Our journey to Jordan’s West Irbid, a municipality whose households, schools and businesses have never been connected to sewerage, starts where it should end: at the Wadi Arab Wastewater Plant. You might imagine it as looking unpleasant and smelling even worse. But, the day’s heat notwithstanding, the plant is neither ugly nor particularly pungent.
The facility is artfully hidden in a valley, for discretion’s sake and reasons of engineering expediency. The unmistakable hue of some tanks gradually shifts to a more reassuring green. The last basin seems to contain water which is perfectly clear. So what does actually happen here? And why, without this facility, would life in nearby villages be at risk?
As Mohannad AlDa`ameh, the plant’s engineer, explains, cleaning wastewater is complex but can be reduced to five steps: preliminary sedimentation; biological treatment; secondary sedimentation; advanced filtering with sand; and purification. This last is the most incredible as it is performed without chemicals. The water is treated with ultraviolet radiation which enters the resistant strains of bacteria and destroys their DNA. As if by magic the water is clean again and will not contaminate the environment.
Water Authority of Jordan (WAJ) plans to upgrade the plant’s system so that all wastewater received there will be clean enough to be re-used for agriculture. This is particularly important in a country such as Jordan, which tops the lists of the world’s driest countries. The EBRD, the Global Concessional Finance Facility (GCFF) and the European Union (EU), through its Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian Crisis, the Madad Fund, are contributing to a WAJ parallel investment. It will finance the sewerage system for 15 villages in the western part of the Irbid municipality and, at long last, will connect all buildings to the Wadi Arab Wastewater Plant.
The EBRD is providing a loan of €25 million for the project. To make it affordable, the EU is making available €20 million in grants, together with €2.5 million from the World Bank’s Global Concessional Finance Facility and €5.9 million more grants from the Bank’s net income allocation.
To understand how crucial this project is for the 105,000 people living in the area, one should visit Kufrioba. It is one of the largest settlements in West Irbid, with an area of 11.55 km2 and a population of 30,000. It is also more densely populated than Jordan’s capital Amman. “This high population density, which has been increasing in the past seven years with the arrival of Syrian refugees, has led to the construction of more and more buildings and more unsanitary cesspits,” said Rania Majdalawi, a representative from the local municipality.
The problems with cesspits are dire and, tragically, include fatalities caused by falling into uncovered ones or their walls’ collapse. Manholes are often missing or replaced with improvised techniques. The open tanks used to collect wastewater in many gardens are prone to flooding. Some of them have such limited capacity that they should be emptied once a month, an operation which costs an average of JOD 40 (about €50), with significant impact on households’ finances.
The municipality imposes fines but it is difficult to keep up with the new buildings so some cesspits are emptied only after they overflow. Many residents therefore choose to discharge part of their used water (not from the toilets) directly in the streets, as if it were surface water. Having to deal with the lack of infrastructure has sharpened locals’ wits: they plant fig trees in their gardens, for example, for their capacity of absorbing excess water from the ground.
Ms Majdalawi continues the list of grievances: “You cannot imagine the problem with flies in the summer or with floodings during the winter, when rain and wastewater mix in the streets. People can’t wait for a well-designed and structured sewerage system.”
“As partners with Jordan in developing the water sector, we believe that it is important to continue investing in new projects that increase the water supply, such as the Wadi Arab II,” said the EU Ambassador to Jordan, Andrea Fontana. “Yet it is equally important to upgrade and maintain the water and wastewater networks – as for the case of the project implemented by the EBRD – in order to avoid water leakages. This country cannot afford any water losses.”
The EBRD’s infrastructure investments are part of a larger program to ensure that, by the end of 2022, everyone from the local community will be able to walk on clean, paved streets and enjoy their gardens while, below ground, new sewerage will discreetly and efficiently take care of wastewater.