Egypt’s Water Crisis and Degeneration of Nile

pollution-nileEgypt is struggling to cope with water shortages and food production. It is expected that Egypt’s per capita annual water supply will drop from 600 cubic meters today to 500 cubic meters by 2025, which is the UN threshold for absolute water scarcity. Egypt has only 20 cubic meters per person of internal renewable freshwater resources, and as a result the country relies heavily on the Nile for its main source of water. Water scarcity has become so severe that it has been recorded that certain areas in the country could go days without water, with pressure sometimes returning only for a few hours a week. The country can no longer delay action and must act now.


Agriculture contributes roughly 15% of Egypt’s GDP, and employs 32% of Egypt’s workforce with rice being the biggest produce in the country. Rice is an important part of an Egyptian family’s diet. However, the cultivation of rice is very water intensive. On average about 3000 liters of water is used to produce 1 kilo of rice. This number can vary depending on climate, soil type and water management practices.

The government has restricted cultivation of rice to an area of 1 million acres (farmers were previously able to use most of the Nile Delta for cultivation) in specified areas of the Nile Delta. The government has even resorted to taking drastic measures as spreading incendiary compounds on rice fields cultivated outside the area allocated by the government. This has caused outrage and demonstrations by farmers who insist that the area allocated is not enough for them to be able to make ends meet. This type of tension caused by the lack of water was one of the catalysts of the Arab Spring in 2011/2012.

To alleviate population tension and unrest the government has been trying to increase water supply by exploring with reusing treated agricultural and municipal wastewater for agriculture. However implementation of such initiatives is not being applied fast enough to cope with the rising demand. Government must enforce new irrigation methods in the country (Egyptian farmers still rely heavily on flood and canal irrigation in the Nile Delta) as well as smart agricultural practices such as using less water intensive crops. Resorting less water intensive water crops could drastically cut water used in agriculture and help increase water supply.

Pollution of the Nile

The Nile has been a lifeline for Egypt at least since the time of the pharaohs. Yet, despite the world’s largest river’s importance to the country, its water is being polluted by various sources, and pollution levels increasing exponentially in recent years.

The degeneration of the Nile is an issue that is regularly underestimated in Egypt. With so many people relying on the Nile for drinking, agricultural, and municipal use, the quality of that water should be of most importance. The waters are mainly being polluted by municipal and industrial waste, with many recorded incidents of leakage of wastewater, the dumping of dead animal carcasses, and the release of chemical and hazardous industrial waste into the Nile River.

Industrial waste has led to the presence of metals (especially heavy metals) in the water which pose a significant risk not only on human health, but also on animal health and agricultural production. Fish die in large numbers from poisoning because of the high levels of ammonia and lead. Agricultural production quality and quantity has been affected by using untreated water for irrigation as the bacteria and the metals in the water affect the growth of the plant produce, especially in the Nile Delta where pollution is highest.

Industrial pollution is wrecking havoc in Nile

Industrial pollution is wrecking havoc in Nile

Of course the pollution of Nile is a complex problem that has been continuing for more than 30 years and the government is trying to implement stricter rules on the quality and type of waste/wastewater dumped into the river to reduce the pollution of the Nile. However, swift and decisive action must be taken towards cleaning the Nile, such as treating the wastewater prior to disposal, and placing stricter restrictions on industries to dispose of their waste safely and responsibly. This issue cannot be ignored any further as the continual increase in population will cause an increase in demand on Egypt’s dwindling water resources. Every drop of water counts.

The Blue Nile Dam

Another challenge at hand is tackling the issue of Ethiopia building a dam and hydroelectric plant upstream that may cut into Egypt’s share of the Nile. For some time a major concern for Egypt was Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile watershed, which is a main source of water for the Nile River. Construction of the Renaissance Dam started in December 2010, and has the capacity to store 74 to 79 billion cubic meters of water and generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity for Ethiopia a year. This creates major concern for Egypt, who is worried that this damn would decrease the amount of water it receives (55.5 billion cubic meters) from the Nile River. Egypt is concerned that during dry months, not enough water will be released from the GERD thus decreasing the water received downstream. This will greatly hinder Egypt’s attempts to alleviate the water shortages during those months.

Earlier this year, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan assigned two French companies to prepare a report on the impact of the dam on the three countries. This report will clarify the affects the Dam will have on downstream countries. The results of this report are yet to be released. 


In case of business-as-usual scenario, Egypt runs the risk of becoming an absolute water scarce country in less than a decade. Therefore Egypt has a battle on its hands to ensure adequate conditions for its population. Like many other water scarce countries around the world, it needs to mitigate water scarcity by implementing smart conservation techniques, adopting water saving technologies, and control water pollution. With climate conditions expected to get drier and heat waves expected to become more frequent in the MENA region, Egypt cannot afford to neglect its water conservation policies and must act immediately to meet the population’s water demand.


Sources of Information

Countering Water Scarcity in Jordan

Water scarcity is a reality in Jordan, as the country is counted among the world’s most arid countries. The current per capita water supply in Jordan is 200m3 per year which is almost one-third of the global average. To make matters worse, it is projected that per capita water availability will decline to measly 90m3 by the year 2025. Thus, it is of paramount importance to augment water supply in addition to sustainable use of available water resources.

Augmenting Water Supply

There are couple of options to increase alternative water supply sources in Jordan – desalination of seawater and recycling of wastewater. Desalination can provide a safe drinking water to areas facing severe water scarcity, and may also help in resolving the conflict between urban and agricultural water requirement needs by providing a new independent water source.

The other way to counter water scarcity in Jordan is by recycling and reuse of municipal wastewater which is an attractive method in terms of water savings. Infact, the reuse of the treated wastewater in Jordan has reached one of the highest levels in the world. The treated wastewater flow in the country is returned to the Search River and the King Talal dam, where it is mixed with the surface flow and used in the pressurized irrigation distribution system in the Jordan valley.

Another cheap and natural option for wastewater reuse is the construction of wetlands, and surface water reservoirs, which are water storage facilities that are able to collect and hold rain water for later use during dry seasons for irrigation or even for fish farming purposes. To prevent water loss by evaporation, reservoirs should be covered in a specific way to allow air to enter but with minimum evaporation rate. Another option is to install floating solar panels above the reservoir which will not only reduce the evaporation rate but also produce clean energy.

However, technology-based solutions are also raising several environmental and health concerns. Seawater desalination and wastewater treatment are like large-scale industrial projects which are capital-intensive, energy-intensive and generate waste in one form or the other. The desalination process may be detrimental to the marine ecological system as it increases the salinity of seawater.

Similarly, irrigation using recycled municipal wastewater is causing public health concerns. For example, directly consumed vegetables and fruits are excluded from allowable crops. Further studies should be conducted so as to address health issues that might arise from municipal wastewater usage. Effluent irrigation standards should be broadened to encompass a wider range of pathogens, and appropriate public health guidelines need to be established for wastewater irrigation taking into consideration the elimination of steroids.

New Trends

New intervention is needed to satisfy local irrigation demands; irrigation water for agriculture makes up the largest part of total average water used, which accounted for 64% during 2010. The main period of water stress is during summer due to high irrigation demand, and there is therefore a conflict arising between the supply of water for urban use and agricultural consumption. There has to be a proper combination between improvement of irrigation methods and selection of crop types. Application of updated water techniques, such as micro-sprinkling, drip irrigation and nocturnal, can reduce water loss and improve irrigation efficiency. Infrastructure improvement is also necessary to improving efficiency and reducing water loss.

Crop substitution is another interesting method to increase water efficiency by growing new crop types that tolerate saline, brackish, and low irrigation requirements. Such approach is not only economically viable, but also is socially beneficial and viable to mankind in an arid ecosystem. Mulching system is also highly recommended to reduce evaporative loss of soil moisture and improve microbial activities and nutrient availability. Farmers should use organic manure, instead of chemical fertilizers, to increase quality of water and reduce risk of groundwater contamination and agricultural run-offs.

The industrial sector uses about 5 percent of water resources in Jordan, while releasing harmful substances to the environment (including water). Industries have to put together a water management plan to reduce water intake and control water pollution. For instance, the establishment of a local wastewater treatment plant within a hotel for irrigation purposes is a good solution. Traditional solutions, like Qanats, Mawasi and fog harvesting, can also be a good tool in fighting water scarcity in arid areas.

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Destruction of the Dead Sea

Dead Sea is the lowest point on the planet and one of the most unique environments around the world. It lies on the borders of Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. Known for its high-density waters and mineral rich soils, the Dead Sea is visited by a large number of tourists from all over the world. Its soils contain minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and salt.These minerals are used in cosmetics, chemical products such as industrial salts and are even used in table salts for home use.

State of the Affairs

The once mineral-rich Dead Sea has shrunk to the size of a small and pitiful pond. Water levels have been dropping at a rate of 1 meter per annum. Currently it lies 1,300 feet below sea level and if the rate of decline continues it will reach 1,800 feet below sea level before the end of the century. This sharp decline is due to the over-exploitation of its minerals, the use of its water for desalination, and the large increase in agriculture in both Jordan and Israel.

Many environmental casualties have been associated with the rapid retreat in the shoreline of the Dead Sea. An example is the emergence of sinkholes. Many residential areas and roads around the Dead Sea have been destroyed because of sinkholes. Sinkholes are natural depressions in the Earth’s surface caused by the chemical dissolution of nutrients in the soil.These sinkholes endanger the livesof locals and tourists alike.

In an attempt to save the Dead Sea, the governments of Jordan and Israel plan to implement a project called the “Red to Dead Water Conveyance Plan” which involves building of a pipeline that connects both the Red and the Dead Sea and pumping around two thousand million cubic meters (mcm) of water per year into the latter which is equivalent to the water produced by 60 desalination plants in a day. However, many scientists are skeptical of this project due to the many problems that would arise including:

  1. The different densities and minerals in the waters would cause algal blooms that would be detrimental to the environment while also causing the water to turn red/green.
  2. Large water withdrawal from the Red Sea would have a detrimental effect on the coral reefs, sea level, and nutrient levels.
  3. The pipeline carrying the water from the Red to the Dead Sea might leak salt water into groundwater reserves along its route thereby increasing salinity in both the groundwater and the surrounding soil.

On the basis of these apprehensions it seems that this project would do little to help rectify the problem and might even add to it. An alternative way to save the Dead Sea would be to rehabilitate the Jordan River. As it stands today, only 50 mcm of water from the Jordan River reaches the Dead Sea as opposed to 1.3 billion cubic meters in 1950.

The Jordan River is a shadow of what it once was. The river acts as the main water source for Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. As a result, 90% of the fresh water that replenishes it is diverted to agriculture.  Another problem facing it is pollution from agricultural and wastewater run-offs. About 50% of the agricultural run-offs from the surrounding areas are dumped into the river which has caused its water levels to drop dramatically.

Action Plan

Unfortunately, with limited sources of water, it will be difficult to ask concerned governments to stop relying heavily on the Jordan River. Some of the actions that governments may initative include:

  1. Improve irrigation systems and abandon the traditional systems that waste more than 25% of the water that is used.
  2. Renovate pipe systems in cities to reduce the number of leaks from the pipelines and to supply clean drinking tap water for the public.
  3. Plant local plants, which do not require much water and refrain from planting water intensive plants (e.g. rice).
  4. Harvest rainwater by manufacturing storage Pillars or tanks.

The Dead Sea has a geological importance in the region, and has many important aspects that make it significant. It is the saltiest and most mineral rich water body in the world. It also has a biological importance as it is home to many unique biological bacteria that are not present anywhere else on Earth. Regenerating the Jordan River, less water desalination, and improving water management practices will help regenerate the Dead Sea and help maintain this unique and important environment.

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Sustainable Agriculture: Perspectives for Jordan Valley

agriculture-palestineSustainable agriculture development is one of the most important pillars of the EcoPeace Middle East's Jordan Valley Master Plan as it provides livelihood and prosperity for all the people in the valley. The strategic agricultural objective for the study area is improving water use and irrigation efficiencies and economic outputs per unit of water used, and meanwhile stabilize, or even reduce the total water demands for the agricultural sector in the Jordan Valley. This will require adequate tariff policies on water used for irrigation, including enforcement, to stimulate more efficient use of water through for instance greenhouse drip irrigation. These are challenges specifically relevant for Jordan and Palestine.

Greenhouses are a very effective manner to improve water efficiencies and economic outputs in the agricultural sector, using greenhouses reduce the production related risks, provide for better quality crops and provide wider options for crop diversification. Finally, evapotranspiration from greenhouses is substantially less than from open field agriculture (and it does not cause soil salinity). However, greenhouses decrease open spaces, with negative visual impacts to rural landscapes and to wildlife corridors. Hence greenhouse development needs to be carefully planned and many farmers would require adequate and reliable micro-credits in order to invest in greenhouses.

Drip irrigation is another effective manner to improve water efficiencies in the open fields. The challenge is to set up sustainable drip irrigation systems in the Jordan Valley, including appropriate operations and maintenance and monitoring systems. This requires also financial facilities for farmers to invest, standardization of designs and manufacturing and provision of technical support services.

A related challenge is to maximize the reuse of treated wastewater, efficient use of pesticides and fertilizers, introduction or expansion of growing high yield crops, and improving extension services and post harvesting support to the farmers to enable them to create higher economic returns.

Pollution and mismanagement has severely damaged the Jordan River

Pollution and mismanagement has severely damaged the Jordan River

Another major challenge is to address the negative environmental impacts associated with the fish farms. These farms consume substantial amounts of water, due to high evaporation rates, which may be as much as 1-2 meter of water per year. In addition the ponds are flushed once or twice per year, releasing water into the Jordan River, which is polluted with excrements from the fishes, and anti-biotic medications that have to be added to the fish ponds. Due to the evaporation, the effluent is usually brackish as well. Consequently, discharging this wastewater into the environment has substantial impacts to surface water and groundwater quality.

Mitigating these impacts require investments in wastewater treatment facilities, and converting the process to a closed system. Without resolving these issues the future of this industry in the valley must be in doubt, despite any ecological benefits that the fish farms present for bird migration and associated tourism related to bird watching. The master plan sees the need to ensure that those communities relying currently on the fish ponds as their main source of income enjoy stability and that they be supported in the effort to move to closed systems.

A related challenge will be to strengthen the Extension Services for the farmers in the Jordan Valley. These services might be provided through the existing water user associations. In terms of rural economics, an important challenge is to improve the post-harvesting and marketing potentials of the farmers in the Jordan Valley, including setting up product organizations, better information about markets (nationally and internationally) and related product requirements and creating better access to export markets, with particular focus on eco-friendly and sustainable production techniques, regional labeling and fair-trade related markets.

Note: This is the third article in our special series on 'Regional Integrated NGO Master Plan for the Jordan Valley.

Preserving Biodiversity in Jordan

Jordan is situated at the center of unique biota, representing the biodiversity of dry lands. The natural ecosystems in Jordan support human activities in agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, tourism, traditional and pharmaceutical health products, traditional medicine and many others. These ecosystems are also important for their intrinsic value, and for protection of overall environmental quality.

The Levant states in general, and Jordan in particular, went through changes during the past two centuries from various anthropogenic activities. These changes are threatening the natural ecosystems, which have been destroyed to make way for agricultural, industrial, or housing developments. Species biodiversity have been severely affected, with many facing extinction. Rare and endemic plant and animals are endangered.

Biodiversity in Jordan

Despite its relatively small size, Jordan is highly rich in biodiversity. The country is divided into four different bio-geographical zones – the Mediterranean, Irano -Turanian, saharo-Arabian and Sudania. These zones are key elements in supporting biodiversity, containing three major ecosystems – terrestrial, marine, and wetland.

Biodiversity in Jordan has been seriously threatened in recent years. Natural areas and wildlife has been severely affected due to rapid urban growth resulting from population growth, large-scale migration and rapid industrial expansion has led to depletion of natural ecosystems.  Agriculture, animal-grazing, construction and other human activities has led to soil erosion, desertification and fragmentation of the land and reduction or extinction of wildlife. Furthermore, the increasing stress on limited water supplies has led to overexploitation of water resources and a decline in its quality and general decline in biological systems.

The agricultural expansion has led to ecological changes in two ways: decrease in population of some species due to alteration of their natural habitat, and over-exploitation of water resources. For some species, the lack of water has forced the animals to move or die, although for others it has increased their population. Rampant use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has contaminated soil and water resources while reckless use of heavy agricultural machinery on marginal arid lands has encouraged soil erosion.

Overgrazing is widely recognized as harmful to ecosystems as it may lead to desertification, which increases atmospheric dust; such dust creates a health problem for both humans and wildlife. Furthermore, overgrazing is harmful for soil microorganisms on which the health of the entire ecosystem depends upon. Desertification and deforestation causes the land to deteriorate rapidly. Although Jordan is committed to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), illegal hunting and trapping is still common which is threatening a host of wildlife species. Traffic and vehicular movement is increasing rapidly in Jordan which is also reading to soil erosion and death of animals.

Roadmap for Biodiversity Conservation

Jordan is working toward more profound strategic policies and actions to meet the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity. At the national level, the goal is to raise public awareness about nature as related to the conservation of biodiversity, and to direct national concern in different sectors about the conservation and management of Jordan’s natural habitat in a sustainable way. Decision makers in Jordan should be more aware of the threats facing biological diversity and the degree of its deterioration.

An important development is a multidisciplinary approach that uses geographic information system (GIS) analysis. The plan should involve many stakeholders, including the government, specialized nongovernmental organizations, local communities, and representatives research initiations and universities. As a response to the urgent need for conservation of biodiversity in Jordan, I suggest the following solutions:

  • Rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems in order to promote biodiversity and solving causes of poverty and unemployment – Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of biodiversity degradation: poor people are forced to put urgent needs before the long-term quality of the biodiversity.
  • Designing water supply models and monitoring water quantity and quality for plant and animal biodiversity. To reduce pressure from the growing urban demand, a long-term water solution will require fundamental changes in national water policy and adoption of a large-scale management by the Jordanian government.
  • Coordinating implementation of the plan between the local communities, government agencies and the private sector. It is important to involve local communities in decision making regarding hunting, water use and grazing.
  • Implementation of comprehensive plan, guidelines and national and international policies for sustainable development of arid areas, preservation of biodiversity, and adoption of strategies to prevent harmful practices such as overgrazing or over extraction of water.
  • Establishment of separated areas for biodiversity conservation, off-limits to grazing and other activities, and the monitoring of biodiversity in those areas.
  • Addressing the problems faced by farmers, such as crop selection. There is currently a lack of information on alternative crops that are tolerant to water stress and water-saving irrigation techniques. Livestock owners need services such as grazing reserves and infrastructure for marketing milk and other products.
  • Land use plans are essential for conservation of biodiversity of Jordan, there is an urgent need to encourage shifting the rural pressure to none fertile land, also new trends should be adopted to minimize reduction in forested land and reforest cleared areas.
  • Establishment of more natural reserves to give Jordanians beautiful places to visit and preserve Jordan’s beauty for future generations. A network of protected areas for ecosystems species and genetic resources preservation must also be established.
  • Introduction of sustainable systems for farming, include disease control and crops that help to regenerate soils. Appropriate support and encouragement to farmers to adopt new policies and new practices, such as water-saving irrigation techniques and plantings of sustainable crops such as date palms or honey production.

Jordan is committed to study its biodiversity to conserve its natural resources and ensure the sustainable use of its resources. It is also hoped that Jordan Biodiversity study will be the basis for cross-cultural cooperation and exchange, resulting in scientific integration between Jordan and the rest of the World. The result of applying there principle across several areas will be a visible recovery and improvement of Jordan’s ecosystem. Additionally, new jobs will be created as part of the conservation efforts.

A biological survey is necessary to monitor changes in the Jordanian ecosystems.  National guidance is required, as well as national and international funding for these activities. Appropriate development organizations should encourage research in ethno-biology to identify plant and animal species used by local people, which will prevent species from being irretrievably lost. 

As human induced environmental change continues, society is facing an increasing array of pressing environmental challenges. Answers to these complex challenges must be informed by coordinated, long-term interdisciplinary research. The LTER sites (Long term ecological research sites) are poised to address a set of new initiatives to be pursued in response to these environmental challenges.

Considering that one third of the land mass surface of the earth is classified as arid land, knowledge of the composition of their bio-communities and of how these communities are affected by landscape sustainability measures will find wider application in landscape sustainability programs and contribute to future global policies. Government and specialized environmental NGO involvement is essential for the success of these measures.

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Sustainable Water Management and River Rehabilitation in Jordan Valley

jordan-riverIn the context of EcoPeace Middle East's recently released Regional Integrated NGO Master Plan, the key challenge in sustainable water management is to overcome the water scarcity related problems  in the Jordan Valley. This means creating a sustainable water supply system that meets the current and future domestic and agricultural water demands; and at the same time preserves the water resources for future generations and for the environment. This requires an Integrated Water Resources Management regime for the whole (Lower) Jordan River, based on international co-operation among Israel, Jordan and Palestine, supported with adequate water management tools (like WEAP) to ensure sustainable water supply and an increase of the baseflow and rehabilitation of the ecological values of the Jordan River.

One of the related key challenges is to achieve full treatment of wastewater generated in the study area and full reuse for agricultural purposes. This will both reduce public health related risks and strengthen the agricultural sector. This requires development of a detailed technical and financial plan, including designs and tender documents, for full scale collection, treatment and reuse of the locally generated wastewater flows, including domestic, industrial (mainly oliveoil wastewater in Jordan) and manure management.

Another key challenge is to restore the function of the lower part of the Jordan River as a natural river and water conveyor in the valley for supply purposes, by keeping its flow as long as possible in the river. Rehabilitating the river will include actions in terms of realizing at least one minor flood (c.a. 20-50 m3/sec) per year. In order to bring back the original habitats of the river, also the flow bed of the river are to be widened to about 50-70 m in the north and at least 30 m in the south, with flood plains on both sides.

The salinity of the Jordan River has a natural tendency to increase downstream. This is caused by natural drainage of brackish groundwater into the river, particularly in the southern part of the valley near the Dead Sea. The key challenge is to prevent any inflow of salt or brackish surface water into the river above the point where the river would still be fresh, i.e. above the confluent with Wadi Qelt. This implies bypassing the salt water from the Israeli Saline Water Carrier (SWC), the brackish water from the Israeli Fish Ponds, and the brine from the Abu Zeighan desalination plant to a new outflow located south of the river’s confluent with Wadi Qelt, close to the Dead Sea. If this will be done, the river will be able to provide water of good quality for different user functions. In terms of chloride concentrations this means a maximum of 400 mg/l for drinking water purposes; 600 mg/l for fresh water irrigation; and 1500 mg/l for irrigation of date palms.

An olive oil mill in Jordan

An olive oil mill in Jordan

Another key challenge is to maintain total agricultural water demands at the same level as today, with the exception of Palestine which is currently heavily underdeveloped in terms of agriculture. To achieve a sustainable water balance within the valley and sufficient flows in the river it will furthermore be required that around 2020 Israel will largely cease pumping water to the extent possible out of the valley from the Sea of Galilee through the National Water Carrier (NWC), meanwhile maintaining its present agricultural water consumption within the valley; that the Sea of Galilee will be kept on a medium water level between the top and bottom red lines ("green line" as defined by the Israeli Water Authority); and that by 2050 Jordan will stop diverting water from the Yarmouk and other tributaries to the Kind Abdullah Canal (KAC) to the extent possible, and instead will use the Jordan River as main conveyor for its irrigation supply purposes. In addition, by 2050 Palestine would also use the Jordan River as its main water conveyor, meaning that the planned development of the West Ghor Canal will not be built.

These challenges require a series of related interventions, including adequate water data monitoring and modeling; promotion of water saving and water demand management measures in all sectors; provision of related training and institutional strengthening support services; improved regulations and enforcement on groundwater abstractions to stop groundwater depletion and salination; and implementation of efficient water pricing policies and related enforcement.

In terms of water governance, the challenge will be to strengthen the authorities, including JVA, PWA, in their role as regulator of the water sector in the Jordan Valley. This includes skills with regard to water data collection and management; water resources planning; efficient operations of the water storage and supply system; and strengthening the co-operation with the local water user associations. It also includes monitoring, regulations and enforcement of surface water and groundwater abstractions; protection of sensitive shallow aquifers, efficient tariff policies, and monitoring reduction of agricultural pollution loads.

Note: This is the second article in our special series on 'Regional Integrated NGO Master Plan for the Jordan Valley'. 

Women and the Environment in Arabia

Women and the environment are closely interlinked, throughout history, different nations glorified women as powerful symbols of nature, and nature has always been given the female characteristics: care, reproduction and life-giving. Nevertheless, women’s involvement in the preservation of the environment has seldom been recognized and documented in the histories of several nations.

One of the most significant phenomena in the last decades is recognition of women rights to achieve sustainable development; many international agreements reflected this recognition, including Rio Declaration in 1992, which stresses the point of the centrality of the full women participation to achieve environmental sustainability. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 has acknowledged the importance of gender equality and women empowerment, the CBD identifies the integration of women right in biodiversity conservation as intrinsically vital. Linking gender equality and sustainable development is not only important for ethical and moral reasons, but also because achieving gender equality as human rights of women is prerequisite of a fair and sustainable globe and future.

Increasingly, achievement environmental sustainability is recognized as central to pursue development goals. It`s crucial that gender equality —a human right—is central to this pursuit. Worldwide, there is a perception that women are closer to nature than men, as women interact directly and more intensively with the natural surroundings more than their counterparts' men, which produced their profound experience, understanding and knowledge about the environment. Many studies on women and environment have shown that women are significant role player in natural resources management and ecological preservation. Women have served as farmers, water and firewood collectors and scientists with more respective and caring attitude.

The interesting dilemma about all is since women interact directly with the environment, and because of their roles as home-managers, they are often vulnerable to several environmental threats and hazards especially rural women in developing countries. The toxic environmental hazards may increase the risk of birth defects, abortion, perinatal death, and fetal growth retardation.

Women in Agriculture and Plant and Soil Conservation

Globally, women produce around half of all the grown food, women`s roles in agriculture include: planting, cultivation, production, weeding, distribution, harvesting and storage, women are also involved in animal farming such as rearing poultry and goat. Some examples of women role in agriculture in Arabia include rural women in the Jordan Valley, who have proved themselves in agricultural work and is now irreplaceable in various agricultural operations. In addition, women have participated in and led soil and plant conservation projects. A role model is the Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) of Jordan, led by its founder HRH Princess Basma bint Ali. The RBG aims to preserve plants and ecosystems, and promote biodiversity research and environmental education in Jordan.

Women in Forest Management and Tree Planting                                                

In many areas of the Arab world, natural resources, such as firewood, are the main source of energy for domestic consumption. Unfortunately, the extensive use of these sources has led to forests degradation and air pollution. At the same time, women are the main contributor in forest management through planting and protection. A good example is the campaign organized by the APN, represented by its President Razan Zeater, which has planted more than two million trees in Jordan and Palestine.

Women and Water Resources

Around the Middle East, women constitute the main group of direct users of water for household consumptions. Therefore, they are a mainstream interest group in water management to provide and safeguard their own water resources. Women involvement in water management is growing up, but not yet receiving the attention it deserves. To fill the gap, many programs are launched to empower women at all levels including research. Dr. Malak AlNory, a scientist and a winner of Ibn Khaldun fellowship, researched the supply chain for water in Saudi Arabia and was the first Saudi woman presented her paper at the IDA Congress in 2013.

Women and Waste Management

Women role in waste management include garbage disposal management and research. Dr.Sumaya Abbas, a Bahraini engineer and a winner of L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science Fellowship, works on waste management and waste transformation into energy. “Because oil and gas resources are depleting, we are looking at alternatives sources of energy, and waste is one of them ” she clarifies.

Women and Energy

Worldwide, many people lack access to modern, clean energy, which has a huge impact on general quality of life. Rural women devote much of their time as fuel gatherers. Additionally, women work on projects to produce energy. An excellent model is the Jordanian brave Bedouin Rafea, who decided to challenge gender roles in her Bedouin community and followed her aspirations to light up her underprivileged village by enrolling in a solar program in India. Rafea has not only become the first female solar engineer in Jordan, but she has also set up 80 small-scale solar systems, helping her village to become solar-powered. Today Rafea is a role model, an elected leader and training many others on how to use sustainable energy.

Women and Policy

There is growing evidence of the synergies between gender equality and environmental sustainability. While women participation is vital, their involvement in policy-making aimed at sustainability does not mean better gender equality, especially when the foundations of gender inequality remain unchanged. Governments and donor agencies target women as influential agents for green transformation.

However, such stereotypical assumptions which view women as “sustainability saviors” have risks, as it's based on the assumption that women are unlimited resource that can sustain environments without consideration of women’s health, time, knowledge, interests and opportunities. Thus, women’s involvement in policy-making focused only at sustainability doesn't mean better gender equality; on the contrary, increase of women’s already heavy unpaid work burdens without consideration of their benefits in advantage to the environment can worsen gender inequalities and power imbalances.


Despite the challenges, this is a time of great opportunity for Arab women.  Worldwide, there are many examples of alternative pathways that move towards environmental sustainability and gender equality synergistically, which means respect for women knowledge, capabilities and rights, while ensuring that roles are matched with rights, control over resources and decision-making power.



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  12. "WEDO » NEW Article: "Women and Energy Access: Impact on Sustainable Development and Livelihoods"" WEDO RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 July 2015
  13. "Sustainable Energy." (2010): n. pag""
  14. Rafea: Solar Mama. Dir. Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief. Perf. Rafea, Rouf Dabbas, Um Bader. N.p., 2014. Web. <>.
  15. Sarant, Louise. "L'Oreal-UNESCO Recognises Exceptional Arab Women Scientists." – News. Nature Middle East, 9 Feb. 2013. Web. 31 July 2015. <>.
  16. <2015>.

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Islamic Principles on Sustainable Development

A huge number of verses in Qura’n and several sayings of the Prophet Muhammad indicate the great importance that has been given to environmental concerns and the responsibility of man to the environment. The concept of sustainable development in Islam can be defined as “The balanced and simultaneous realization of consumer welfare, economic efficiency, attainment of social justice, and ecological balance in the framework of a evolutionary knowledge-based, socially interactive model defining the Shuratic process”The Shuratic process is the consultation or participatory ruling principle of Islam.

The over arching principle in the use of nature is derived from the prophetic declaration that states: "There shall be no damage and no infliction of damage". The right to benefit from the essential environmental elements and resources such as water, minerals, land, forests, fish and wildlife, arable soil, air and sunlight is in Islam, a right held in common by all members of society.  Each individual is entitled to benefit from a common resource subject to establishing the degree of need, (needs have to be distinguished from wants) and the impact on the environment.

Earth is mentioned 61 times in the Qura’n. According to Islam, the universe has been created by Allah (God) with a specific purpose and for a limited time. The utilization of natural resources (ni‘matullah – the gifts of Allah) is a sacred trust invested in mankind; he is a mere manager and not an owner, a beneficiary and not a disposer. Side by side, the Islamic nation has been termed as) ummatan wasatan) the moderate nation in the Qur’an, a nation that avoids excesses in all things. Thus, Muslims in particular have to utilize the earth responsibly for their benefit, honestly maintain and preserve it, use it considerately and moderately, and pass it on to future generations in an excellent condition. This includes the appreciation of its beauty and handing it over in a way that realizes the worship of Allah.

The utilization of all natural resources – land, water, air, fire (energy), forests, oceans – are considered the right and the joint property of the entire humankind. Since Man is Khalifatullah (the vicegerent of Allah) on earth, he should take every precaution to ensure the interests and rights of others, and regard his mastery over his allotted piece of land as a joint ownership with the next generation. 

Land Reclamation

Prophet Muhammad said, "Whosoever brings dead land to life, for him is a reward in it, and whatever any creature seeking food eats of it shall be reckoned as charity from him". The Prophet in another occasion said, "There is no Muslim who plants a tree or sows a field for a human, bird, or animal eats from it, but it shall be reckoned as charity from him"; and, "If anyone plants a tree, no human nor any of the creatures of Allah will eat from it without it being reckoned as charity from him". This testifies the importance the Prophet in the early days of Islam has given to reclamation of land and the equal rights of all God’s creatures to benefit from the resources of earth. 

Wildlife Protection

Wildlife and natural resources are protected under Shariah (Rules of Islam) by zoning around areas called “hima”. In such places, industrial development, habitation, extensive grazing, are not allowed. The Prophet himself, followed by the Caliphs of Islam, established such “hima” zones as public property or common lands managed and protected by public authority for conservation of natural resources.

Water Rights

In the Shariah, there is a responsibility placed on upstream farms to be considerate of downstream users. A farm beside a stream is forbidden to monopolize its water. After withholding a reasonable amount of water for his crops, the farmer must release the rest to those downstream. Furthermore, if the water is insufficient for all of the farms along the stream, the needs of the older farms are to be satisfied before the newer farm is permitted to irrigate. This reflects the sustainable utilization of water based on its safe yield.

Environment Protection

The rights to benefit from nature are linked to accountability and maintenance or conservation of the resource. The fundamental legal principle established by the Prophet Muhammad is that "The benefit of a thing is in return for the liability attached to it.” Much environmental degradation is due to people's ignorance of what their Creator requires of them. People should be made to realize that the conservation of the environment is a religious duty demanded by God. God has said.  “And do good as Allâh has been good to you. And do not seek to cause corruption in the earth. Allâh does not love the corrupters”, (Al Qasas 28:77.(

Waste Generation

Islam calls for the efficient use of natural resources and waste minimization. God says in Qura’n: “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; “He” loves not the excessive”, (Al-A'raf 7:31). "And do not follow the bidding of the excessive, who cause corruption in the earth and do not work good”, (Ash-Shu'ara 26: 151-152). “And do not cause corruption in the earth, when it has been set in order”, (Al-A'râf 7:56).

Water Pollution

Water also plays another socio-religious function: cleaning of the body and clothes from all dirt, impurities, and purification so that mankind can be presentable at all times. Only after cleaning with pure (colorless, odorless and tasteless) water, Muslims are allowed to pray. One can only pray at a place that has been cleaned. In light of these facts, Islam stresses on preventing pollution of water resources. Urinating in water (discharging wastewater into water stream) and washing or having a bath in stagnant water are forbidden acts in Islam. The Prophet said: "No one should bathe in still water, when he is unclean”. 

Water Conservation

The teachings of Prophet Muhammad emphasize the proper use of water without wasting it. The Prophet said: “Don’t waste water even if you are on a running river”. He also said: “Whoever increases (more than three), he does injustice and wrong”.  

Sustainable Forestry

Islamic legislation on the preservation of trees and plants finds its roots in Qura’nic teachings of Prophet. They include the following:Whoever plants a tree and looks after it with care, until it matures and becomes productive, will be rewarded in the Hereafter” and “If anyone plants a tree or sows a field and men, beasts or birds eat from it, he should consider it as a charity on his part". He is also reported to have encouraged tree planting as a constructive practice, saying that even if one hour remained before the final hour and one has a palm-shoot in his hand, he should plant it. Even at times of war, Muslim leaders, such as Abu Baker, advised their troops not to chop down trees and destroy agriculture or kill an animal.

Public Participation

The protection, conservation, and development of the environment and natural resources is a mandatory religious duty to which every Muslim should be committed. This commitment emanates from the individual's responsibility before God to protect himself and his community.  God has said, "Do good, even as God has done you good, and do not pursue corruption in the earth. God does not love corrupters”.

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Water-Food Linkage in Arab World

The water-food linkage represents an important and vital nexus in the Arab countries. Under the current unstable food security situation (fluctuating energy prices, poor harvests, rising demand from a growing population, the use of bio-fuels and export bans have all increased prices), the ability for the Arab countries to feed their growing population is severely challenged by competition over increasingly limited water resources. Agriculture is currently challenged by competition among sectors on available water resources.

While the majority of water in the Arab region is used inefficiently in the agricultural sector (about 85% with less than 40% efficiency), which is not only crucial for food production but also employs a large labor force of rural population, the contribution of agriculture to GDP is significantly low. Hence, and using the argument of higher productivity per drop, voices are increasingly advocating for shift of water resources from agriculture to meet pressing demands of the industrial and municipal sectors.  The negative repercussions of that on the agricultural sector and rural population are most evident.  However, improving irrigation efficiency can release water for other uses (see AFED report on water in the Arab Region).

The Arab countries are far from having enough water to grow sufficient basic food, the obsession with the idea of self-sufficiency at any cost, had been predominant in the 1970s and 1980s, has been abandoned. It is no longer rational or sustainable. In fact, the region has been importing more and more food to meet its need. Recent studies have shown that more than half of the food calories consumed in the region is imported and would increase to 64% over the next two decades (World Bank, 2009). An older study in the mid-1990s showed that the food imports of the region were equivalent to 83 billion m3 of virtual water, or about 12% of the region’s annual renewable water resources. In fact, the same study has shown that for selected countries, this percentage was much higher: Algeria (87%), Egypt (31%), Jordan (398%), Libya (530%) and Saudi Arabia (580%) (FAO, 2001). With the rise of the population and improvement of lifestyles, one can expect these figures to be much higher today.

A better policy to address national food security can be to improve agricultural production and maximise water productivity and to rely on virtual water trade in food imports. By importing water intensive crops, not only can there be local water savings, there are also energy savings through reduction in withdrawal of irrigation water from deep aquifers (Siddiqi and Anadon, 2011), which could be significant for many Arab countries that have energy intensive groundwater withdrawals, such as the GCC countries. 

Moreover, Arab food security could be achieved through regional agricultural integration that combines the relative comparative advantages of all of the Arab countries, such as land and water resources, human resources, and financial resources. Joint agricultural projects could be implemented towards achieving food security for the region as a whole using advanced agricultural methods supported by active R&D programs in agricultural production as well as effective governance of water and land resources. 


  1. World Bank. 2009. Water Resources: Managing a Scarce, Shared Resource.
  2. FAO. 2001. The State of Food and Agriculture 2001. Rome, Italy.
  3. Siddiqi, A., and Anadon, L. D. 2011. The water-energy nexus in Middle East and North Afirca. Energy policy (2011) doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.04.023. 

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Significance of Rural Culture in Islam

Rural culture developed magnificently during medieval times in the Islamic Mediterranean countries. It has left its mark on many aspects of daily life in the countryside, from Sicily and the Spanish Levant to the Maghreb and the Eastern regions. Al-Andalus was a perfect example. Not only are Arabic words present in every movement, skill and tradition throughout much of Spain, but the actual rural landscape forms part of this heritage. And the same can be said about age-old customs for the distribution and use of water, for sowing, grafting, harvesting and storing, and many of today’s extensive, organic farming methods.

Alcorque, aceña, acequia, alberca, almatriche, almazara and aljofaina are just a few of the Spanish words of Arabic origin that refer to rural culture, and Arabic farming systems such as albuferas (lagoons), olive groves and terraces give the Mediterranean landscape its characteristic appearance.

But what is especially outstanding is the way in which the medieval Muslims managed common natural resources both fairly and sustainably, to use a word that is much in vogue today. This was based on Islamic tradition regarding justice and distribution of goods. The Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah, as well as traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, frequently mention the importance of equity and transparency in distribution and trade.

The following Quranic verse, posted at the entrance to Harvard University, lays the foundations for an unmistakable concept of social justice:

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted. (Qur’an, 4-134).

Although in short supply today, solidarity was much appreciated in the Muslim world during the early centuries. The second Caliph of Islam, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, stated that if a person died from poverty, the inhabitants of the town were required to make up for his death as if they had all been guilty of his murder.

Natural resources had to be fairly shared throughout the community. As the Hadith states, “Muslims share three things: water, pastures and fire”. And day labourers taken on for specific tasks had to be paid immediately, as stipulated by the Prophet of Islam, who ordered that their wage should be paid “before their sweat dries”. On the subject of food, it is of note that the famous Spanish saying, still in use today fortunately, “where three can eat, so can four”, comes in its literal form from a well-known hadith.

Also of interest is the close relationship our forebears had with nature. For Muslims, tending the land is an amanah, a responsibility, because during their time on earth they are mere khalifah (or vice-regent), and are obliged to use the land with moderation and balance. In Islam, work in itself is an act of adoration, and if the work involves cultivating the land, the benefit multiplies. There is a hadith that states, “No Muslim plants or sows something, so that a bird, a man or an animal can eat from it, without there being a benefit for him”.

A person who farmed land in the public domain or that belonged to no-one had a special right over it, as stipulated by the Prophet in the 7th century, many centuries before the famous sentence by Emiliano Zapata, “Land belongs to whoever works it”.

But, perhaps, where regulation and sharing were most important was in the use of water. Al-Andalus was again an example, though not the only one. There were public persons such as the sahib al-saqiya, the water sharer, or the qada al-miyah (water mayor), and the official al-amin al-maa. The term amin in Arabic, the person who is trustworthy, came to be used in irrigated farming in the Christian parts of Spain, in the form alamín in Castile, and alamí in Valencia.

This is just a brief outline, but it gives an idea of the moral and ethical values that, in general, governed the rural life of Muslims in medieval times.

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Food Security in the Middle East

Despite the fact that the Middle East is blessed with a rich geological inheritance of hydrocarbons and mineral resources, it is a water-scarce and arid region that has its share of demographic and socio-economic problems. It is difficult to grow food crops in the Middle East due to scarcity of water supply and limited availability of arable land. The region is highly vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets because of heavy dependence on imported grains and food items.

According to a report issued in 2009 by the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, “Arab countries are the largest importers of cereal in the world. Most import at least 50% of the food calories they consume.” Countries like Egypt, Syria, or Iraq used to be breadbaskets in the recent past but their agricultural sectors have suffered a lot due to government mismanagement, price ceilings, and underinvestment. Infact, all Arab countries are net importers of grains, with small GCC countries like Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, and Oman almost completely dependent on imports for grains.

The Middle East nations are encountering price spikes on world food markets. This is due to competition for the same food products (wheat, corn, soybeans, animal protein, etc.) from other areas of the world, especially Asia, where incomes are rising and demand for more and better calories is exploding. Besides threatening the well-being of those already living on meagre resources, the price hikes have increased the number of poverty-stricken by millions in less-affluent Middle East nations.

To make matters worse for the food supply problem, world markets have experienced severe disruptions in the past several years from distant storms, floods and droughts — from Russia to Argentina to Australia. These natural phenomena have disrupted the fabric of global market mechanisms that underlies the international food trade. Prices for basic food staples are already at socially dangerous levels, approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks.

Of all the Middle Eastern countries facing the current food crisis, Yemen is in the worst shape. A United Nations’ World Food Programme report states that seven million of Yemen’s 21 million people are “acutely hungry”, making Yemen the 11th most insecure food country in the world. Aquifers are being pumped well beyond the rate of recharge, and the deeper fossil aquifers are also being rapidly depleted. As a result, water tables are falling throughout Yemen by some 2 meters per year. With water tables falling, the grain harvest has shrunk by one third over the last 40 years, while demand has continued to rise. As a result, Yemenis now import more than 80 percent of their grain.

In Saudi Arabia there is little farming without irrigation, which depends almost entirely on fossil aquifers. The desalted seawater used by Saudi Arabia to meet the ever-increasing water demand in cities is too costly for irrigation use. Saudi Arabia’s growing food insecurity has led it to buy or lease arable land in different countries, including world’s hungriest nations Ethiopia and Sudan. Infact, the Saudis are planning to produce food for themselves with the land and water resources of other countries to meet rising food demand of its rapidly growing population. Unfortunately, transferring agricultural land from subsistence farming to export crops has led to even more food shortages. By attempting to ensure their own food security by acquiring foreign farm holdings, affluent nations are creating new food shortages in other parts of the world.

Due to reduced flows of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, Iraq and Syria’s grain harvests have been hit badly. Given the future uncertainty of river water supplies, farmers in both countries are drilling and over-pumping more wells for irrigation. Syria’s grain harvest has fallen by one fifth since peaking at roughly 7 million tons in 2001. In Iraq, the grain harvest has fallen by one fourth since peaking at 4.5 million tons in 2002. Jordan, with 6 million people, is skating on thin ice agriculturally. Forty or so years ago, it was producing over 300,000 tons of grain per year. Today it produces only 60,000 tons and thus must import over 90 percent of its grain.

With fast growing populations and an ever increasing pressure on water resources, governments must act urgently to prevent the looming food crisis.  A recent World Bank report found great inefficiencies in many Arab ports and the ways that Arab countries store grain compared with other large wheat importers, such as the Netherlands and South Korea. Port facilities, slow customs service and inefficient transportation from the ports to the mills all contribute to the worsening food situation. Arab countries are going to be huge importers of food no matter what; therefore they should improve their port and storage facilities and manage import risks.

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Irrigation Systems in the United Arab Emirates

Driving down the streets of Dubai, one cannot ignore the large puddles of water that cover the side of the streets and sidewalks. These puddles, which are the result of attempted irrigation of green patches and plants, are a big waste. As a result, a very important question comes to mind: Does the UAE have that much water to spare? 

Water in the UAE is in very short supply. The United Arab Emirates is one of the top 10 most water-scarce countries in the world, and has one of the highest per capita water usages globally. With 550 liters per person per day, a UAE resident consumes more than double the global national average of 250 liters per person per day.  

Why do people use this wasteful method? Simple: it's the cheapest and fastest way to irrigate the plants, or it may seem so. Although the upfront costs are cheaper, there's a large hidden cost of water that underlies the use of conventional irrigation methods. There are a number of problems concerning spray irrigation but the most important is its inefficiency.

When using spray irrigation (sprinkler systems) in a country as arid as the UAE, 60% of the water evaporates before it is absorbed by the plants. As a result, only 40% of the water intended for irrigation is used, which itself is not evenly distributed. This lack of uneven distribution coupled with the decrease in the amount of water used is detrimental to the plants' health.

However, as awareness about water scarcity increases, more efficient methods are being used. Drip irrigation is one of the methods being used as an alternative to spray irrigation. Drip irrigation consists of perforated tubes placed along the floor, or buried near the roots of plants, which deposit water directly to the plant roots. The result is not only a drastic decrease in the amount of water evaporated, but also uses 25% less water than spray irrigation systems. 

A second method being used in the UAE is an irrigation system consisting of gravel and pipes 60cm below the surface. Before anything is planted, the plot is excavated and lined with a water-proof tarp followed by layers of gravel and dirt placed around a half pipe. The pipe is drilled at strategic areas in order to let water flow through but sand and soil stay out. This method only requires 2.5 litres of water in order to maintain a plot which usually requires 10 to 12 litres.

Some are quite simple and you can take action immediately:

  1. Adjust sprinklers so only the grass and plants are watered and not the streets and side walks. 
  2. Water during cooler times of the day such as in the morning or evening to avoid large amounts of evaporation.
  3. Coordinate irrigation with seasonal rains.
  4. Grow more drought-tolerant plants.

Other solutions could be more complicated such as transitioning to more efficient methods of irrigation (see above). Of course the government has a role to play in incentivizing the adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors. The government of the UAE can:

  • Subsidize the installation of more complex irrigation systems (e.g. drip irrigation).
  • Provide preferential loan and credit conditions for farmers that abide by environmentally friendly laws or standards. 
  • Launch different campaigns across the the UAE that aim at educating farmers and residents about environmentally conscious water consumption.  

With water scarcity continuing to reach an all time low, there isn't enough water to be equally distributed between the people of the UAE, let alone water to waste. The time to act is now.

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