MUSCAT —A host of Arab scientists are working to increase water supplies in a water-starved region. They’ve found a logistically straightforward solution, which Oman, for example, is willing to support financially. But it won’t work unless farmers and other residents can be convinced to stay open minded. They are reluctant to use recycled water, even though the reality is that almost every country in the Arab world needs more water, a problem not helped by climate change.
“We have to look for every drop of water and use it well,” says Ahmed Al-Busaidi, a researcher in the Department of Soils, Water and Agricultural Engineering at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. “But farmers are reluctant to embrace our results.”
He and other engineers believe that farmers could irrigate their crops with water previously used in homes. This wastewater is passed through a series of filters to remove solids. It is then cleaned with the help of either friendly bacteria or chemicals. The end result is perfectly safe to use in agriculture, says Al-Busaidi.
That infrastructure for water treatment already exists throughout the Middle East and North Africa, many engineers say. In Oman such water is mainly used to irrigate the grass and flowers that line the roadsides of Muscat. But the rest of it, about 40 percent of all treated water, is simply pumped out to sea.
Much of Oman is mountainous, so farms are concentrated on strips of flat land close to the shoreline. The farmers there are facing an increasingly tough problem. Their farms don’t get enough rain, so they rely on ground water to grow their crops. But the demand for water has far outstripped the rate at which these underground wells are replenished, which has drawn seawater into the wells’ supply.
“We don’t have enough rainwater to flush the salt water back out to sea and so the government has said farmers need to stop or reduce pumping because otherwise more and more salt water will invade the table water and it will only get worse,” says Al-Busaidi.
Governments are aware of this problem, which in their eyes is also a national security issue.
The Omani government is willing to invest in pipelines to get treated water to farms, says Al-Busaidi, but the authorities are reluctant to spend the money until they’re sure farmers will actually use it.
So far Omani government officials and researchers are meeting resistance from farmers.
“They say the water is dirty and won’t use it because they worry that no one will buy their crops,” says Al-Busaidi.
This is an opinion echoed by farmers elsewhere in the Arab world.
“It is the same attitude in Egypt although it is acceptable to use water for non-edible plants like trees,” says Bakenaz Zeidan, a professor of dams and water resources engineering at Tanta University in the Nile Delta.
The situation is no different in Palestine. “This is a social-cultural issue and it’s difficult to raise awareness to convince people it’s safe,” says Rashed Al-Sa’ed, director of the Institute of Environmental and Water Studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “We’re trying to use our science to convince them.”
Across the border in Israel, the practice is commonplace, he says, but in most Arab countries, including Palestine and Jordan, up to 65 percent of the freshwater supply is still used by agriculture.
Experts say that scientific evidence supports agricultural use of recycled water. “According to the World Health Organization it’s safe; even viruses through membrane-based technology are removed. There’s not one single piece of evidence that treated wastewater use on agriculture presents any public health issues,” says Al-Sa’ed. “Even though people are educated, it’s about getting them over the psychological aspect of it,” says Al-Sa’ed.
In Oman, Al-Busaidi conducted new experiments in an attempt to sway farmers to his cause. He grew and harvested crops with regular ground water and with recycled wastewater. “Our analysis showed that the plants grow much better with treated water because there are more nutrients in it,” he says. This is from harmless leftover nitrogen compounds from the waste.
But the farmers remained suspicious and accused the scientists of tampering with experiments to manipulate the results. Frustrated with the stubbornness of the farmers, the government has decided to push forward with a pilot scheme, which it hopes will finally break through the stigma of treated wastewater.
“The Ministry of Agriculture has said we have to do this in five different farms for a few years to see how it goes, and they’re planning to do it on a bigger scale in the longer term,” says Al-Busaidi.
The pipelines already run through much of the farmland, which means all that remains for treated wastewater to be used on a large scale is to connect the farms to the main pipe. That makes the researchers hopeful that their work could soon make a serious contribution to the region’s water shortage.