Hydrogel: A Promising Solution for Water Scarcity in the Middle East?

In Jordan’s capital, water only flows through the piped network once every week or two. Most residents of Amman store water in rooftop tanks and then carefully ration it until the next refill on “water day.” The situation is even worse outside cities, where agricultural communities are losing an uphill battle with climate change. Diminishing rainfall leads to the overexploitation of underground water reserves, and an exceptionally dry winter caused irrigation dams to fill to just 43 percent of their capacity. Jordanians are now among the most water-poor people on earth, living with less than 100 cubic meters of renewable water per person per year, far below the 500 cubic meter per person threshold of severe water scarcity.

In Jordan and beyond, immediate solutions are needed to allow food systems to cope with water scarcity. The search for water-wise solutions is a strategic issue with long-term implications for political stability in the region. However, policymakers should be wary of relying too heavily on technological innovations without paying attention to longer-term sustainability.

Water Politics

Framing water as a security issue in the Middle East is nothing new. Fears about “water wars” between states over shared water resources emerged, and were challenged, as early as the 1990s. These fears largely stem from the importance of water for food security: experts estimate that over 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals worldwide are used for agriculture. Droughts can lead to the collapse of entire value chains on which rural livelihoods and communities are built, meaning access to water is critical to states’ stability.

Jordan’s leaders understand this nexus well and have long distributed water services in a manner sensitive to political concerns. But they have aimed to maximize buy-in from local elites and tribal leaders—not vulnerable farmers. Water policies have made little attempt to rein in water consumption, even though agriculture uses up the largest share of national water resources. Over half of Jordan’s water is “non-revenue,” meaning it is lost to leaks or theft. Yet, the state struggles to crack down on water-related corruption. Every year, millions of cubic meters are pumped out of the ground illegally through unlicensed wells. And to satisfy powerful local elites, water-intensive farms continue to operate in unsuitable desert regions, where they draw heavily on underground water.

Water policy shortcomings are most visible in the Jordan River Valley, the country’s historical breadbasket. There, a governmental body centrally manages irrigation water. Large banana plantations symbolize influential landowners’ steady access to subsidized water. In stark contrast, small farmers often must pay out of pocket to supplement their meager allotted share. Farmers often grow water-intensive crops such as melons and tomatoes when they can. High import tariffs make them profitable on local markets despite their high irrigation needs.

But with a population set to grow by 20 percent over the next 10 years, skyrocketing unemployment, and shrinking space for smallholder farmers, policies that reward high water use are a ticking time bomb. Rationalizing dwindling water resources will be the key condition to preserve local food production. Farmers and policymakers alike are tempted to turn to technology, seeking fast and easily applicable answers. For years, policymakers and aid agencies have promoted “smarter” types of agriculture. New technical terms have swept across the region, from drip irrigation to hydroponics or aquaponics. One lesser-known innovation is hydrogel, a synthetic substance able to absorb high volumes of water, which is slowly released over time in the soil.

Hydrogels

Pharmaceuticals and hygiene products have used hydrogels for decades. In the agricultural sector, they have been studied for years with an eye on reducing the need for irrigation. Horticultural hydrogel (also called polyter, water gel, or superabsorbent polymers) is commonly sold in gardening shops in the form of beads, crystals, or powder for use on small surfaces.

Across the world, governments and corporations have invested in research to develop hydrogels’ use in agriculture, with a particular eye to developing markets in water-poor countries. In India, government research labs commercialized several gels derived from different base materials. And in Jordan, two young entrepreneurs are working on a gel capable of capturing moisture from the air at the surface of the field. Such technology would reduce the need for irrigation drastically. Their start-up, ARENA, could be the first to produce agricultural hydrogel in the Arab region. Based on preliminary trials in closed environments, the entrepreneurs estimate that 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of gel could absorb up to 53 liters (14 gallons) of water from the air per day. In one test carried out in an open environment on one dunum (0.1 hectare) of spinach, irrigation was cut by half over the course of one season. More research is needed to ascertain efficiency in open air, on large surfaces, and on different crop types. Still, the development of this technology is a promising endeavor because it is easy to transport, commercialize, and use.

However, these promising results should not overshadow the fact that local stakeholders may not be interested in the technology. Imported hydrogels are already available in Jordan but are not used widely in farming. Some agricultural engineers point to a lack of awareness among farmers and their lack of appetite for new products. Farmers also have little incentive to seek new ways to save water because it is heavily subsidized by the government.

Most worryingly, hydrogel use could risk long-term environmental pollution. For better absorption properties, most gels are made from synthetic materials that are not biodegradable. As the gel breaks down over time, it releases its chemical components into the soil. To this day, little is known about long-term effects on the surrounding microorganisms, animals, and humans. Poorly managed hydrogel use could become counterproductive by leading to increased soil salinity, requiring more water in the long run to restore the soil’s productivity.

Policy Considerations

Policymakers and aid agencies are bound to be attracted to technological solutions that can be implemented with immediate and measurable results. Their goal is to demonstrate, within the time frame of an individual project, that they can help address the water crisis. All development projects have a bias like this. But policymakers need to have an eye on the longer term, and they need to avoid promoting short-term solutions that create longer-term challenges.

Before deploying hydrogel, its sustainability needs to be assessed. While it’s not glamorous work, donors can help now by commissioning systematic studies on the toxicity of different forms of hydrogel in the medium and long term. A strategy that promotes the accumulation of toxic residues in the soil and aquifers would only compound water challenges in the long run. In the meantime, practitioners should prioritize the development of biodegradable gels. Although at this point such gels are less absorbent than their synthetic counterparts, they can reduce the risk of long-term ecological damage.

Most importantly, though, enthusiasm for impressive technical results should be balanced with the need for an array of integrated responses, including on the policy side. There is no set of technological fixes than can overcome Jordan’s need for reformed policies to incentivize water saving, and it is dangerous to assume otherwise. Technology has a role, but the central challenge facing Jordan’s water sector is fixing the structure of the water sector itself. That is principally the work of government officials and their citizens, and scientists can’t save them from it.

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman who focuses on environmental issues in the Arab world. Will Todman is a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. This commentary is based on Lyse Mauvais' winning entry to the Solution-driven Water Journalism Workshop run by CEWAS - Middle East.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Lyse Mauvais