Friday, December 29, 2006

Snow fiasco

The last snow storm hit the south of the country hard. Over 1400 people had to be rescued after being stranded in the roads of the region. The government was caught unprepared, and it took more time than observers thought was needed to get the situation under control. Helicopters were used to rescue stranded people. Many stranded people had to call the popular radio show by Mohammad al Wakeel, prompting Emad Hajjaj to publish a hilarious cartoon depicting a family stranded in the snow, calling Wakeel and praising officials for the great job they are doing (mentioning that they have been stranded for ten hours and giving their location).


Samih Ma’aitah wrote an article on the subject, claiming that the government always makes grand proclamations about its contingency plans, which are not implemented when a real emergency strikes. This is probably not fair, as the south is a very large area which is lightly populated. I can imagine that the issue was a logistical nightmare, although roads could have been closed before hand to prevent people getting stranded in the first place.

The minister of interior came off badly, scolding TV reporters for using the word “surrounded” in describing the situation of stranded people. He also was unhappy that the king would have to be bothered with this routine situation. I doubt that the king will be happy about the implication.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


This winter has been relatively dry until now. It rained heavily in September, but October and November and most of December have been bone dry. Naturally, people worry about rain in Jordan, as we are quite drought sensitive.

Things took a turn for the better yesterday, and it has been raining the last couple of days. Now it is starting to snow, so it looks like there will be no school or work tomorrow. Who could have predicted?

Well, the Jordan Meteorological Department and Yahoo weather seem to have similar forecasts. They predicted it about a week ago. The Islamists organized a rain prayer yesterday, in what appears to be a cheesy attempt to prove that God would only bring the rain after THEY appeal for it.

Of course, snow is not all good news. Many people are having trouble staying warm this winter, as fuel costs have skyrocketed. People are burning olive press residue, wood or doing without. The meager amounts given to poor people by the government are doing little to offset the rise in costs. This comes at a time when the prices of meat and vegetables have also risen to levels unbearable to a large segment of people. So, people are cold and hungry.

May God help them through this difficult time.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Debate on MTBE

It is painful to watch the government try to grapple with issues it seems to know little about. Recently, they took a decision to replace leaded gasoline with unleaded. The government says this is to protect the environment, but people are more worried about how this will affect the cost. Regular gas currently costs about 400 fils per liter, and unleaded is over 600 fils per liter.

But it is all worth it to protect the environment, right?

Al Ghad today has a report on the debate over the alternative, which is known as MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), which is now being phased out in California, because it seems to be polluting water supplies in that state. The minister of energy is pushing for the change to MTBE, claiming that storage tanks at gas stations in the country are of international standards, and will not leak (unlike the tanks in California). The minister of environment is more cautious, saying that adopting MTBE will only take place if double layered storage facilities are provided. I found it interesting that the minister of water has little to say about the issue. What does the ministry of water have to do with clean water, anyway?

Leaded gasoline was phased out in the United States because it interfered with the action of catalytic converters, which are designed to oxidize carbon monoxide and to lower excess nitrous oxide emissions. Excess hydrocarbons are also burnt off in the catalytic converter. The purpose of this is to lower air pollution (smog), and not because lead in vehicle emissions was found to be a hazard. The Al Ghad report notes that lead contents in children’s blood in Jordan are within normal ranges. I have seen a number of such studies. Circumstantial evidence that children living near highways have lower IQ’s than others are sometimes cited as an indication that lead is a hazard, but this evidence is far from compelling.

Incidentally, the vast majority of automobiles in Jordan are not equipped with catalytic converters in the first place. A few years ago, a friend of mine imported a car, and the customs officials wanted to charge him extra for the device. Apparently, it is viewed as an accessory, like an air conditioner or a CD player. I am not sure if the customs department still views catalytic converters as luxury items.

A year ago, Al Ghad had a report on how diesel fuel in Jordan does not meet international requirements because of high sulfur contents. This leads to rapid aging of diesel engines and thus to the sight of older vehicles with black plumes of smoke billowing out of their tail pipe. If the government is so concerned about clean air, they would tackle this issue, rather than trying to use environmental concerns to bilk people.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

One eventually gets used to politicians and government officials being less than honest with their statements. However, I like to think that universities and their officials should hold and be held to higher standards.

A couple of weeks ago, a riot broke out at Yarmouk University. Following the riot, university officials claimed that the problems were the result of “reinforcements” brought in from outside the university, and that the original cause of the fight was personal problems between a few students. Other reports had cited disagreements over elections of student clubs.

Yesterday, the head of the Irbid police, ‘Ayed ‘Ajarmeh, basically called the officials of the university liars. He said that the police had known that trouble was brewing (over club elections), and that it had warned the university officials, who did nothing. He also said that police had taken precautions by preventing non-students from entry to the campus. Moreover, while the university had claimed to have given the police names of the outside troublemakers for prosecution, the university had in fact only given the police only two names of students who were previously expelled for academic reasons. Two names.

To me, university officials who lie are even more embarrassing than ones who are clueless as to what’s going on in their campus. In this case, they are one in the same. I wonder if there is anybody in charge who is as disgusted as I am.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The ministry of water and the Zerqa River

After feigning ignorance as to the source of sewage flowing into the Zerqa River, the ministry of water and irrigation solved the problem by rebuilding an earthen dam that it had torn down at the beginning of winter. The issue only was solved after the press got involved. The press took three weeks to report the story, and the ministry took three days to fix it after that.

Of course, damming up the sewage behind an earthen dam is not really a solution. The dam was torn down for the winter because the runoff forming after the rains can wash away the poop. Since the winter has been dry thus far, the poop stagnated.

Waiting for the runoff to wash away the problem implies that it will go away. This is not true, as the water ends up in the King Talal Dam. Water in the dam is largely used for irrigation, as it is not good enough for human consumption. This is because of inadequate treatment of wastewater at the Khirbit as Samra plant near Zerqa, as well as the general attitude that the system is open for waste disposal (as the case of the earthen dam displays). I have written more on the issue earlier.

Despite the vital role of the Zerqa River to most of the population of the country, management of the system still seems to be haphazard and minimalist. It is a shame that the ministry of water and irrigation does not seem to appreciate the importance of clean water and of clean rivers. It is also a shame that the ministry is treating the public in such patently poor faith. Of course, this is not the only example.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Hire some plumbers, please

The Zerqa river is being polluted by sewage for the second time this year. In January, the problem was solved in a couple of days. This time, the leakage has been ongoing for the last three weeks. I suppose that this time, the press has been slow to report the story. This might explain the complacency shown by the ministry of water and irrigation, who blame “clogged manholes and illegal sewage connections”.

I really have a hard time swallowing this. Does it take three weeks to fix a clogged manhole?

Come to think about it, I can believe it. The water pipe down the street from where I live spurts out a medium sized stream every week when the water is coming. The water authority has probably “fixed” it dozens of times. It is only a ¾ inch pipe, for crying out loud. Can’t they hire a few plumbers?


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The 2007 budget

One might not know it from their behavior, but parliament has some important work to do. Foremost at this stage is scrutinizing next year’s budget, which was sent to them a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, the minister of finance discussed the outlines of this document.

The 2007 budget is quite different from the 2006 version. It is worth almost 4.3 billion dinars, with a growth of 9.3% over last year’s budget. The economy is growing at a rate of almost 6%. What is interesting is that this budget saves almost half a billion dinars by eliminating fuel subsidies. Another boost comes from more generous aid from Saudi Arabia, who are kicking in about 400 million dinars to help us out.

So, what is the government planning to do with the nearly 1 billion dinar windfall, after adding growing tax revenues? Fahed Fanek thinks that we should use it to pay down outstanding debts. The government thinks differently.

There is a big jump in running expense spending (3.3 billion up from 2.6 billion), and a more moderate jump in capital spending (988 million up from 843 million). I am having trouble understanding how running expenses are to go up by 700 million dinars after eliminating 450 million dinars in fuel subsidies. I figure that wages are taking up about 300 million dinars of the growth, so the question is where the other 850 million are to be spent.

Many observers are more concerned about the growth in capital expenditures. It is not obvious what the projects will be, as I have not been able to find a full text of the budget yet. In principle, pumping more money into the economy and improving the infrastructure is a welcome development.

This large growth in revenues and expenditures is an important development. How money is spent should reflect the most pressing issues facing society. Thus, adequate funding of health, education, higher education and necessary infrastructure should take precedence over spending for monumental (show) projects. I hope that MP’s will help ensure that the extra money is spent in a wise way.

I feel a sudden bout of depression overwhelming me.

Par for the course

Yesterday, a group of MP’s physically assaulted reporters who were covering their activities. The reporters had photographed a fight between two deputies. Apparently, this angered some of the deputies, who view the press with suspicion. The head of the parliament had threatened the press recently. MP’s view press coverage as being one-sided.

The major dailies have decided to boycott covering the activities of parliament until an apology is issued. Of course, this will hurt the public interested in the debate over the budget. Yeah, right.

If the MP's are so worried about how the public views them, I have a better idea.

Stop being so retarded.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pop quiz

Ok, boys and girls. Today the question is how much electricity can be generated by the proposed Red Sea Dead Sea canal. I have previously cited a number of 100 MW, which an American brief on the project used. On the occasion of a donor meeting in Amman to fund a feasibility study, the press is parroting a 550 MW estimate. This is a big difference. Which number is true?

To help you figure it out, you can use the following equation. The volume of water to be pumped is 1900 million cubic meters a year, which works out to 60 cubic meters per second (I have made this too easy). Head is 400 meters. Don’t forget to divide the result by 1000 to convert from KW to MW.

Clock’s ticking.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Riots at Yarmouk University

A large fight broke out yesterday at Yarmouk University between Irbidi and Ajlouni students. This resulted in damage to windows, cars and buildings on the campus, as well as the injury of four people, including a security guard.

The reason cited for the fight was student elections. It is notable that Yarmouk University is one of the few universities where student council elections are for the entire body. Other universities appoint half of the members.

Anyway, this is not the first time university students get into a brawl. There have been incidents at the University of Jordan and at various private universities. There seems to be a lack of respect for the finer points of debate and argument, and an alarming reversion to tribal and regional loyalties. This is occurring in the very places where the future of the country is being cast.

Universities are not simply places where knowledge is transferred. They are centers for forging attitudes and ethics. It is true that many of students’ attitudes are set before they enroll in universities. This raises a challenge but does not provide an excuse. An aggressive effort needs to be made to instill the desired attitudes into our students. Ethics of work, respect, tolerance, reasoning, meritocracy and curiosity should replace those of expedience and tribal and regional bonding. Only when this begins to happen will we be on the right path.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I hate repeating myself…

but sometimes, there is little choice. The latest public opinion poll again shows that people are little interested in “political development”, and are more interested in economic issues. The poll indicates that 33.4% view unemployment as the major problem that needs to be dealt with, 26% place poverty as the major issue, followed by inflation (25.5%), poverty (23.5%), poor living conditions (5.4%), and corruption (4.4%). Political development is not a concern for the average person. A parallel set of data for “opinion leaders” places political development at a whopping 7%.

As I said a year ago, when a previous poll was released, political parties have not been able to convince people that they have a viable alternative to current policies. Nothing has changed since then. While political parties have been jockeying for issues related to their own interests, they have done little to persuade people that there is a link between politics and economic policy or performance.

I wonder if I will have to write the same thing next December.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Bush’s visit and Jordan’s role in Iraq

It was clear from the onset that president Bush’s visit to Jordan and his meeting with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki was not to be a courtesy meeting. It followed the Republican loss of the mid term elections and the writing of the Baker-Hamilton report on how to get out of the mess in Iraq. Reports are suggesting the meeting was not a pleasant affair, with Bush giving Maliki and earful about what he needs to do stabilize the situation in his country (possibly along the lines of this memo). A three way meeting following the Bush Maliki meeting which was to include the US, Iraqi and Jordanian leaders was scraped, reportedly on the request of the king and the prime minister. Abuaardark suggests this is a snub. I suspect that it was better for the king not to be in attendance while Bush chewed out Maliki.

The choice of Jordan as a venue for this meeting was interesting. Clearly, this meeting could have been held in Washington, Riga (where the NATO leaders were already meeting), Baghdad, Riyadh, Cairo or anyplace in Europe. The choice of Amman was not one of geographical expedience, but is a sign that Jordan is to play a central role in Iraq in the next stage.

Jordan has been trying to cultivate good relations with all parties in Iraq (except Al Qaeda), despite the deep suspicion generated by the famous “Shiite crescent” warning as well as Sunni suspicions about Jordan’s role in aiding the US invasion, among other incidents. In the last week the king has met with the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Harith al Dhari (not without controversy) as well as with Al Maliki and Abdulaziz Al Hakim (also not without controversy). It is funny that al Dhari is accused of supporting Al Qaeda, who in turn are livid at the king meeting with Dhari.

So, something is cooking. Jordan has been keeping reasonably friendly relations with Iran, giving the circumstances. It is not obvious how recent meeting with Iranian officials would fit in with Jordan’s upcoming role. Many analysts are speculating that Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working to cut Iranian influence in Iraq. This is a reasonable objective, and hopefully it can be achieved in cooperation with the Iranians, who would do well to pull out of the Iraqi morass. Obviously, the situation in Iraq is volatile and unpredictable, and so the effectiveness of this role has yet to be seen. My impression that the Jordanian role will be mostly political, with a security role limited to intelligence assistance. Jordan should strive to stay close to all the major players in Iraq, and to help ensure that this dark page in Iraq’s history is soon turned.