water in Jordan

Last week, I wrote on New Security Beat about startling new research that found very high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity in some of Jordan’s fossil groundwater. Measurements up to 2,000 percent higher than the international drinking water safety levels were found in the Disi aquifers in southern Jordan. Duke University’s Avner Vengosh and his international team published the results in the highly respected, peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Last Friday a Jordan Times story featured government assurances that all of the country’s water was safe — and tried to discredit the messenger. In a transparent attempt to raise doubt about the scientists’ motives, the article points out that lead author Vengosh is Israeli-born (he is now a U.S. citizen).

If the newspaper had asked water experts in the region, they would have found that Vengosh has extensive networks and research collaborations across all the region’s political lines. He has a long record of publishing with Jordanian and Palestinian colleagues — including the article in question. He is an old-school scientist (a geochemist in this case) who has little interest or patience for politics.

This simplistic implication that Vengosh can’t be trusted is made more explicit by an “official” source who insists on anonymity to peddle a conspiracy theory. The official “questioned the timing of the study which comes weeks before the financial closure of the multimillion-dollar Disi Water Conveyance Project.” Water and Irrigation Minister Raed Abu Saud went on record this week with similar assertions of ulterior political motives behind the results and timing of the publication.

Few Jordanians actually drink the contaminated groundwater now, but the Disi project would move the fossil groundwater from the aquifer to water-starved Amman, putting many at risk of consuming it. Ironically, Vengosh and his colleagues detail ways the water can be made usable for human consumption, but it has been left to a blogger critical of the government’s response to detail these proactive options.

I hope a regional or international body will move beyond the political wrangling and test Jordan’s Disi aquifer as well as the same Nubian sandstone aquifers that lie below Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya. Such replication of results is at the heart of the scientific method and should be done immediately. Research results, even when inconvenient, need to be shared, verified, and acted upon — not downplayed.