Jordan, once fertile, is pushing back as desert encroaches

In Jordan, one of the world's driest nations, local organizations are planting native species and working with herders to revitalize once fertile land. A U.N. report out Wednesday warns urgent action is needed worldwide to prevent further land degradation.

Laure Van Ruymbek/AP/File
A dam built by the Department of Antiquities, and the Mudlim tunnel, both built to protect the area from flooding, in Petra, Jordan, Nov. 15, 2018. Efforts to restore damaged land in Jordan's desert are sprouting hope for one of the world’s most water-scarce nations.

Efforts to restore damaged but once fertile land in Jordan’s desert is sprouting hope for one of the world’s most water-scarce nations, as a land assessment report Wednesday warned of the growing scale of global degradation.

Local organizations believe projects that reintroduce native plants and implement smart water harvesting systems will cushion the impacts of climate change and desertification, which are only set to worsen, according to the United Nations report.

The U.N. desertification agency says 40% of land globally is currently degraded, blaming unsustainable land and water management, poor agricultural practices, mining, urbanization, and infrastructure development for the land’s deterioration.

Mira Haddad, from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas said several other factors, including “overexploitation of vegetation cover, overgrazing, land practices” as well as climate change are also contributing to land degradation in Jordan.

But environmentalists are already pursuing options to ward off further damage. One of the efforts, run by the Watershed and Development Initiative, is introducing four native plants to 10,000 acres of desert in the Sabha reserve, roughly 56 miles east of the Jordanian capital Amman.

“We’re working on the water, we’re working on the green cover, and we’re working also with the habitats of the creatures, from insects to animals and all living parts of that ecosystem,” Deyala Tarawneh, a WADI founding member, said. “The success rate of these plants is 85%, which is considered a very high percentage, and they only need to be watered once, which is also reducing the amount of water needed for the irrigation of the green areas.”

But despite the success of WADI’s planting initiative, land restoration in Jordan is still facing several challenges: the number of land unit areas available for restoration is lacking, and the willingness of local communities to leave the land for at least one or two rainy seasons without grazing is also hindering efforts, said Ms. Haddad.

Jordan is one of several countries already grappling with the effects of degradation, with more than 2.3 billion people currently living in water-stressed countries, according to the U.N. report. It warned that more food supply disruptions, forced migration, and greater pressure on species survival are also expected as climate change intensifies and poor land management practices continue. By 2030, it warns that 700 million people could be displaced by drought.

“The situation we have right now is unhealthy and certainly not acceptable,” Ibrahim Thiaw, the executive secretary of the U.N. desertification agency, told the Associated Press. “The more you degrade land the more you emit carbon and the more you contribute to climate change.”

The report calls for financial support to bolster conservation and restoration in developing countries. It says the expansion of protected areas and conservation hotspots, better water management, smart agriculture, and the rewilding of biodiversity can be boosted by appropriate funding.

If these kinds of measures are implemented on a wider scale, the U.N. agency’s restoration scenario predicts reduced biodiversity loss and improved soil health, with the benefits particularly felt in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

But it also notes that inaction would lead to 6 million square miles – nearly the size of the entire South American continent – of land degradation by 2050.

The report also recommends scaling up land rights for Indigenous peoples and local communities, urging farmers to draw on ample lessons about land restoration, crop adaptation, and livestock from established customs and traditional knowledge.

“We welcome new allies to this battle, including economic actors who are increasingly interested in avoiding climate risk, but we must make clear that we will not be used for greenwashing,” José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, the leader of the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, said in a statement. “Partnering with Indigenous peoples requires embracing transformative change.”

The U.N.’s Mr. Thiaw agreed that support for restoration projects should be ramped up.

“The message from the report is that do not take land degradation as a fatality. It can be addressed, and it is the cheapest solution to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. It is possible to do it by 2050, which is just one generation,” Mr. Thiaw said. “It does not require high tech nor a PhD to undertake. Land restoration is accessible and democratic.”

Several countries, like Jordan, are already addressing their own land issues, from drought preparedness programs in Mexico, the USA, and Brazil, to the 11-country Great Green Wall in Africa aimed at restoring 390,000 square miles of degraded landscapes along the Sahel.

“Land restoration is a win for the environment, economy, society, and for biodiversity,” said Mr. Thiaw. “What we are calling for now is the acceleration of such programs.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Wanjohi Kabukuru reported from Mombasa, Kenya.

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