At the demonstration site, on a hillside a quarter of an hour’s drive from the university, sewage from a nearby wastewater treatment plant is routed through a dozen different small treatment systems, which clean the water using mechanical and biological processes like sedimentation, oxygenation or filtration. In some models, it is plots of sand or wetlands that filter the impurities out of the water. Rose bushes and lemon trees are watered with the treated water.
The site is the only one of its kind in the country, and is used to train students in the university’s recently established associate degree in wastewater management program—as well as engineers and operators from the water ministry, and schoolteachers and students.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
The demonstration site is intended to promote research on small, decentralized wastewater treatment systems for homes, businesses or public institutions. The systems are cost-effective and suitable for rural communities that aren’t connected to the sewage system yet. And water doesn’t have to be pumped far to be treated—a significant consideration in Jordan, which is a hilly country.
But making wastewater treatment a part of the solution requires overcoming people’s hesitancy to invest in new ways of doing things, and their concerns that treated wastewater is still unclean.
“The majority of people prefer to think inside the box,” says Al-Zoubi. “It will take time, but the main thing is that we have started.”
Al-Zoubi believes that once wastewater treatment technology becomes more widely understood, available and affordable, “Jordanian families will adopt it.”
In fact, a pilot project in the nearby city of Salt, started a decade ago, has had positive results, Shareef told me.
“If you make something successful, you will motivate others, because the need is there. At first families in Salt hesitated, they were afraid the wastewater was dirty; the culture refused the idea,” she recounts. But after a couple of years, when they witnessed their neighbors’ flourishing gardens, “families came to us asking to be part of the project; some of them paid to build [a wastewater treatment system] themselves.”
The Agriculture of the Future
Agriculture consumes over 50 percent of Jordan’s water supply but accounts for as little as 3 percent of gross domestic product (some argue that the figure is higher if related economic activity is counted as well). Critics say that by growing water-intensive crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries, Jordan is effectively exporting its precious water. Others argue that agriculture is a strategic sector, necessary to maintaining socio-economic and political stability, and that it needs to be supported. The question is whether this can be done more efficiently.