In the early hours of a bitter January morning, helicopters from the Jordanian civil defence force hovered over the canyons of Petra. Before dawn they found what they were looking for: a group of 90 trekkers crouching in the shelter of an overhanging cliff. The bewildered tourists were huddled together for warmth, trapped overnight by a freezing blizzard and deep drifts of snow.
The New Year brought little to celebrate for Jordan and its visitors. For a fortnight, snowstorms and torrential rain swept across the country. But although it may be cold comfort to those who lost their houses, the storms that caused so much havoc may signal an end to the longest period of drought in living memory.
Jordan is one of the most arid countries in the world. These days, the Jordan River is little more than a trickle under the Allenby Bridge. Most urban households rely on a door-to-door delivery of water, which is pumped once a week from trucks into tanks on the roof. The quota is meagre and the tariffs high. By the end of the week the tank has usually run dry. Poorer families often have to resort to bartering possessions with their neighbours for hoarded bottles of water.
With a burgeoning population pushing resources to the limit, the government has decided to look in a new direction for answers to the crisis. One and a half kilometres beneath Amman, trapped under the cap of volcanic rock that forms the seven hills of the city, lies a vast body of fossil water. The Disi aquifer is larger than Jordan itself, a spongy mass of saturated sandstone that disappears deep beneath the Dead Sea rift. To the south it rises close to the surface, extending under the border and into Saudi Arabia. 'It's there in the south, where the aquifer is nearer the surface and the water is of much higher quality, that the pipeline will start,' says David Meehan, director of regional infrastructure at the UK office of Halliburton KBR.
Its work on the Great Man-made River (GMR) in Libya made the Halliburton joint venture Brown & Root North Africa a natural choice for consultant on the Disi water conveyance scheme. 'The formal contract was awarded just over a year ago, but we have been talking with the government about the scheme for many years now,' says Meehan.
The $625 million Disi project follows broadly similar lines to Gaddafi's 'eighth wonder of the world,' albeit on a smaller scale. The masterplan involves drilling wells and building pumping stations in the south of Jordan, and the construction of a 325-kilometre pipeline to convey water from the aquifer to Amman. With a diameter of two metres, the Disi conveyor will be a humble affair compared with the GMR and its drive-through 75-tonne segments of pipeline. 'Most of the technology involved is tried and tested stuff,' says Meehan.
Despite its modest scale in regional terms, the social impact of the project cannot be underestimated. When it is completed, the Disi pipeline will deliver some 100 million cubic metres a year of water to Amman, the equivalent of about 140 litres a day for each inhabitant of the city. Naturally there will be seasonal fluctuations, explains Barry Howarth, London operations manager for Brown & Root North Africa. 'In the summer period they will extract more, in the winter less. But some of the variations in output will be determined by the geology of the aquifer itself. The output could well increase to 150 million cubic metres a year.'
The conveyor will be built to last. 'The design of the project sees a lifetime of 40 to 50 years,' says Meehan. 'Pipelines obviously tend to deteriorate, but it will be constantly upgraded and maintained.' The government's next step will be to choose a contractor. The Disi scheme has been on the drawing board for so long that many observers doubted that water from the aquifer would ever see the light of day. However, of the 36 companies that purchased documents last year, 34 formed 14 groups in January to apply to prequalify for the project.
Like the consultant, many of the prequalification applicants - Vivendi Water, Thames Water, Ondeo Services - combine considerable technical and financial clout with distinguished track records of project work in the region. Competition has been intense, but the waiting game will soon be over. 'These consortia are now under evaluation by a technical committee,' says Fayez Batayneh, assistant secretary-general of the Water & Irrigation Ministry. 'We expect to announce the prequalifiers - a maximum of six - in about two months or so. The contract should be finalised by the end of the year.'
The government has secured about half the financing required for the scheme. The ministry originally envisaged a build-operate-transfer (BOT) model, which would require substantial investment from the contractor. However, the alternative of a standard engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) package has not been ruled out. 'We are not actively looking for more funding from abroad,' says a ministry official. 'Obviously, if it is offered, we will have to consider our choices. But I think it is likely we will be going forward on a BOT basis.'
The successful contractor will drill some 65 production wells and work in parallel on the collector tanks, pumping stations, connecting carriers and pipeline required to convey water from the aquifer to Amman.
The first water from Disi is due to reach the capital in four years' time, a day that cannot come soon enough. As King Abdullah explained last year, only weeks after a public tender drew the project into the open, the 'limitations of Jordan' spring from a single source. 'It is not just the economy,' he said. 'It comes simply down to the amount of water that Jordan can provide to its citizens.'
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