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Jordan is on the edge of a water disaster – the home of Jordanians and Arab refugees could run out of fresh water
in the next few decades

Text: Anu Kerttula

Photos: Vanessa Riki

Jordan will run out of fresh water in the next few decades, according to the Ministry of Water and Irrigation of Jordan.

Jordan was facing a water crisis already before the Syrian civil war when the annual per capita water supply was around 140 cubic meters and now it is less than 100 cubic meters. This is only ten percent of the U.N. definition of water poverty, which is anything below 1000 cubic meters per person per year. For example, in the United States of annual per capita water supply is around 9000 cubic meters per year.

Over the past few years, Jordan has achieved high levels of water and sanitation services where 95 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water on an intermittent basis, and about 63 percent are connected to the public sewer system which collects, transfers and treats the wastewater loads. The current level of service delivered to the population is about 126 liters/capita/day. The demand ranges between 80 and 120 liters/capita/day depending on the area (rural/urban).

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Engineer Ali Subah works as the Secretary General of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Jordan, and he says that the northern governorates have dealt with water scarcity even before the arrival of the refugees.

“The arrival of the Syrian refugees was a crisis on top of a crisis. With limited resources of water you should address this issue and keep the system sustainable”, says Eng. Ali Subah, Secretary General of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Jordan.

The influx of refugees has also accelerated the pace of water use. Prior to the influx, the water supply security was already difficult to achieve. Now it has become much more difficult to provide an adequate amount of safe water to people. The question is not only about the 1.4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan. There are also hundreds of thousands refugees from Iraq and hundreds of thousands from Yemen and Libya. In the 2015 census they discovered the population to be 9.6 million.

Jordan is also on the verge of running out of groundwater as the major resource for domestic supply. Approximately 63 percent of Jordan’s water sources come from aquifers.

“Aquifers are in danger because we overabstract the groundwater by more than 160 percent, not because we want to but because there are no alternatives”, says Subah.

Due to this overabstraction, water is becoming saltier and there is also an increase in other elements such as concentrations of heavy minerals, so that in many areas water cannot be used by humans without major treatment.

The northern governorates faced huge problems with water scarcity even before the arrival of the refugees. And when they came, the demand increased by 40 percent. This caused local supply problems and it took time and significant financial resources to overcome this problem. It also affected the entire country where the overall water demand rose by almost 20 percent.

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It’s not unusual to regulate the use of water in the region. For example in Amman, due to the loss of water supply, the residents get access to fresh water once a week.

Crisis cut down neighbor’s help

Before the crisis, the Jordanians could rely on their neighbors in the times of water shortages and it brought the opportunity for negotiations.

As a result of the conflict in Syria, much of the money that was allocated to Jordan was spent in other sectors, while support of the water sector was reduced and diverted to other issues.

Saudi Arabia shares an aquifer with Jordan

Jordan and Saudi Arabia share access to the aquifer called Disi, a nonrenewable underground water reserve. Water supply to Amman started in 2013 through pipelines, which are more than 300 kilometers long.
Jordanians will be able to use the water from Disi for the next 25–50 years. The project cost around 1 billion US dollars and serves the entire country.
Initially the plan was to reduce abstraction from some aquifers, however, with the influx of refugees this plan was altered.

“I think we were lucky to have started this project on time but unfortunately we weren’t able to reduce the pressure on the groundwater sources. On the contrary, we have been forced to drill more than 200 new wells to extract more water from our already overabstracted aquifers”, says Ali Subah.

Water storage tanks of the groundwater pumping station near the Azraq refugee camp.

RED to DEAD canal project or so called “Peace Project”

The Capital Investment Plan of Jordan for the period 2021 to 2025 foresees that the water demand will increase by 25 to 35 percent to cope with the population growth over the next ten years, including the influx of the refugees.
This would mean that projected population and economic growth will significantly increase water demand, potentially even doubling it to 1550 million cubic meters per year by 2025. The investment plan includes the development of new water resources that will total 120 million cubic meters per year. Part of it would be covered by desalinated water from the Red Sea to Dead Sea canal project. In addition, Jordan plans to raise the efficiency of prevailing systems, reducing leakages and increasing the reuse of treated wastewater.

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian’s signed a deal on desalination in 2013. The intention is to produce freshwater for Jordan through the Red Sea Dead Sea (RSDS) project and at the same time slow down the shrinking of the Dead Sea.
For many years now, due to reduced inflow and industrial activities, the Dead Sea level has decreased, currently at a rate of about 1 meter per year. It could dry out completely by 2050, if there is no change.

A landfill with solid waste at Qamishili in north east Syria. Absence of proper waste management resulted in expanding waste dumps that risks polluting groundwater. Photo November 23, 2018 by Wim Zwijnenburg

Why is Jordan so dry?

Jordan is a small country with a desert climate and environment. There are two main rivers in Jordan – the Jordan River and Yarmouk River. They also run through Israel and Syria. However, the amount of water received from these rivers in Jordan is constantly reducing.

The Jordan River, that flows to the Dead Sea, has become a mere creek due to the extensive water usage upstream of Jordan.

The amount of water passing to Jordan from the Yarmouk River is so small that the approval procedure for the construction of the Al-Wehda Dam was delayed until 2011. The capacity of the dam is 110 million cubic meters per year, but not even 50 percent of this amount has been reached so far. The long-term average of the Yarmouk River flow is around 400 million cubic meters. “But unfortunately nowadays we receive around 20–30 million cubic meters per year. This is only around 20 percent of the amount we planned to have”, Subah says.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment Jordan Valley

Agriculture is the largest user of the water resources in Jordan. It uses roughly 60 percent of the total water supply. Industrial water use is about 4 percent and the rest goes to municipal use. Jordan Valley is a key agricultural area.

Currently the next best option for additional water resource supply is through the Shidiyeh-Hasa project, that is located 70 kilometers south from Amman airport and is more than 1000 meters below ground. The water table is located 400–600 meters below the surface of the land. The salinity and temperature are high so the water must be treated before use. But it is the only resource still available inside the country.

Weather has its part to play

As mentioned, Jordan will be close to running out of water in the next few decades. According to Subah, “climate change affects water resources availability and leads to even more severe water scarcity” – the rainfall timing and geographical distribution have changed and will continue to do so. The rainfall period is becoming shorter, the amount of rainfall is even less and temperatures are rising. All this means that agriculture will need more water for irrigation.
All the climate change models show that the rainfall amount will decrease by around 15 percent and the surface and groundwater resources in general will decrease by 25 percent. In addition, the demand for agriculture will increase by 18 percent.

In the northwest, where rainfall is more than 300 millimeters per year, it will decrease by approximately 1.2 millimeter per year.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment Zataari

Zataari is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, hosting approximately 80 000 refugees.

Major refugee camp on the top of the main aquifer

The majority of the refugees are located in the northern governorates, Irbid and Mafraq, and near the borders. As there are many of the productive aquifers in these governorates, this has led to environmental problems, for example related to the collecting and disposal of waste and thus contamination of the aquifers.
Zataari is one of the largest refugee camps in the world hosting approximately 80 000 refugees and it has been considered the fourth largest city in Jordan. The Zataari refugee camp is located on the Amman-Zarqa aquifer supplying the northern part of Jordan.
The Zaatari refugee camp was set up very quickly and due to its rapid development, many people in the camp lacked access to the running water and wastewater collection system. At its peak there were 150 000 inhabitants in the camp. This led to increased contamination with E. Coli and total cell counts in the nearest water sampling locations to the Zataari refugee camp.

Although the camp now has a functional water and wastewater system, the Jordanian Government fears that the wastewater from the camp will affect the quality of groundwater. ”If something happened there it would kill the water supply for almost 400 000 people” says Subah from the Ministry of Water.

The main purpose of the wastewater treatment plant at the Zataari camp is to treat generated wastewater at the site in order to prevent the Amman–Zarqa aquifer’s pollution and to improve sanitation conditions in the refugee camp.

Tensions between locals and refugees

Less that 10 percent of the refugees in Jordan live in refugee camps. The remainder live in cities and smaller host communities.

According to Subah, the NGOs and UN agencies started to help the refugees gain access to better and safe water resources. This also led to tensions with the Jordanian people. To ease the situation, the government drilled more wells – at the cost of the already overabstracted groundwater resources.
The conflict in the region made the control of water use difficult. Illegal connections to pipelines and illegal drilling of wells increased and the government turned a blind eye to some of these problems to avoid tension.

The government started a campaign against the illegal use of water in 2013. Since then, the government has annually gained more and more control over the country’s resources. The government has amended the legislation related to illegal water use and has subsequently dismantled almost 900 illegal wells.

Financial problems

“We do the best we can. Always the finance is a bigger issue. Jordan is scarce in everything, not only in water resources but also in financial resources. We do have a huge problem accomplishing the needed investments”, Ali Subah says. The country depends on soft loans and grants.
The Syrian crisis and the influx of refugees required a swift response. But this also meant that the already struggling country had to cast aside its previous plans for development and make new plans just to survive. “If you see 1.4 million people coming to your country within two years you will see that all your strategic planning is upside down”, Subah says.

“Jordan hopes that international agencies and donors will still fulfill their commitments and support us to provide water and wastewater services to our people and the refugees, “nothing more”. The Jordanians aren’t against the refugees but they don’t want to lose the progress they had before. If we do, we would go back 30 years in time. The Jordanians are looking for security and a future for their children”, Subah says.

Jordan – Facts

According to UNHCR (2018): Jordan is a temporary home to the second largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with 1 in 11 people forcibly exiled.

It is also the seventh largest refugee-hosting country in the world with over 750 000 registered refugees. The majority are Syrian but with sizeable amounts from Iraq and Yemen. Other refugees present in Jordan are from many of the world’s worst trouble spots including Sudan and Somalia.

The first influx of Palestinian refugees was in 1948, when Jordan received refugees who left Palestine as a result of the Arab-Israeli war. And even more Palestinians came in the wake of the six-day-war in 1967. According to UNRWA (2016), there are 2 175 491 registered Palestinian refugees.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, “The most recent large-scale wave of Palestinian migration to Jordan was that of “returnees” from Gulf countries, most of them expelled from Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War. In addition to receiving Palestinians, Jordan has also hosted forced migrants from other countries in the Middle East, such as Lebanon during the 1975–1991 civil war, and Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War and after the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein, following the Anglo-American military intervention.”

According to official estimates in 2016, the population of Jordan is 9.5 million, of which around 6.45 million are Jordanian and about 3.25 million are foreigners. They estimate that the Syrian refugees account for approximately 35–45 percent of the total amount of refugees in Jordan.

According to the CIA World Factbook the estimated population in 2018 was 10.46 million.
Most of the refugees, around 1.4 million, came from Syria from 2011 to 2013, and according to Mr. Subah, “half of them registered and half of them did not”.

According to a report by the World Bank and the Feinstein International Centre in 2017, Amman hosted 32 percent of the 1.4 million refugees living in Jordan.