By: Batir Wardam
The continuous deterioration of the ecosystem components of the Zarqa River Basin since almost three decades is one of the biggest environmental challenges in Jordan. The Zarqa River Basin has been categorized by the Jordanian government as the biggest environmental hotspot, with plans for rehabilitation of the basin being promoted to the top of priorities of environmental management in Jordan.
The process of rehabilitation of the Zarqa River Basin is considered as an urgent national demand, even under the current conditions of deterioration that require high investments in rehabilitation. Any concerted effort that starts now will be less costly than any efforts in the future. Moreover, the cost of mitigation measures that can be implemented rapidly is less than the cost of the loss of environmental services in the Zarqa River Basin. Any integrated programme for the rehabilitation of the Zarqa River Basin can be described in twenty necessary steps at the strategic level.
At the institutional level, it is vital to institutionalize the national efforts for Zarqa River rehabilitation. This can be done through the establishment of a special unit at the Ministry of Environment which is mandated by the law to protect and sustainably manage the various ecosystems in Jordan. In addition the objectives of rehabilitation should be integrated in the programmes and plans of ministries and public, private, civil and academic institutions. To make this system sustainable a a charter for the protection and rehabilitation of Zarqa River can be adopted by the government, the civil society and all relevant institutions. The charter will provide the values, principles and implementation tools for the rehabilitation of Zarqa River based on a clear national vision and masterplan for this ecosystem.
Proper legislation should be developed. The first priority is to enact a legislation that covers all gaps in the specification of river basin ownership and regulating the urban and developmental activities in a way that does not impact the efforts to rehabilitate the River basin and protect it from pollution. The River course should be mapped and zoned as protected from urban expansion with focus on forestation and reintroduction of green cover.
Quality infrastructure should be developed and maintained. One of the major requirements is the establishment of a plant, or a group of decentralized plants for the treatment of sludge resulting from wastewater treatment plants in the basin to reduce the pressure on Ain Ghazal and Khirbet As Samra wastewater treatment plants. In addition there should be a prohibition of the discharge of untreated or partially treated wastewater that does not adhere to Jordanian standards into the Zarqa River course.
The main principle of rehabilitation is the integrated management of natural resources. This can be achieved through several actions. The first initiative can be periodical clean up and streamlining of the river course and the removal of wastes and obstacles that prevent the natural flow of water. The next step will be promoting the adoption of the principles of integrated natural resource management and the ecosystem approach (land, water and species) in all development project and initiatives along the Zarqa River Basin. This should be done in parallel to taking all necessary steps that can preserve the current quantity of permanent water flow in Zarqa River Basin and planning to introduce additional water quantities from non-conventional sources (fully treated wastewater, rainwater harvesting, grey water, etc…) in the dry areas of the river basin and implementation of natural filtration and constructed wetlands initiatives that are based on ecosystem services.
Other sustainable actions include preserving the current water wells and reduction of overabstraction of groundwater to restore the wells’ water that has been dried over the last decades. This will assist in recharge of groundwater aquifers in Amman-Zarqa Basin and regulating its use back to safe yield levels to ensure sustainability and reduction of salinity. This can be supported with the establishment of some areas of special protection status that are managed by NGOs or the local community with the objective of rehabilitation and conservation of habitats of special importance in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services that would improve the recreational and tourism potential in the basin.
On the agricultural level there is a need for the restructuring of agricultural activities in Zarqa River Basin to match national standards and respond to the changes in the quantity and quality of water and shift to sustainable irrigation and agriculture patterns. This should be associated with the increase in the size of the green cover on the river banks on publicly owned lands and developing forestation partnerships in areas owned by the private sector.
Any restoration programme should be implementation within a framework of partnerships with local community. This can be done in two actions. First is the implementation of a series of community based rehabilitation projects through the development of local strategic plans in hotspots along the river. The second is the establishment of a coalition of environmental NGOs or the creation of a specialized civil society organization that is specialized in the conservation and rehabilitation of Zarqa River Basin to act in awareness, education and advocacy.
Environmental management tools are essential for the Zarqa River rehabilitation. The main tool is the Developing and implementing a strict monitoring and inspection programme to stop all violations against the River basin whether in the form of waste dumping or the discharge of domestic and industrial wastewater.This must be done in parallel tosubjecting all new developmental activities in the basin to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and licensing processes conducted by the Ministry of Environment. For decision making purposesa scientific database about Zarqa River should be established and fed by the results of water, soil and biodiversity monitoring data in addition to specialized research and studies.
Other policy tools can be implemented including thedevelopment and implementation of economic, legal and technological incentives to encourage the private sector to carry its environmental and social responsibility in the remediation of current pollution and prevention of future pollution. This should be accompanied with regulating all facilities to zero discharge policies to the river course. Valuation of the economic costs of the ecosystem services in Zarqa River Basin and updating the data periodically while estimating the costs of environmental degradation caused by developmental activities for using such estimates in the proper way to internalize the environmental costs in developmental planning in the basin.
Developing and implementing a sustainable partnership programme with specialized international and regional organizations in ecosystem management and restoration will help to utilize all available expertise in transferring updated knowledge, best practices and solutions in integrated natural resource management in river basins and adapting them to Zarqa River Basin.
In the final analysis, the restoration of the Zarqa River can be a mission possible but will require a lot of good planning, determination and efficient use of available resources.