The Azraq area includes eight districts: South Azraq; North Azraq; Omari; Ein Al Baida; Eastern Farms area; Um Al Mathayel; Degaileh; and the air force base. The total population of Azraq district is estimated at around 18,000 inhabitants. The Azraq Basin is located in the North-eastern part of the country with an area of 12,710 km2.
Natural features / specificities
The Azraq basin is a semi desert area characterized by hot and dry summers and fairly wet and cold winters. The mean annual rainfall ranges from 50 mm/year in the Azraq Oasis area to 500 mm/year in Jabal Al Arab area (Hydrology of the Azraq Basin).
The Azraq basin consists of three aquifer systems hydraulically connected in certain parts; upper, middle and deeper aquifer systems. Soils are primarily composed of limestone or covered by basalt boulders that resulted from volcanic out crossing centred on Jabal Al Arab. The area includes the Azraq Refugee Camp which has a much higher density and 31,605 refugees as of January 2016, representing a 151% increase in population in just one year. A total of 56% of those refugees are children.
The Azraq Basin forms the largest resources of good quality groundwater in the northeast of Jordan. Intensive pumping through the last 20 years has caused lowering of the basin’s water table and consequently increasing the salinity of the water.
Because of the priority given to domestic supply, the government policy is now to reduce the use of groundwater by agriculture in the highlands. Groundwater in the Azraq basin is a major source for drinking water for the cities of Amman, Irbid and Zarqa as well as the Azraq area itself.
Via a series of well-fields, the government abstracts about 23 MCM of groundwater from the Azraq basin every year for drinking purposes (WAJ, 2010).
Irrigated agriculture is the major consumer of water in the basin with an estimated abstraction volume of 28 MCM of water per year, nearly the equivalent of the basin’s safe yield (24 MCM per year).
The measures aimed at monitoring groundwater abstraction and reducing over-abstraction in the late 1990s, and later with the By-Law of 2002 that introduced dramatic changes, remained largely ineffective due to the weak monitoring of actual use on the ground. The mismanagement of groundwater use by both the government, through its lack of control, and private users, who still engaged in illegal drilling, caused continued deterioration of water quality and quantity. Water tables dropped by 25 meters on average during the last 28 years. In some aquifers, abstraction is close to three times the estimated safe yield. Yet, in the past 4 to 5 years, the government has shown unprecedented resolve and political will to enforce existing regulations but also passed stringent new ones, in particular with regard to the control of illegal wells. Other challenges include: Introduce new crops, Reuse of treated water, and Improve water use efficiency on farm level.
The expansion of agricultural land continued in the 1990s with the introduction of new cropping patterns in Azraq, e.g. grapes, and pomegranates later in the early 2000s, diversifying away from olive trees. More recently, farmers have attempted to cultivate alfalfa due to its high yield and high revenue, despite its high water consumption. It was found during fieldwork between 2013 and 2014 that alfalfa cultivation in Azraq area is mainly dependent on illegal wells, or on wells without meter, so that farmers can avoid paying water consumption fees. The increasing trend in groundwater abstraction was reduced during the mid-2000s due to the decline in water table levels, the decrease in well productivity, and an increase in water salinity.
Accordingly, a number of farms were abandoned, especially in south Azraq area which is underlain by a saline aquifer. Nevertheless, agricultural expansion continued in Azraq north and eastern farm area with the introduction of new crops such as alfalfa. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, cultivated land surface increased between 2005 and 2011 from 61,195 dunum to 114,325 dunum. Agriculture in Mafraq is located under north Badia area were cultivation is mainly concentrated in stone fruit tree and vegetables. According to an NDVI “Normalized Difference Vegetation Index” analysis in the basin, these activities occur mainly in the northeast of the city.
Following the increase in agriculture leading to environmental problems in the wetland, the Azraq basin has been a focal area attracting several international initiatives. The Azraq wetland reserve has an important social and economic role for the local community, as it provides a permanent source of income for 40 locals employed by the park. Remote sensing data and geospatial techniques act as good sources and tools for providing data needed for managing the scarce water resources of drylands, as the information provided through remote sensing and geospatial techniques may provide solutions that optimize cropping pattern and water use. The remaining challenge, however, will be the capacity building needed for adopting and implementing these techniques. Once this target is achieved, then it is hoped that remote sensing and geospatial techniques are taken one step further towards the development of water accounting systems for the different basins in Jordan.