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Help for Water-Starved Countries

November 21, 2014

No surprise that it's challenging to get water to residents of a country that is 75 percent desert. But in Jordan, one of the world's most waterscarce countries, the problem is exacerbated by a history of regional political instability, corruption, and refugees in the hundreds of thousands pouring over the borders over the past 60 years from Palestine, Iraq, and most recently Syria.

Jordan is where Basil Mahayni, Ph.D. student in geography, is conducting both academic and policy research, hoping to connect them in ways that can help water management systems better meet community needs, especially those of the poor and middle classes, in water-starved countries.

He's stationed in Jordan's capital city of Amman, a city of some 2 million people, where, every week, water is piped in rationed amounts across miles of hilly terrain into rooftop tanks atop homes and apartment buildings. It is then up to residents to monitor their use of the precious resource -- meaning that midweek a mom may need to curtail her family's laundry or daily bathing.

Amman's water system is a public-private amalgam, run by a government-owned company; while it is technologically competent, it struggles to provide some important features associated with government, especially regulatory power and mechanisms for public input and accountability.

It's ridden, Mahayni says, with political tensions, as it tries to keep in balance urban and rural needs, higher demand, rising costs, and limited water supplies. Stark disparities persist. For example, he points out, authorities have provided educational programs in public schools and poor neighborhoods to teach children to be good stewards of water, even providing them with citations to issue to parents when they appear to be wasting water, even as some wealthier households cultivate extravagant gardens, and farmers enjoy access to highly subsidized water.

Technology is not enough

Portrait: Basil Mahayni
Basil Mahayni, Ph.D. student in geography, is supported by fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Arab Council for Social Sciences, and the U of M's Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change/McArthur, Consortium on Law and Values, and Office of International Programs. Advisor: Abdi Samatar

His dissertation still a few months in the offing, Mahayni nonetheless has come to some conclusions based on his studies and on interviews with officials from Jordan, USAID and private sector consultants, and with residents from around the city. He believes water management and distribution will remain a crisis in countries such as Jordan as long as water policy is framed as a technical -- but apolitical -- project. "For management to be both fair and effective," he says, "you have to have genuine understanding of what's happening in terms of daily realities of communities, and provide genuine avenues for participation."

Mahayni thinks his use of several methodologies, including content and policy analysis, geographic information systems (GIS), and interviews, is part of what has attracted support from the National Science Foundation, the Arab Council for Social Sciences, and the University's Office of International Programs.

"I've received really good training in Minnesota," he says. "Abdi (Samatar), my adviser, is a model in being able to converse with policy makers in very genuine ways. I would like to take this training in geography and bring it into conversation with policy people, perhaps in organizations like the UN or good research institutes involved with environmental policy."