Few issues are more emotional to Middle Easterners than water, partly, because the region is so short of this vital resource. But water seems to engender strong feelings among peoples the world over. The history of the American West, for example, is full of bitter battles (both judicial and armed) over water. In the Middle East, few countries face greater threats of water shortages than does Jordan. Not only is it periodically overrun by new refugee influxes (most recently from Iraq) that add to the water strains, but it lacks the financial resources of the oil-rich Gulf countries with which to build expensive desalination facilities. Plus, Jordan's population centers are far removed from its short sea coast.
As to be expected from the most sober and serious environmental research organization—namely, Resources for the Future—the volume edited by Haddadin, former Jordanian minister of water and irrigation, is a superb account of Jordan's water situation. (Disclaimer: This reviewer's father was president of RFF in the 1970s.) The chapters are a model of solid information presented in an accessible form. Successive chapters set out the basic facts about Jordan's water situation, recount the history of water administration, describe how Jordan collects data about water, examine the irrigation systems sustaining agriculture, analyze the environmental impact of water management practices, look at wastewater management, and discuss the effects on Jordan of Israeli and Syrian water policies.
Perhaps the two most revealing chapters deal with the economics of water in Jordan. The nonspecialist may be surprised by the twin basic facts that frame the water issue. First, 63 percent of Jordan's fresh ("blue") water is used in agriculture. The simple reality is that household and industrial use of water are not a particular strain on the country's water resources. As Haddadin and his coauthors of one chapter (Amer Salman and Emad Karablieh) explain, Jordan can dramatically reduce its water consumption by importing food rather than producing it. Growing one ton of wheat requires 1,000 tons of water, and wheat is not particularly water-intensive.
The second economic fact, perhaps even more surprising, is that water is not particularly costly for Jordanians. Water is 1.34 percent of household expenses for the average Jordanian family—trivial compared to items like health and education, much less food, shelter, and transportation. As various chapters show, Jordan could sharply increase the water available for urban use if it were to invest more in recycling water. The resulting "grey water," along with the "green water" percolating in the soil, could be used for agriculture, freeing more of the blue water for households. The Haddadin volume does not compare Jordanian practices with that of its neighbor Israel, which would be a revealing contrast: Israel has set the goal of using all its blue water for urban purposes while forcing farmers to use green and grey water.