Abu’l Shalaan tells me that his earliest memories are of a life in close communion with nature. He spent many of his waking moments swimming in the pools, catching fish, hunting birds, and using the water to wash clothes and irrigate crops. “It was a simpler life,” he says. It was also a life whose worth went beyond the value that accrues with memory as nostalgia sets in with age.
But the innocent and untouched nature of al-Azraq that led to those special memories would not endure. By the 1970s, large-scale extraction of groundwater from the Azraq Basin began in order to supply the growing cities of Amman and Zarqa with much needed drinking water. In a region beset by epic water shortages, the Jordanian government’s decision to draw upon Azraq’s lifeblood seemed essential and inevitable. By early 1993, most of the 25 square kilometres of surface water of the oasis had vanished. A small-scale, international rescue effort to revive the pools began almost immediately, but yielded mediocre results. Today, at any given time, only a small fraction of the wetland’s original surface area remains. And much of that water has to be continually pumped in. Meanwhile, the groundwater continues to be extracted to service nearby cities.
“Officially, 26 million cubic metres of water are taken from al-Azraq every year, but the actual number is more than double that,” says Odeh al-Meshan, the Director of the Badia Research and Development Center, an organization devoted to the sustainable development of Jordan’s desert regions. “The problem is that about 40 percent of the water extraction is unlicensed. The private sector is taking that additional water. The Syrians, too, across the border, are siphoning off much of the natural run-off that used to replenish the Azraq basin.”
Abu’l Shalaan took me on a walking tour of the Azraq Wetland Reserve. Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), a non-profit environmental organization, manages it. The wetlands are open to the public and visitors are free to explore the grounds. Despite the physical toll of the tragedy at al-Azraq, what remains of the wetlands is highly unique for the region, existing in stark contrast to the surrounding desert. Herds of water buffalo, the descendents of animals brought to al-Azraq by Chechen migrants, bask in the wetlands and roam the dry reed beds on the edges of the pools. Dragonflies and birds of every variety flit about over the waters. It is an ancient eco-system that is, sadly, just clinging to life.