By Markus Becker | Spiegel
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
True masters of water management once lived in the desert of what is now Jordan. It took the Nabataeans only a few decades to carve the city of Petra out of sandstone cliffs.
In addition to crafting now world-famous decorative tomb facades, they built a sophisticated system of water pipes and cisterns, which made it possible for the city to exist in the dry wilderness in the first place — more than 2,000 years ago.
Today trucks rumble through Jordan to supply the population with drinking water. The water sloshing back and forth in their tanks is often thousands of years old, pumped from fossil groundwater reservoirs that filled up when the region wasn’t as dry. Millions of cubic meters of water are now being pumped from such aquifers every day in the Middle East and North Africa.
The next hydraulic engineering project is currently underway in Jordan, at a cost of $1.1 billion (€850 million). Starting in the spring of 2013, about 100 million cubic meters a year will be pumped out of the Disi aquifer in the country’s south, in addition to the 60 million cubic meters a year already being taken from the aquifer today. The water will then be pumped through pipelines to the capital Amman, some 325 kilometers (203 miles) away.
But radiation experts warn of an invisible danger. Tests have revealed that the water contains high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity, with samples exhibiting radiation levels well above World Health Organization (WHO) radiation guidelines. The health risk doesn’t just affect Jordan, but virtually all of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Radioactivity Up to 30 Times Higher than Safety Standards
An explosive study on the problem was published in February 2009, but it has only attracted attention in the professional world until now. A team working with geochemist Avner Vengosh of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, had tested radioactivity levels in 37 samples from the Disi aquifer.
According to the findings, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the water from the aquifer, which is about 30,000 years old, is up to 30 times as radioactive as the WHO considers safe.