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No water? No problem for these Jordanian farmers.

By finding new markets for vegetables that require little water, a handful of Jordanian farmers are proving that agriculture can prosper in a dry land.

By Nicholas SeeleyCorrespondent / February 19, 2010

A foreign worker walks between rows of chiles in field at Khaireddin Shukri’s farm in the Jordan Valley. Better crop management has boosted the farm’s yield.

Nicholas Seeley

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Amman, Jordan

When Jordan's government-supplied water got too dirty to use, farmer Khaireddin Shukri decided to make his own.

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In 2002, Mr. Shukri spent $250,000 to build a small desalination and purification plant for Modern Valley Farms, which he managed in the Jordan Valley. While it was a significant investment, it allowed him to reuse the valley's abundant brackish water and sell his produce in foreign markets with stricter health requirements.

Today, the farm provides fresh salads for all McDonald's outlets in Jordan, and Shukri has moved on to another venture that exports premium produce to Europe. His embrace of a high-tech, value-added business model offers an example for how sustainable water practices can enable farms to prosper in one of the world's driest countries.

"The most limiting factor in desert farming is water," says Shukri. "If we don't know how to manage the water we won't survive."

A dangerous combination

Jordan is already consuming more than its renewable water resources, and as its population and economy grow, the need to economize and find new sources of water is becoming more urgent. The latest International Panel on Climate Change predicted that the Middle East region is likely to face both a decrease in precipitation and an increase in temperatures – a dangerous combination for Jordan, and countries like it, which are already water-poor and at significant risk of desertification.

With many blaming agriculture as a chief culprit in the nation's water shortages, Shukri's approach offers a ray of hope – and a rebuttal to those who say Jordan should stop exporting produce to preserve its limited resources.

Irrigated agriculture accounts for 64 percent of annual water use in Jordan. That's down from 75 percent in 1996. But farms produce only 3.1 percent of Jordan's gross domestic product and are responsible for only 2.7 percent of local employment.

Farmers dispute these government statistics, but even they admit farms waste water made cheap by government subsidies and illegally drilled wells. There's long been talk of raising water prices in line with the resource's actual value, but many farmers, already working on thin margins, have been resistant to the idea.

Some farmers grow thirsty crops such as bananas that sell for a pittance. Even staples, like tomatoes and cucumbers, often go to market at prices lower than the cost of the water it takes to grow them.

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