Observations and Interactions at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’)

Is it any wonder with daily reminders of the widening disparity between exponential population growth and water and food scarcity, so many of us begin to question the possibility of long term sustainable human habitation on the planet? Being a constant witness to damage caused by modern agricultural practices — motivated and driven largely by corporate greed — is proof enough that our ineffective systems have to change and come back into balance. My recent post in Jordan opened my eyes to this reality more than ever before.

Click for larger view

On arrival to the Dead Sea Valley I was amazed to see this lowland desert drenched in tropical lush green. Upon closer inspection, I realized most of what I was seeing was a vegetative sea of toxic, chemically supported banana and annual row-crop monoculture plantations — all incredibly water intensive agricultural systems. I found it strange, particularly as Jordan (specifically the Dead Sea Valley) is one of the most water starved countries in the world, and one of the hottest.

Charging the swales

The bananas seemed to perplex me most, knowing their high transpiration rates and insatiable thirst. I further discovered they specifically require ‘sweet’ water (and a lot of it) in order to survive; basically water with very low levels of salt. Well, this is the Dead Sea Valley, where salt is in abundance, pretty much everywhere. One banana farmer I spoke with is soon to face some major decisions. He has farmed in the valley for years and is burrowing deeper each year with his well as the water level continues to drop. (Groundwater is a major source of irrigation water for most agriculture in Jordan.) He is currently at 130m and teetering on the edge of his sweet-to-salt threshold for growing. It is expected that his water will have a salt content too high for the crop to survive within three years. So the plan is to continue growing bananas until such time, then switch to annual crops (arguably more water intensive) that will tolerate higher salinity levels. Then, when the water is too saline and the soil too salted for even salt-tolerant annuals, options will start looking pretty thin.

Turning the compost

The once charging Jordan River provided abundant water for the area’s food production, but now barely runs at a trickle. Large scale irrigation has played a key role in the shrinking water source. Demand for cheaper (poor quality) ‘cosmetic’ food has increased as population growth has risen substantially over recent decades. The ‘forced function’ style of modern intensive agricultural methods also encourages chemical additives and regular tilling and has destroyed supportive ecosystems and soil structure, reducing its ability to hold onto water and nutrients (whilst significantly increasing salinity). Throw a little bit of climate change and rising temperatures (record highs recorded last year — over 55’C) and your future supply lines are beginning to look a little desperate to say the very least. Should we be surprised that the recent Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings found their origins in exasperation over rising food prices and water shortages? We’d be mistaken if we assumed that these ticking ‘time-bombs’ of human dissatisfaction will be limited in future to the drylands of North Africa and the Middle East.

Time to turn!

If we want to avoid these environmental and (therefore) human catastrophes — if we care about creating and maintaining healthy, supportive ecosystems for future generations — then we must hold ourselves responsible for action however much or however little time we can invest. The good news amidst all this dysfunction are the great increases in practical solutions being put forth around the globe. This rapid growth of conscious supporters embracing these ethical, regenerative practices are multiplying, spurred by a desire to arrest and reverse our current unsustainable, exploitive methods.

Permaculture is one such vehicle which provides complete holistic solutions and strategies for ensuring a healthy, productive, synergistic relationship between humans and the earth. I have been involved with developing the Permaculture Research Institute education facility less than a mile from the aforementioned plantations. Here systems are being designed and created to demonstrate exactly how we can provide for ourselves even in the harshest environments without dependency on these current destructive systems. Not only can we provide quality nutrient rich food all year round, reduce water consumption tenfold, create an excess from renewable energy sources, provide most if not all inputs for the system from the site itself — redefining the term from ‘waste’ to ‘resource’ — provide surplus, educate and strengthen local community, but, we continue to regenerate our degraded lands in the process. We can re-establish natural self-supporting ecosystems which provide habitat for wildlife from soil to sky, create cooling shade (which in a desert system reduces evaporation and increases transpiration which leads to re-humidification of the air), reduce atmospheric CO2 (via soil and plant sequestration) and grow diverse perennial, polycultural food systems which become more resilient, more productive and less dependent on inputs and human intervention as the years pass.

Princess Basma talking compost

It takes work, just like anything else; arguably more to begin with. But the rewards if planned and managed effectively can continue to support all within our specific environments for centuries to come. The PRI Jordan project itself is advancing superbly. Myself and some of the local village community (some of which have studied permaculture through the past PDC programs held here at the farm) and the weekend volunteers from neighboring villages and towns have been contributing massively over the past several months. We also had a visit from Princess Basma, who is developing Jordan’s first Royal Botanical Garden and has a particular interest in researching alternative, natural construction techniques to provide low income, low impact housing solutions for some of Jordan’s poorer communities. The natural building experts were available to offer advice on various ideas and options whilst our other team continued to work on the many integrated land-based projects. So, from macro world-vision observations down to some actual, hands-on, micro permaculture practices, what follows are some images and explanations of what can and is being done towards establishing a regenerative, production based, dryland environment. With a few creative adjustments, such efforts could be easily replicated, with equal success, at any scale and in any environment.

Water Harvesting Strategies

Obviously water collection and storage is a major concern; so we aim to passively direct and utilize whatever we can when it rains. Currently, large quantities of rainwater race past the property on an adjacent road surface when we have a big event. With a maximum 150mm/6inches of rain yearly, we have tried to design a strategy to direct as much of this flash run off as possible onto the farm and into the soil as quickly as possible — a must in this high-evaporation environment. Water is still going to move down through the sub-layers, but considerably slower, resulting in more availability for plant roots. Our strategizing begins as high up on the watershed as possible to mitigate the flow, enabling us to control and distribute it more efficiently.

An old consolidated sand pile, left behind after some construction, has formed a natural dam just outside the property. It fills continuously during an event. We dug two channels to slowly release the flow of rainwater and guide it toward the fence line. Here, we built two rock gabions (essentially a pile of rocks against the mesh fence) which further slow the flow and trap silt (a rich planting medium delivered for free which will be reused on the farm). As the water filters through the gabions, it is then directed into a series of level, deep-mulched, infiltration basins, where it is further slowed and collected. As each basin fills up, it releases its overflow into another by means of a rock spillway 50mm below the top edge. The basins create alternative micro-climate environments for growing new beneficial plant species, further increasing diversity in the overall system.

When it reaches the final basin the surplus enters into a series of three swales (water harvesting ditches on contour), where the water spreads out and sinks into the soil. As the top one fills, the surplus overflows into the next one down by means of a spillway. An earth berm was carved out of pile of soil between the property and the road to collect water further down the catchment and direct it into the third swale. We were fortunate to navigate the swale three quarters of the way across the entire width of the property. Due to the longer edge we are now able to distribute this free, essential resource, without the use of manpower or pumps, across a long distance; hydrating everything down-slope from it (and a little up slope if you take into account capillary action).

Desert Tree Planting

Our food-forest system currently consists mostly of legumes and edible crops, at a five-to-one ratio. (This ratio will become reversed as the system reaches maturity.) The hardy pioneer desert legumes prepare the ground by mining for minerals and nutrients which then get brought back up to the surface of the soil and into the trees as organic material which can be later used. The legumes provide shade, a constant source of mulch, and quality animal forage. At the same time, they build soil structure and fertility through natural nitrogen-fixation in the root zone. They are also less water-dependent than most other plants.

There are edible perennial crops integrated into the system which take full advantage of all of these benefits. Shade being a major part of that. The species introduced so far are date palm, guava, papaya, pomegranate, olive, fig, grape and several types of citrus.

When planting in any climate and/or condition it is essential to give plants the best start. A dry, salted desert soil is no exception. Here is a quick demonstration of the local techniques taught.

Dig a large hole at least twice as deep as the pot . Take some cardboard and line the bottom and side of the hole. Water heavily and begin filling with mulch (in this instance banana leaf from local farm waste) and soil, mixing together until the hole is three quarters full. When this organic soil slurry is suitably sloppy enough, create a hole in the centre and place the plant in. Then continue adding soil and manure for the top section above the root zone, continue watering and topdress with mulch.

Compost Toilet

We are using the ‘Farallones’ (PDF) system for composting human waste. The building and chambers were already installed when I arrived and we had the job of installing the mesh ‘drop’ sheet. This sits 100mm up from the floor to provide ventilation underneath the pile. An outflow pipe is connected to allow excess liquid effluent to exit the chamber. This ‘wee tea’ is then passively distributed by gravity, via a pipe, to nearby tree crops. In this instance the date palm, which provides cooling shade for the building, will be awarded the prize.

The rich ‘humanure’, when matured, will be used around all tree crops. All volunteers and visitors are strongly urged to donate to the system whatever they can manage.


Setting up the new compost facility could not have been more straightforward, but finding enough material can be a little challenging. In these desert environments, nitrogen (in the form of manure and/or legumes) and carbon (agricultural waste) are both readily available. Fresh green in bulk is a little more tricky to source. Fortunately, we had some weeds popping up after recent rains and — thanks to Anselm and Hamzah, who run Jordan’s only waste-recycling program — we were able to augment this with local hotel kitchen waste that would have otherwise been buried in landfill.

We found some thin reinforcing steel mesh lying around the farm and put together our round bin. The manure was a combination of goat, sheep and pigeon (the latter from a neighbour’s pigeon loft). The more diverse the ingredients, the more diverse beneficial microbes you are likely to encourage. The carbon was another waste product of the agricultural industry — largely, palm and banana leaves mixed with loose straw we had left over from the building of our strawbale walls.

Harvesting pigeon guano

We used one shovel of nitrogen, to one and a half carbon, to two green. Obviously these ratio’s are dependant on many factors, but for ease of replication for the local community here, this is a solid and easily remembered formula to start with. When the process is perfected, we can then start experimenting with different fungal to bacteria ratios for specific succession plant groups. Once we are happy with the first batches, there is then the opportunity to introduce a micro compost tea system to further assist our biological fertilization, pest control and soil building operations.

Annual Food Production

Annual garden bed, before construction

The original annual food-beds were a little ‘off contour’ so we decided to redesign the layout based on existing land patterns and make it a more durable by installing permanent edging. Each planting area is laid out on contour, meaning it is completely level from one end to the other. In this way, any water entering the system – either from rain or supplementary irrigation – is held in the soil for as long as possible. (If planted on a slope, water would obviously run off fairly quickly.) As we need to preserve and utilize as much water as possible throughout the year, the contoured beds are also lined with a non-porous plastic sheet. Evaporation is inevitable, but at least with this system we prevent water from draining out as well. This strategy is opposite to the one used for the perennial food forest, where the optimum scenario is for the water to get into the ground and down to the subsoil prior to evaporation. As only annual (short rooted) plants are used in this area, lower-level soil-hydration is not necessarily required as roots will reside within the top 300mm of soil.

Annual garden bed, during construction

All annual food here has to be watered with micro irrigation throughout most of the year. Once mature, the new food forest trees we have planted surrounding the area will provide welcome shade, thus reducing water demand. The beds were designed as ‘double reach’ – eliminating potential soil compaction damage caused by people standing on the ‘no dig’ soil medium.

Annual garden bed, after construction

Now, for those of you reading this who are new and/or unfamiliar to permaculture, it is not dryland/desert specific. It works in every climatic zone on the planet, yes, even if you are still planning for that dream move to a boreal forest homestead or an equatorial archipelago eco community in the next year or two. If you are interested in finding out more, visit the new ‘Worldwide Permaculture Network’ website. It will connect you with projects, educators and like-minded folk throughout the world doing equally fascinating and important work.

Note: For anybody qualified and experienced in permaculture, PRI Jordan is looking for a committed and enthusiastic person to continue managing the site. If you feel you would be excited about working with PRI and being involved in the continuing development and management of the project site, please contact education (at) permaculturenews.org