Red rocks and blue skies
Wadi Rum, Jordan, World Heritage site
Wadi Rum is recognised globally as a superlative desert landscape. The scenery of Wadi Rum is iconic, and features a series of dramatic and varied landfoms, including narrow canyons, wide wadis (ephemeral riverbeds) and large-scale cliffs, displaying a mosaic of colours. Thanks to the writings of T.E. Lawrence, Wadi Rum enjoys a reputation as a classic desert landscape both globally, and within the Arab States. It has been inscribed on the mixed World Heritage list as a mixed natural and cultural site in 2011.
Desert landforms developed within continental sandstones are characteristic of Wadi Rum. These landforms have been developed under the influence of a combination of various factors such as lithology, tectonic activities and surface processes such as erosion, representing millions of years of ongoing landscape evolution.
The area is traditionally inhabited by Bedouin tribes. The Bedouin tradition of climbing certain mountains for hunting is an important aspect of the cultural history of the site. Although hunting is now banned, the Bedouin still follow the old climbing routes.
Wadi Rum Protected Area (WRPA) was first established in 1997 in response to a report by IUCN and the Jordanian Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). It is important to note the traditional ownership of the area now defined as Wadi Rum by the local Bedouin. Long established traditional boundaries cross Wadi Rum and are well known and their validity is respected by both the Bedouin and the current management team of the site (although this has not always been the case). These two approaches to land ownership, tribal and legal, are currently co-existing without major issues.
View photos of the World Heritage site
Size and Location
Wadi Rum is located in the southern part of Jordan close to the border with Saudi Arabia, around 290 km south of Amman and 60 km northeast of the coastal city of Aqaba. Wadi Rum is a major feature within the Hisma desert lying to the East of the Jordan Rift Valley and south of the steep escarpment of the central Jordanian plateau.
The total area of WRPA is 74,200ha, with an extent of approximately 42km from north to south and approximately 33km from east to west. A buffer zone of c. 5km in width surrounds the World Heritage site and is stated as having a total area of 60,000 ha.
The area is well known for its spectacular landforms presenting an exceptional combination of features resulting from drainage incision, severe weathering by salt, biological, and other processes, and the undermining of steep sandstone cliffs by these weathering processes. The resulting landscape contains a range of narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides, and dramatic cavernous weathering forms.
This highly varied desert landscape is the result of the interplay between complex geological controls that have fluctuated considerably over a long period. The area has been uplifted and exposed in a tectonically active region. The area as a whole is still rising, and generally, the long-term average uplift (around 70mm/1000 years) is greater than the rate of erosion. Concentrated erosion along fault lines has cut through an excess of 700m of sandstone to create an exceptional network of corridors and canyons. Deep exploitation of fault lines has produced the wide and straight wadis, which in many instances are several hundred meters wide, and are blanketed with loose sand sheets and dunes of various colours.
Each rock formation displays its own distinctive morphology depending upon lithology, susceptibility to tectonic forces and types of cements. The Salib Formation is typified by relatively gentle slopes littered with debris, due to its close spaced joints. It shows a characteristic step-like morphology. The Umm Ishrin Formation is typified by rock falls of large masses along widely spaced vertical joints with spectacular towers of varying heights and width. Colour variation on the surface (rust red to yellow to almost pure white) is also caused by dissolution of internal calcite cements and secondary mineralization such as calcites and iron-hydroxides. The extremely friable Disi Formation is characterized by smooth dome-like rounded weathered surfaces which were developed mainly due to exfoliation along pressure-relief joints. In this formation, there are several examples of natural rock arches. The Umm Sahm Formation, highly fractured and jointed, forms distinctive pyramidal caps with step-like morphology.
Low population density and lack of development impacts have helped maintain WRPA in relatively pristine condition. Nevertheless there are a number of significant threats which require careful and increased attention.
As tourism grows, visitor pressure will increase in the future. Jeep safaris are of particular concern and appear to be having the biggest impact on the values of the property. Although a lot of progress has been made through improving vehicle quality and licensing tour operators, the overall number of vehicles, estimated to be between 500 to 1000 operating in the area, exceeds acceptable limits. A single track network has been designed between the main visitor sites but is virtually impossible to enforce. The visual impact of the jeep tracks is significant, with additional impacts on vegetation and on cultural values. Disturbance of wildlife by excessive jeep safaris is an issue of concern.
Encroachment of the Village of Rum within the Wadi Rum is a minor problem but requires vigilance.
Another concern arises from the extensive and growing extraction from the fossil aquifer of Disi, which has the potential to lower the ground water level, threatening natural springs in the area.
Local people gather firewood and carry out some limited grazing. Monitoring of this should continue in order to ensure the use remains low level and sustainable by local communities only, and to evaluate alternatives with these communities for fuel.
Dealing with the threats
The site managers are aware of the issues linked to growing tourism, and are committed to tackling them in a new management plan. Major tourism developments within WRPA are not permitted. Specialist advice on reducing erosion effects is also being sought. Reducing jeep numbers has to occur combined with promotion of more sustainable tourism activities such as camel trekking, walking and rock climbing.
Two recent incursions where houses were being built beyond the agreed zone have been stopped and legal cases are underway. Current accommodation outside of Rum Village is limited to desert camps run by local Bedouin in conjunction with the Wadi Rum management team. These camps aim to be as sustainable as possible. A limited amount of self guided tourists also sleep out in the desert but with limited impact. A local consultation process has just started for a major new luxury “eco-camp” to the north of the property.
The entirety of the World Heritage site falls within the jurisdiction of Regulation No. 24 for the Development of the Wadi Rum Area. This legislation focuses on preserving the natural and cultural heritage, allied with development of tourism. It prohibits construction (with the exception of within the existing boundaries of Rum village), mining and extraction activities, hunting, introduction of alien species, driving off designated roads, habitat destruction, pollution and timbering.
Support to the development of management capacity has been provided from both national agencies, and international support, including via a significant aid project supported by the USA.
Law enforcement is carried out by Ranger patrols operating both within Wadi Rum and outside it in the buffer zone.