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Letters from Jordan: ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ Site Contrasts Against Jordan Insanities

Staring into the eyes of the future of Jordan, one wonders how things could be….
All Photographs © Craig Mackintosh

Al Jazeera’s very recent feature of the new ‘Greening the Desert’ site


Why did the photojournalist cross the road? It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and, in a way, it was. I was standing at a busy road in Amman, Jordan, contemplating crossing. I say ‘contemplating’ as there were three lanes in each direction, and the traffic was moving fast. Several hundred metres away I spied a pedestrian overpass, but, before reason could sway impulse, I saw an opening and took it. Then, with three lanes behind me, standing proudly on the 1-metre wide centre strip, it seemed that the deity in charge of roads decided to conspire against me…. In the 37°C+ heat, I watched, waited, and then watched and waited some more. The minutes dragged by. A few times I ventured one foot forward, only to snatch it back again. The sun blazed. I began to have visions of being stuck here until the traffic slowed in the evening….

Then my hopes were raised. I saw a woman seeking to cross from the other side. Surely if she, a local, hoped to cross here, it must be possible! And cross she did. Her strategy? She simply stepped forward and strode across…. One car narrowly missed her, followed by the loud screeching of tyres from other drivers, who, once they’d regained control of their vehicles (and some composure), honked and gestured in astonished disbelief. I shared the astonished disbelief. My anticipation at somehow piggy-backing on her intention to cross dissipated, and my desperation grew. Forwards or backwards, there was no break to the steady stream of speeding cars.

I started to feel like the donkeys I filmed not far from here back in 2009.

Jordan is a nation where nature has been marginalised to the extreme edges. I stood as part of nature, a biological creature in my own right, and yet I was no match for the army of machines driving along this road of ‘progress’. I later described this experience to Bill and Lisa Mollison, joking that if I hadn’t made it out I might not have been found for several weeks — a mysterious, dried up road-kill on the centre island.

I can still hear Bill’s cackled laughter now.

Today Jordan is, like most other nations, racing ahead on the highway of industrialisation. Wealthy or impoverished, all brandish mobile phones and a dream of wealth and leisure. Besser block tenements sidle up to glossy new shopping malls and little, circa 1973 smoke-spewing autos stand next to gas-guzzling 2011 Cadillacs at the lights. In this country of rocks and heat there seems barely a nook or cranny for anything living to take root. There are no fragrant meadows, no peaceful forests, but consumer society moves ahead regardless.

For many it seems the sky is the limit, but, as we shall see, the limit is actually far lower than that….

Heading in a whole other direction, however, is the new Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (affectionately known as the ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ site). This site eschews rampant industrialisation to instead present an appropriate template of design for the local environmental conditions and the economic context it’s located in — and stands in stark contrast to past and present insanities found in the Kingdom of Jordan.

The triangular shaped ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ site,
a two-year comparison.

To further explain what I mean about insanities I’ll begin with the thoughts that Nadia Lawton used to kick off the recent four-day IPC10 Convergence in the Wadi Rum desert region in the far south of Jordan. Nadia began the event by explaining how, just a couple of decades ago, water from the Disi aquifer beneath the Wadi Rum desert on which we stood (and which also extends quite a ways into Saudi Arabia, further south) could be found as little as a metre below your feet. Agricultural over pumping has since seen levels drop to more than 70 metres below the surface, and the rate of extraction is only increasing. Locals say that many of the migratory birds that used to frequent the area no longer do, and the Spring rains that used to come are now far less reliable.

This unsustainable situation is looking to get a whole lot worse yet, as we shall discuss now….

The Wadi Rum desert

The Disi Water Conveyance Project

The Disi Water Conveyance Project began in 2009, after many years of deliberating and feasibility studies. This costly project (around US 1.1 billion dollars) involves laying an enormous 1-metre wide pipeline from the Disi aquifer in Jordan’s south, all the way to the Kingdom’s capital, Amman, in the north. Expected to be completed in 2013, the finished pipeline would see one hundred million cubic metres of water per year pumped out of the non-replenishable aquifer and sent 325 km (200 miles) away. Aside from construction expense, since it’s being pumped about 1300 metres uphill it will take tremendous expenditure in energy to force that volume of water in a direction opposite to where it naturally wants to go! The pumping stations are predicted to consume around 4% of Jordan’s present electricity production — using 4 kilowatt-hours of energy to deliver each cubic meter of water.

And, at that rate of pumping, the aquifer is expected to be exhausted within fifty years.

The Disi Water Conveyance Project pipeline being laid in Jordan

Aside from the obvious concerns found in fast-tracking the already rapid depletion of such a precious, non-renewable resource, there are a couple more flies in this already sullied ointment — ones that make the project even more controversial. Putting such a big, fat drinking straw into the lips of thirsty Amman residents and businesses is straining relations with neighbouring Saudi Arabia. And, significantly, very high radiation levels from radium-226 and radium-228 isotopes found in this water could see those Amman residents glowing in the dark as well….

While the 2050 technical estimate for aquifer depletion may stand, I suspect the water’s concentrations in both salt and radioactive elements would render the extracted liquid wholly unusable long before then…. (Normally unwanted elements concentrate as an aquifer depletes.)

Stacks of pipes from Turkey wait to be laid and connected
to create the 325 km (200 mile) trans-Jordan pipeline

Relations with Saudi Arabia have partially eased due to Jordan using its water to not only produce food for itself, but also for exporting to the southern Kingdom. Whilst seeing one of the most water-starved countries in the world exporting its water via its produce doesn’t seem quite so terrible when it’s to another seriously water-starved nation, the madness doesn’t end there. I’ve seen Jordan-grown tomatoes for sale in supermarkets in Europe. It’s absurd, but that’s the unregulated invisible hand of the market at work. Leave it free to work its ‘magic’ everywhere, and all countries can watch a minority of their populace sell their nation’s soul for short-term profit.

Centre pivot irrigated farming is failing across Saudi Arabia, making the Kingdom
increasingly dependent on food imports for survival.

This particular ‘race to the bottom’ is a race to the bottom of Jordan’s only substantial water store. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

The Wadi Rum desert

But what are thirsty Jordan residents to do, if not to pump? Their water is already rationed. Amman residents, for example, average only 36 hours of water access weekly. People in other parts of the country pay more than many can afford for truck-delivered H20. And, if you want sweet water — the kind that doesn’t damage your kidneys — then you’ll pay extra.

A Dead Sea Valley family home with their typical front ‘lawn’


Finding solutions to Jordan’s growing water deficit was never going to be an instant fix. Although this area was once part of the fertile crescent, centuries of steady ecological erosion, supplemented with sporadic, oft politically-inspired major destruction events, has removed anything resembling ‘fertility’. But, after proving (with the original ‘Greening the Desert‘ site, now languishing without funding not far away) that soil recreation can occur, naturally, even in the harshest of environments, Geoff and Nadia Lawton felt inspired, even obliged, to try again. This time, however, they determined to create their demonstration site in a village where its success could be more closely noticed by locals, rather than in an outlying area few frequented, and this time they wanted to ensure it was a self-funded project that didn’t risk having its financial lifeline cut by a far-removed, disinterested clerk….

And so, ‘the sequel’ site was born.

The Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (JVPP); aka the ‘Greening the Desert — the Sequel’ site

The all-important mulching underway at the JVPP site in the Dead Sea Valley

It was my third visit to the PRI Jordan’s developing urban permaculture demonstration site, situated in a sun-pounded village in the Dead Sea Valley — the lowest place on earth, and one of the hottest and driest. I have personally always been unfortunate enough to arrive here after the mid-summer ‘nuclear blast’ has hit, or, as in the case of June 2010, almost in the middle of it. By ‘nuclear blast’ I’m referring to the merciless temperatures (up to 47°C) that shrivel almost everything under the sun’s stare-down gaze. Except for windblown clouds of dust and some scattered besser block buildings, there’s little to shade a person, or a pioneering plant.

The first step in development, a few years ago, was to collect all the site’s rocks
and stack them to help form terraces for better water retention

The recent Tenth International Permaculture Conference (IPC10) in Amman, Jordan, shared situation-appropriate solutions to Jordan’s low rainfall and ultra-high evaporation rate, and this project is PRI Jordan’s practical attempt to apply them.

From left to right: Mustafa Bakir (Turkey), Bill Mollison, Miles Durand
and Geoff Lawton (all of Australia), at the JVPP site

It is almost comical to describe the base material on the ground as ‘soil’. The fine white particles look more like cement powder, or, perhaps, moon dust, to me. As Bill sat with Nadia in the middle of the project, he remarked similarly: "I’ve never seen soil like this before." Coming from Bill, that’s saying something.

Nadia Lawton and Bill Mollison at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project

These first few years have been one of hard work and experimentation. Now, you might assume that what was done on the original site a few kilometres away could just be replicated here. Not so. Although needing a lot of the same treatment (mulching, composting and more mulching), the two sites differ in quite substantial ways.

Geoff Lawton confirmed to me some of the noteworthy differences between the two sites:

Advantages of original ‘Greening the Desert’ site:

  • Larger site (40,000 square metres, compared to 3,000 for the ‘sequel’ site), meaning a much larger water catchment area.
  • 400 metres of road available along original site for water harvesting — run-off was directed into topmost swale, so water could filter through site.
  • Soils, although saline and difficult, were still deeper with a better structure and still retained some residual organic matter.
  • Because the site was flat, it was easier to protect the original site from the harsh late afternoon western sun. The new site faces south-west, exposing it to the worst.
  • The same goes for wind protection — the flatter site was easier to protect from the devastating westerlies which blast the new site.
  • The water table below the original site was only 60 metres underground, so it could be pumped when necessary. There is no such option on the new site, and being much steeper, the new site quickly leaches any water it gets.
  • The original site had no rock. The new site was almost only rock before it was painstakingly collected and used for terracing.

Advantages of ‘sequel’ site:

  • The new site is right in a village, making it much more of a demonstrable demonstration site!
  • The sequel site is also a more appropriate, affordable size for locals — so better demonstrates possibilities within their reach.

With the exception of the size and location, the new site is "generally a much poorer site". This certainly rings true with my own observations of both locations. Yet, against all odds, something magical is happening here.

After creating the terraced mainframe design, the next stage was to create an environment where edible plants could survive. That necessitated planting hardy desert pioneers that could multi-task. Some were leguminous and nitrogen fixing. These amazing plants love being planted into dead soils, and then they do everything they can to make themselves redundant. Over time, they contribute to a process of soil regeneration that ultimately leads to their giving way to succession. Over this time they not only create shaded conditions where other human and plant actions can occur, but they also become a source of biomass that can be used to further hasten those actions. They turn lifeless minerals below the ground into mulchable, compostable material that can nurture the ground, and its biological processes, back into life.

Drip irrigation under shade cloth in sunken beds with thick mulch brings results

Geoff Lawton’s list of pioneer plant species used on the site

If you came to a site like this and just started planting typical fruit and vegetables, you would fail miserably. Conditions are far too harsh. Without pioneer species (like these listed below) first setting the stage, the show just would not go on….

  • Leacaena: a fast growing, medium size and life span tree; a very heavy nitrogen fixer and very high quality animal forage that coppices and pollards very well.
  • Sesbania sesban: an extremely fast growing small tree with a short life span; a very heavy nitrogen fixer, grows very easily from seed.
  • Albizia lebbek: a slower growing, long-term, large canopy, long-lived shade tree; a good nitrogen fixer and very drought tolerant.
  • Tipuana tipu: a slower growing, long-term, large canopy, long-lived shade tree, with excellent filtered shade form for food forest canopy inter-planting; a good nitrogen fixer and moderately drought tolerant. Will coppice or pollard.
  • Prosopis: a medium to large tree, long-lived, a good nitrogen fixer, a good forage including the pods which can be human food; coppices and pollards well but is very spiny and is usually pruned to a high standard to reduce human contact with the spines, unless being used as an animal barrier hedge or for firewood production as it is quite good stick fuel for rocket stoves. Extremely drought tolerant.
  • Aciacia Farnesiana: a small, medium-term nitrogen fixing tree with food, medicinal, dye and perfume uses; also a thorny barrier plant. Very drought resistant.
  • Poinciana: a large and beautiful flowering and exotic leaf form, very wide canopy long-lived nitrogen fixer that will coppice and pollard. Quite drought tolerant.
  • Acacia Saligna: a small medium-term nitrogen fixer, fast growing, good fire wood, very drought tolerant.
  • Bauhinia: a very beautiful flowering plant with an unusual leaf, a slower growing, large canopy, long-lived shade tree; a good nitrogen fixer and moderately drought tolerant. Will coppice or pollard.
  • Honey Locust: a long-term, medium-size nitrogen fixer that is very thorny; will coppice and pollard and is very good firewood and a very good bee forage.
  • Jerusalem Torn: a medium to large long-lived tree, a good nitrogen fixer, small thorns, very hardy with light shade canopy.
  • Casuarina Torulosa: a fast-growing, long-lived, tall, slender form nitrogen fixer and phosphate fixer through fungi relationship; a very good wind break tree and excellent firewood.
  • Cassia: a small, local bush cassia that is a medium-term nitrogen fixer that can be cut for mulch.
  • Tecom Stans: a medium-size and -term fast growing, very hardy tree that can be heavily coppiced or pollarded for mulch. Not a legume.
  • Pig Face: a succulent ground cover that insulates the ground from the intense heat, reducing evaporation and trapping organic matter and wind blown nutrient, creating a much improved topsoil environment. Extremely drought tolerant.

Unlike soil depletion, however, this regeneration cannot happen overnight. It takes time, patience and experimentation. Hastening the process takes human ingenuity and energy — the former needing to harmonise with the laws of nature to make wise use of the latter.

The gradual advancements of the last few years, I feel, are now poised for faster development. This observation is based on the fact that until very recently, conditions were so harsh on the site that it didn’t allow for any form of animal life beyond a roaming dog or fence-breaching goat. Now that there’s somewhat of a protective, shading overstory, small animal systems are being introduced.

The waste and resulting nutrient flows from rabbits, ducks and pigeons should now help parts of the site to develop more rapidly.

Pigeons are keystone species for fertile desert systems

Duckwater is a particularly rich fertigation source

Additional elements that will help speed progress is the completion of new buildings, like the kitchen and ablution block, which, when used for courses, will allow waste water to be filtered through greywater beds and onto the site.

The ablution block’s greywater filtering system nears completion


There’s an important point that people need to realise about demonstration sites — particularly those in such extreme situations as this one — if the site stands alone, without neighbouring sites starting to do likewise, it will never achieve its full potential.

Farmers in the valley add insult to injury, by burning valuable crop residues.
(The ancient city of Jericho is in the background.)

Everything in nature is interconnected. Interdependencies are key with permaculture project sites, just as they are at the micro and macro levels. For example, if neighbouring sections uphill of the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project were also harvesting the little water they receive and following the slow it, spread it, and sink it principle, then sites downhill would begin to benefit also. If sites in a region developed en masse, then as flora and fauna begins to return, nature’s balancing act between pests and predators would start to level out once more also.

It’s about demonstration, education and gaining a critical mass.

A couple of hundred metres from the JVPP site is this field of dead trees.
Despite heavy irrigation, a brief period of neglect over the hot summer months
and it’s all over.

A good example of this, going in the other direction and at the largest scale, is seen in far away Brazil. The lungs-of-the-earth Amazon forest is so large it is capable of providing much of its own water needs itself — through cycles of evapotranspiration and precipitation. But, as Amazon destruction continues, this function begins to be compromised, and can begin runaway feedback loops which hasten the destruction of the remaining forest.

Cut the forest down and rainfall dwindles. That causes still more of the forest to die, so reducing rainfall still further and bringing about a vicious cycle of spreading degradation as fires begin to rage out of control.

To date climatologists have assumed that the amount of rainfall is dependent on the amount of forest and that as more and more of the forest goes, so rainfall will decline proportionately. By using a higher resolution ‘mesoscale’ modelling – in other words focussing on a limited region, Roni Avissar has uncovered a very different picture, with rainfall actually increasing when clearings are not too big, but then after a critical point, dwindling away rapidly and causing the remaining forest to crash. When a clearing is no more than a certain size, probably no more than 100 kilometres across, and if the forest around is relatively intact, then the mass of warm air that rises over the clearing, will suck in cooler, more humid, air from the surrounding forest. That process leads to massive thunderstorms. Under those circumstances rainfall will increase, perhaps by as much as 30 per cent. On the other hand, make the clearing relatively large, when the forest is no longer large enough to moisten the updraught of air, and the convection process literally runs out of steam. Rainfall then declines sharply. — Peter Bunyard, Founder of The Ecologist magazine, U.K.

The JVPP site emerges in contrast to the static, dead ‘fields’ behind it

Jordan, part of the historical fertile crescent, has long since lost most of its rainfall. The great forests and fertility described in biblical texts are all but gone and the once-mighty Jordan river that fed them is today just a murky trickle — one that wouldn’t flow at all if it wasn’t for the pollution poured into it. But, if sites across the region were to implement permaculture revitalisation techniques in concert, the net improvement in soil rehydration and a resulting restoration of regional rainfall patterns would be immense. The restoration work, and life itself, would get easier for everyone. Restoring eco-system services is not out of reach, but it will never happen if educational momentum is not gained. This is why the pioneering work of the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project, and others like it, is so important. This is exactly why permaculturists, as a movement, need to leverage the efforts of each other’s on-the-ground examples to shake the world into positive action.

A room in the new earth-brick/strawbale building at the JVPP

I hope people everywhere will pay attention to this story. Many of you live on one of the great swathes of land currently drying up worldwide as aquifers deplete and lands continue to be mismanaged. You may be generating a harvest today, but for how long? Soil degradation moves fast, and can begin a cycle of feedback loops which further stacks the odds against you. Climate change, pest imbalances and the short-term economic necessity born of desperation all combine to make retracing your steps all but impossible.

Pomegranates growing at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project

Limes growing at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project

It’s my hope you won’t ever have to face the extreme learning curve of developing a site as harsh as the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project. But here’s the rub — if you and the people around you do not, now, begin to collaborate in restoring biologically rich systems across your region, you may yet face the challenge….

Children enjoy the increasingly shady Jordan Valley Permaculture Project