In-depth: Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis

JORDAN: Water shortage remains a constant headache

Thousands of acres of agricultural land in the Kingdom of Jordan are fed by Zarqa River's polluted waters
AMMAN, 13 September 2006 (IRIN) - Although the kingdom of Jordan takes its name from the Biblical Jordan River , which streams along its western border with Israel, the name hardly reflects the reality of the water situation.

Jordan is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, but it lacks enough water to quench the thirst of its citizens, let alone its farms and wildlife, said Salameh Hiaria, a water expert and former member of parliament.

A shortage of the precious resource will become one of the most vexing conundrums facing Jordan in the not too distant future, he warned. By 2010, the kingdom will need about 1.54 billion cubic metres of water to meet the needs of its population - and fall short by 319 million cubic metres.

However, senior government officials have said there is no need to panic. "We should look to the future with confidence, because the government has developed a strategy that concentrates on the future," said Nael Zu'bi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Water.

Two large water projects are currently in the works to provide Jordan with an abundance of water for domestic and agricultural use by 2020. The first project is a multi-billion-dollar undertaking to link the Dead Sea and the Red Sea with a 325km canal.

An official from the World Bank said on 22 August that a group of donor countries, including France, the United States, the Netherlands and Japan, had signalled their willingness to help fund a US $15 million feasibility study on how to carry out the project.

"Our hope is that in the next two to three months we can have all the agreements in place and we will launch this study," said Vahid Alavian, who is in charge of the project at the World Bank.

The 'Red-Dead' project includes the construction of a hydroelectric-power plant and a desalination facility to provide Jordan with 850 million cubic metres of potable water a year, or half of its projected 2010 needs.

Photo: Maria Font de Matas/IRIN
Jordan’s once fertile land has painfully turned into hostile terrain. Experts predicted that by 2010, Jordan will need approximately 1.54 billion cubic meters of water to meet the needs of its population
However, the canal project is facing a mountain of challenges, including Israel's desire to link the Dead Sea with the Mediterranean Sea instead. Officials in Amman fear Israel could persuade donor countries to support the Mediterranean Sea canal, a project which has yet to receive the green light from Israel policymakers. Because the mouth of the proposed canal would be on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, Jordan would not have access to it.

The second project is a $600 million plan to pull water from the Disi aquifer in the south. The government is currently examining tender offers from several companies, and construction could commence by the end of the year.

Officials estimated it would take about 14 years to get the project up and running. Once completed, it would supply Jordan 's capital, Amman, and the southern governorates with some 170 million cubic metres of water per year for the next 100 years. By 2020, the water share per capita would nearly double, according to Zu'bi, the Water Ministry spokesman.

However, a number of multimillion-dollar agricultural projects in the Disi area are siphoning off the aquifer's resources. These farms, which are owned by former senior government officials, cannot exist if the Disi project is to be successful, said Elias Salameh, who headed a study at the Ministry of Water on the impact of agriculture on Disi reserves. Farms in Disi consume more than 80 million cubic metres of water a year, nearly a one-third of the kingdom's total supply of 260 million cubic metres a year.

"In Disi, fuel is imported, machinery is imported, seeds, fertilisers, manpower are imported. The only input from Jordan is water, and we are one of the poorest countries of water in the world - effectively we are exporting water," said Salameh.

As the government works on a plan to save the country from an imminent crisis, citizens suffer.

Ahmed Abdullah, 46, is a professor at the University of Jordan. During the dry season, he has to drive around 50km from where he lives to collect gallons of spring water, which he needs for his newborn baby and to keep his little garden alive.

"This should not be happening. Jordan does not lack water, but the problem is that politicians do not have the will to help their people," said Abdullah.

From May through August, the Ministry of Health warned Jordanians to conserve water in their tanks. Jordan employs a water-rationing system during the hot, dry season, in which water is pumped to citizens once or twice a week.

"Less water means a deterioration of living standards and health," said Ali Abdul-Rahman, a doctor from Al Bashir Hospital, in the heart of Amman. Cases related to lack of hygiene among children and even adults increase as the mercury rises, he said.

Health officials feared more health problems could occur if the water problem is not solved.

Adding to Jordan’s ever-increasing water crisis is an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries. The water-impoverished kingdom, known for its political and economic stability, has fallen victim to its geographical location. It is surrounded by some of the most troubled countries in the world - including the occupied Palestinian territories and Iraq – and millions of people have taken refuge in Jordan over the past few decades.

“Refugees have put big pressure on water resources. Unless this population decreases, the country will be facing a big problem," Salameh said.

Official figures put Jordan's current population at 5.7 million, not including hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. There are more than 600,000 Iraqi refugees, nearly 250,000 Egyptian workers and hundreds of thousands of other Arab nationals - including Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese - already in Jordan.

However, environmentalists and observers said it would be unfair to blame Jordan's water shortage entirely on the refugees. The Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, signed at Wadi Araba in 1994, dictates the amount of water to which each nation is entitled. As the two countries share the Jordan River, one of Jordan's main water resources, one of the articles of the treaty indicates how much water each country can draw from it.

Jordanian authorities said their country receives much less water than Israel. According to the historic agreement, Jordan gets around 35 million cubic metres, which is equivalent to 3 percent of the total amount of streaming water. Israel gets the other 97 percent. Figures from the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in each country show the water consumption of one Israeli citizen to be equal to that of five Jordanians.

Government officials and observers ruled out the possibility of war in the Middle East over water, despite the importance of the resource.

“The disputed amount of water is very small; it's not worth a conflict," said a senior official from Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.



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