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Volume 48, Number 6November/December 1997

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Understanding the Badia

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

The Badia is where we came from," Princess Sharifa Zein bint Nasser said passionately. "It is the beginning of everything here."

"Here" is Jordan, and the Badia is the Jordanian desert, a region larger than Ireland or West Virginia that takes up four-fifths of Jordan's total area. As I zoomed along the desert highway that runs from Amman to the Iraqi border, I recalled that I had asked Sharifa Zein that morning why the region had a special name, rather than being called simply "the desert." Her reply was emphatic.

"Badia means the place the Bedouins come from," she said. "To us, it means the beginning. Our livestock comes from the Badia, and parts of the Badia are full of agriculture. We don't think of it as desert. You should see it when it has rained, and the sun comes out! There's life everywhere.

"A long-term goal of our project," she explained, "is eventually to reverse the flow of people crowding into increasingly large cities, to have people go back to the Badia." Like many Jordanian city-dwellers, she added, "I feel lost in the city. My heart is there."

My skepticism at this statement from an elegant, city-dressed woman must have showed. "In spite of my blond hair and blue eyes," she said, chuckling, "the Badia is where I belong. That is where I feel at home. That is where I spent so much time with my father, when I was a child."

I shared some of the princess's feelings. The desert, to me, has always meant extremes—of heat, cold, beauty, peace, pleasure, thirst, adventure, magic and sometimes danger. As we streaked down the blacktop, I felt a thrill of anticipation at the prospect of spending eight days in the desert, based at the field headquarters of the Badia Research and Development Program in the village of Safawi, roughly halfway between Amman and Iraq.

The extremes of the desert were already making themselves felt. Gusts of wind shook our little truck and the temperature was close to freezing, though the calendar said that spring had arrived. Dotted threateningly around the horizon were some of the blackest clouds I had ever seen, with dark grey sheets of rain hanging below them, drenching parts of the desert.

My companion, Ahmad al-Rawajfeh of the Badia Program, pointed out a small rounded mountain on our right: An extinct volcano, he said, one of many in the region. Its last eruption lay between 12 and 26 million years in the past, but the black basalt rocks and boulders it had spewed out lay all around us, so densely strewn that even goats have difficulty crossing this terrain. Each of the rocks, I learned, lies on a patch of blackish, fertile soil that is the remains of its own weathering, and which the rocks themselves protect from dispersal by the strong wind.

Small villages slid past us: simple, square concrete houses; outside them were tents, and flocks of sheep and goats. Most of the inhabitants were settled Bedouins, said al-Rawajfeh, but many of them prefer to sleep in the tents and use the houses—dry, secure and rodent-proof—for storage. They earn their livings farming and keeping livestock or working for the government or the military, and they send their children to village schools. They buy wheat and barley for their flocks, but many of them return to the desert each spring to let their animals forage. The manner of this return often involves phone calls to friends around the country to find out where the rains have been good, then loading the flocks into trucks and setting off, accompanied by a tank truck of water, for the newly greened areas.

As we drove through the rain, we saw occasionally the tents of truly nomadic Bedouins, a small but significant group of pastoralists who have little or no contact with settled life. Altogether, a quarter of the families who live in the Badia still travel to find pasture for at least part of the year. The isolation of these tents—along with the cold and the rain—made me wonder how the Badia had attracted different peoples and civilizations throughout history, and how they had managed to survive, even flourish, in such an inhospitable region.

The Natufians, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, lived here around 9000 BC, harvested wild grain and had enough leisure to create art of bone and stone. The Nabataean Arabs made parts of this desert bloom with their ingenious water-catchment systems. Greeks and Romans came and went, as did early Islamic peoples. Inscriptions and the ruins of more than a hundred palaces, multiple dams, canals, cisterns and reservoirs and the 5000-year-old Jawa fort all testify to splendid cultures that prospered here.

Shafts of sunshine—giant rays of it—suddenly pierced the dark clouds ahead of us, striking black basalt rocks that now glittered like diamonds. The desert was demonstrating how beautiful it could be while it thirstily soaked up the water. The winter's rains had largely skipped the Badia this year, measuring well under the annual average of 200 millimeters (7.9"), but with a few more showers, I thought, the Badia could soon be carpeted with green.

We wheeled into the Safawi Field Center, a colorful cluster of renovated buildings. Originally part of Pump Station H5 on a Kirkuk-to-Haifa oil pipeline that operated in the 1930's and 40's, these buildings are now part of a budding academy of desert ecology. There I met Mohammed Shahbaz of Jordan's Higher Council for Science and Technology, director of the Badia Research and Development Program. The Higher Council and two British organizations—the University of Durham's Center for Overseas Research and Development and the Royal Geographical Society, the latter now merged with the Institute of British Geographers—have run the project since the cooperation agreements were signed in 1992.

After dinner, as tea and coffee were served in a continuous flow of hospitality, Shahbaz discussed the project. "The first phase is a survey to establish baseline values, to obtain accurate information about the Badia's resources, human and natural. Since the whole project is centered on benefits for the individual resulting from sustainable development of the Badia, demographic, health and human-mobility studies are crucial." At the moment, he said, base teams were also studying the region's water, livestock, flora and fauna, geology, mineralogy, energy flows, ecology and more. "In the end, the information we gather will be presented to decision-makers on national and local levels so it can be used to improve the quality of life," he explained. The program's second phase, then, would add development projects to continuing research.

Much can be learned from the Bedouins themselves, Shahbaz added. "The Bedouins have lived here for centuries; they know how to treat their environment," he said, "how to exploit it without destroying it." With those words, Shahbaz opened the door on an ongoing, vigorous debate about development, local knowledge and the sustainable use of desert environments—a debate with more than two sides, and badly in need of agreed-upon facts, the kind that the Badia Program is intended to establish.

On the one hand, the Jordanian government would like to enhance the available services and create more permanent settlements for a growing Bedouin population— thus easing population pressure on the cities—and the Badia Program includes efforts to identify suitable sites for future villages and towns. Sharifa Zein was quoted in New Scientist as saying, "This is virgin land. We have the opportunity to achieve something great here: environmentally acceptable development. I'd like to see more livestock, more farming, more industry and a better quality of life out there."

Ecologists, on the other hand, argue that the Badia is not virgin land, but is used by the Bedouins, whose flocks have grown to exceed 400 animals per household, thanks in part to past government feed subsidies. With or without subsidized feed, they wonder, can the Badia support this many sheep and goats? Are the region's seasonal grasslands being permanently damaged by excessive grazing?

Research coordinator Darius Campbell told me that there are between 107,000 and 250,000 sheep and goats in the Badia Program's study area of 11,000 square kilometers (4250 sq mi), "depending on whose guesstimate you believe. Carrying capacity is a meaningless number since grass is transient, both in time and space. Grazing pressure can vary from zero—which is rare—to immense. A verdant plain can be grazed to nothing in two weeks flat by a load of sheep, some of which are trucked in from cities like Amman!"

Dr. Roderic Dutton, the British director of the project, points out that the fact that vegetation grows higher in study areas of the Badia where grazing is prohibited does not mean that the land in general is overgrazed. Rather, the question is whether, after grazing, it recovers or becomes exhausted. In fact, many scientists now think that desert areas like the Badia are resilient and dynamic, rather than ecologically fragile, and bounce from "grazed-to-nothing" back to green as soon as there is rain. The Bedouins certainly believe that, saying that rainfall is the limiting factor that determines how many sheep and goats the land can feed—a belief that at least one scientist has claimed is merely the Bedouins' way of avoiding responsibility for the damage their flocks do.

I asked Darius Campbell, a livestock specialist with the program who works closely with the Bedouins, what he had learned from them so far.

"We have learned their 'alternative' ways of managing animals," he replied, "but I'm afraid it has not been very enlightening, because they are using a system that is new to them—one that's based on bought grains and trucks. To me, it represents mismanagement rather than well-adapted traditional management. Some of their traditional cures using herbs have been interesting, but the cures that involve branding the diseased parts of their animals with hot irons have been lessons in unsuccessful traditional methods!

"What we have had," he continued, "is the incredible generosity and open-home hospitality of the Bedouins. We have received from some of them great warmth and love, which has been a wonderful side of our work."

That work is a lot more difficult and strenuous than I ever thought science could be. I went out with Campbell and veterinarian Karen Jones of the program's livestock team on a windy day, with temperatures near zero. Today's job involved trading veterinary care for scientific data: They planned to vaccinate no fewer than 300 sheep, take blood samples from them, and tag the lead animals so they could be tracked by satellite.

The idea behind this, they explained as we bounced along in their speedy old Land-Rover, was to demonstrate that common, non-fatal animal diseases reduce milk and meat production, and that vaccination against those diseases could therefore mean more production without increasing the size of the flock and the pressure that would put on the land.

"Till now," said Karen Jones, "the Badia people have not been too fussed about non-fatal diseases. They were more worried about diseases that kill the animal outright. The best way to persuade them that vaccination is worthwhile is to let them actually see the results for themselves."

At the appointed time and place, the Badia Program and the Bedouin family met. Campbell and Jones set up a portable corral, the sheep were herded in, and the work began. The teamwork was impressive, with Bedouins and scientists uniting against dumb ovine panic as though they had been doing it for years. Every few seconds a sheep shot out of the corral and up the hillside, phlebotomized, vaccinated and vastly relieved.

Every aspect of livestock breeding is under study by the Badia Program. Roger Oakley is here as an economist. "Things are sort of stacked against the Badia people," he said. "You cannot produce sheep as cheaply here as in Australia. Even in Syria and Iraq the grazing is better. So far, the Australians have produced and exported merino sheep, which have a different flavor and therefore didn't threaten the market for sheep from the Badia. Now they're starting to raise the awassi breed, the same as here. Once the Aussies start large-scale production, the Jordanian producers are going to have bigger problems.

"Realistically, from a hard economic point of view," he added, "it is not very sustainable out here, like it or not."

Mohammed Shahbaz, the program's Jordanian director, hopes that modern technology can help make life in the Badia sustainable despite the challenges of modern times. He spoke of using wind power, developing mobile solar-powered coolers, disinfecting water with ultraviolet light and designing energy-efficient, self-sufficient housing.

He also spoke of learning from older inhabitants of the Badia than the Bedouins. Shahbaz would like to emulate the "don't waste a drop" philosophy underlying the ingenious Nabataean waterworks, for example, to reduce the need to pump down the Badia's ancient aquifers to quench the thirst of Jordan's cities or irrigate its farms. The Nabataean Arabs intensively conserved water, he said. Catchment basins were hewn out of the desert rock, and natural depressions were dammed. Canals, some several kilometers long, were dug to lead impounded water to a principal basin. The Nabataeans planted trees nearby to shade these reservoirs and reduce evaporation, and they took great care to keep the water clean. They terraced their arable land with stone walls to reduce water demand. (See Aramco World, March/April 1995.)

Today, some of these 2000-year-old constructions still function, and are used by passing Bedouins; others could be restored to working order fairly easily. I visited some basins that contained water even after a nearly rainless winter—more than could be said for some modern-day water systems.

The little lake at Burqu' is a an example. It contains up to a million cubic meters of water (more than 800 acre-feet) in a region where annual evaporation exceeds three meters, and there is water here even in the driest years. The Nabataeans built the waterworks, the Romans built a fort, and the place was used in Byzantine and early Islamic times. The remains of what is said to be an Umayyad hunting lodge stand at the water's edge—and so do Bedouins' tank trucks, sucking up water for sheep and goats. The only other visitors are migrating birds by the thousands, in their season.

The Badia Program's two aspects, development studies and scientific research, feed information back and forth and in effect shape each other in a synergy that has helped make the program by far the most ambitious and comprehensive that the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of British Geographers have ever undertaken—a quantum leap, said an RSG-IBG official, in terms of complexity and commitment. The complementary use of both high technology and Bedouin technology is another hallmark—and complication—of the program.

The British and Jordanian scientists in the Badia feed the information they gather into the powerful geographic information system of the Royal Jordanian Geographic Center, where it can be overlaid on topographical information collected by remote-sensing satellites and other means. Bellwethers tagged with Global Positioning System receivers barely larger than a pack of cigarettes reveal, on command, the location of the herds they lead. NASA supplies the program with "historical" images, dating back to 1970, that reveal changes in soil and vegetation over time.

No less important, however, are studies of such things as desert almond trees, multiplied by tissue cloning, then grafted by traditional techniques to adapt them to the conditions in the Badia. "We take the native almond plants," says Mohammed Shahbaz, "we reproduce them and graft on sweet almonds. The desert almond can tolerate a temperature of 50 degrees centigrade [122°F] and its water requirement is only 50 millimeters [2"] per year. When you modify the plant, even if it now requires 100 millimeters of water, it will be perfectly feasible to grow these in the Badia."

Ra'ed Jazi al-Tabini, a Jordanian agricultural scientist, showed me his study of traditional medicinal herbs grown in volcanic zeolite tuff. Cheerfully greening in his little plot, despite a long dry season, were Artemisia herba alia, Achillea fragrantissima and Thymus bovi, specifics for stomach disease, diarrhea and respiratory diseases respectively. In a neighboring plot of unaltered local soil, the same species planted as controls refused to appear this year.

"Natural zeolites are common in volcanic rock," explained al-Tabini, "and because of their cage-like molecular structure, the rock absorbs water quickly and releases it slowly." Since volcanic tuff is cheap and locally available, al-Tabini's experiment has important implications for growing things in the desert.

It was 25 years ago that Jordan's crown prince, Hassan bin Talal, conceived of a long-term, multidimensional study "to understand the geography of the fragile Badia system and to make recommendations for change and development that will be sustainable and of real benefit to the Bedouin people of the Badia." The RGS-IBG sums up the program's goal simply as "helping the development process based on solid geographical information." Both the prince's statement and that of the RGS-IBG recognize that geography is in fact, as British political geographer Sir Halford Mackinder called it, "the bridge between nature and culture." We can understand each only in the context of the other.

Photographer and writer Tor Eigeland also contributed Aramco World's 1992 article on an RGS-IBG ecological study in Brunei. He lives in southwestern France.

This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the November/December 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1997 images.