening up agriculture

Jordan’s farmers have been offered the chance to rebuild a long lost export market as Saudi Arabia gets set to resume imports of a range of the kingdom’s produce. However, with the role played by agriculture in the Jordanian economy dwindling over the past 50 years and competition for scarce water resources getting more intense, local growers may only be able to reap a limited harvest from Riyadh’s new open door policy.

At the beginning of April Saudi Arabia announced it was to restart importing vegetables from Jordan after more than 20 years, a break stemming from concerns over Jordan’s excessive use of pesticides. While the imports will be subject to stringent monitoring by Saudi officials, it is an opportunity to expand what was once Jordan’s largest export market for fresh vegetables.

The plan by Riyadh coincides with a decision by the Saudi government to scale back efforts to promote its own agricultural self-sufficiency, having found that the cost of providing water supplies to local farmers outweighed the benefits of domestic production.

Saudi Arabia is not alone in struggling to balance efforts to develop food security with a shortage of natural resources. The greatest restriction on Jordan’s agriculture sector is the lack of water, a situation that has only worsened in recent years in what is one of the world’s driest countries.

Jordan is also heavily urbanised, with World Bank figures putting the country’s rural population at little more than 21% of the total, and agricultural workers making up less than 10% of the national workforce.

The rural community has seen its contribution to GDP drying up over the past few decades. Half a century ago, agriculture accounted for 40% or more of national output, but with urbanisation, an economic shift towards services-based sectors and the depletion of water resources, agriculture long since ceased to be a growth industry.

According to a recent report by the International Water Association (IWA), while agriculture makes up 4% or less of GDP, irrigation of farmlands consumes three-quarters of the nation’s water supply, leaving scant reserves for domestic use or other sectors such as industry, which generates 30% of GDP.

The IWA’s report suggests that better water management could see enhanced outcomes for the sector, and notes that the price charged to farmers does not fully reflect the cost of supplying water for irrigation or the resulting end product. The organisation recommends that tariffs be raised to better represent expenses and provide an economic incentive for farmers to be more efficient.

One area where Jordan could do better is in the transmission of water, with improved pipes and more efficient pumping equipment reducing losses. Currently, up to half of Jordan’s usable water is lost in the delivery system, more than twice generally accepted levels. Large quantities of water are also siphoned off illegally, adding to the state’s losses.

By upgrading the distribution network and strengthening the system of monitoring water usage and metering, Jordan could reduce physical and financial losses, meaning that more resources could be made available for agriculture.

Improving awareness among farmers could also reinforce best practices when it comes to water usage. According to Raed Al Tabini, one of the authors of the IWA report, Jordan’s water crisis is due in part to inefficient farming and irrigation practices.

“Farmers over-pump water and over-irrigate their crops,” he said in an April 14 interview with The Jordan Times. “If we don’t address the whole of the problem – including both wasteful consumers in Amman and wasteful farmers in Mafraq – it will never be solved.”

The choice of crop is an important factor as well, with the Department of Statistics reporting that farmers tend to grow water-intensive foods such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries and melons. This has meant that the cost of production – both for the farmers and the wider water economy – is high, while output remains limited. Education and training programmes that encourage farmers to switch to crops that require less water could see costs drop and yields rise.

Such changes would fit in with the government’s plans to correct water policies and implement a supply-oriented approach to management. In early April Jordan hosted Efficient 2011, an international water event organised by Ministry of Water and Irrigation, USAID and the IWA, to discuss innovative solutions to global water challenges.

Schemes such as increasing desalination of water from the Red Sea may serve to plug some of the leaks in Jordan’s water deficit, but the high cost of processing salt water means that such methods are not economically viable for widespread agricultural purposes.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Jordan does not have extensive energy resources that can be utilised to power desalination plants, and even with the planned construction of a nuclear power station, the country will likely continue to struggle to deploy enough electricity generation capacity to meet commercial and private needs, let alone have an excess to purify enough water to green the desert lands.

While it is unlikely that Jordan will ever fully abandon agriculture as a mainstream component of the national economy, the question of how much agriculture the country can afford is likely to be asked more frequently unless alternative sources of water can be found to sustain the farming industry.

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