The Kingdom of Jordan is an Arab nation on the east bank of the Jordan River. To the north is Syria, to the east Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and to the west across the Dead Sea is Israel. In its narrow canyons stand tombs, temples, and monuments masterfully carved into pink sandstone. The object of my desire on this hiking adventure was to reach the ancient Nabatean City of Petra, also called the “Rose City”. And as I do with all of my travel, I inquired about environmental education efforts in the region.
From our guides I learned that Jordan is now the second-most water poor nation in the world, which is exacerbated by the refugee influx from Palestine, Iraq and Syria. Our guides came right out to express their belief in man-made climate change, and over the course of 10 days I would learn how this and other environmental issues affect the region, as well as the programs and efforts to address them. Or as Jawad, our lead guide, hysterically said, “We need to kick people’s asses more!” His point being that, as is the case in many places around the world, enforcement of environmental policies is still a major barrier to success.
I’m a firm believer that some of the most influential environmental educators come in the form of non-formal or non-traditional outdoor leaders such as travel guides, who lead people on a journey of self-discovery and appreciation for new lands. Guiding people along the path of being tangentially aware of a place, to loving it, becoming part of it, and wanting to protect it fiercely. Our guides were exceptional, and made it a priority to explain to us visitors from around the world (Australia, Scotland, UK, Italy, Germany, and USA) how the nation of Jordan and its communities are experiencing environmental issues.
Here in Arizona, we are well acquainted with the desert environment and the importance of water conservation. The average rainfall in Jordan is between four and nine inches per year. In the Sonoran Desert we get about seven inches of rain per year. I was continually struck by the parallels between Arizona and Jordan, especially the landscape. However, one reminder that I was no longer in Arizona was the daily Islamic call to prayer coming from surrounding mosques. Hearing this to me was an exotic and exciting reminder that I was in a foreign land, and I loved it!
We began our hike in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan’s largest nature reserve, which includes four different bio-region zones (Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian, Saharo, Arabian and Sudanian). We hiked along part of the two-year-old Jordan Trail which extends through local villages and consists of eight sections. I hiked the 72.6km section from Dana to Petra. The trail aims to get people out into nature, and support local populations.
Over the next 7 days we would hike with our two guides, three local Bedouins, and two donkeys named Felha and Friend. They were the highlight of the trip! Sometimes a little bossy on the trail, and would walk really close behind me wanting to pass. Yes, Felha, you can go ahead of me.
I was impressed by how strong our guides and the local Bedouins were. In fact, on the second day of the hike, which was a particularly steep ascent, one of the Bedouins got a call that his son had disobeyed his orders to stay home and tried to follow our hiking group from the valley up to the mountains. The Bedouin, who was only wearing sandals, ran miles back down out of the mountains to the valley floor to retrieve his son and make sure he was safe. They joined the rest of the group in camp later that night. Second only to the carving of those amazing temples and monuments in the rock, I was in awe of human ability and physical prowess.
Jordan has over 2,000 plant species including pine, oak, and juniper (like Arizona), and fauna such as the jackal, Arabian wolf, lesser kestrel, Nubian ibex, and fox. Some of the main threats to biodiversity include woodcutting, overgrazing, hunting, and pollution. Over 15 million trees were cut down to help build the railway through Jordan to Damascas. The effects of this can still be seen throughout the region, though we did learn that tree-planting initiatives were underway.
There are also issues with land-use planning and infrastructure development that have increased destructive flash flooding in the region. According to a recent article in Al Jazeera, ”The frequency of heavy downpours that quickly cause destructive flash floods has increased in recent decades, according to Jordanian water and climate experts.” In fact, the week before my trip there was a flash flooding that caused Petra to close to the public for a few days.
Plastic pollution was also a visible issue as we drove along the highways. A representative from Experience Jordan, the company I hiked with, said “It’s sad indeed that we still see garbage in the streets here, it mainly comes from a lack of awareness that eventually became a habit, but there are programs on raising awareness about this issue and organizations focusing more on environmental education. Hopefully we see change in the near future!”
Some organizations working on elevating environmental education in Jordan include the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). FEE has environmental education programs that are being implemented by the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS), this includes Eco Schools. JREDS is devoted to conservation of Jordan’s natural resources. EcoMENA is another initiative doing EE in the region, and one of the most popular sustainability advocates in the Middle East, with wide following and high degree of credibility across the Arab world.
And a 2017 article in the Jordan Times reported that plans are underway by the Ministry of Environment to introduce EE in national curriculum.