Jordan, one of the world’s most water scarce states, is facing a “perfect storm of pressures” including chronic scarcity, over-use, waste, and a massive increase in demand caused by refugee arrivals, according to a report published this month by the NGO Mercy Corps.
To add to the water stress, the country is currently undergoing its driest rainy season in decades.
One proposed solution is due to be implemented by mid-2018 following Jordan’s signing of a controversial water sharing agreement with Israel and the Palestinian authorities in December 2013 after decades of discussions.
The agreement paves the way for the long-discussed Red Sea Dead Sea Water Conveyer (RSDSWC) project, though in a much reduced form. It includes the construction of a desalination plant at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, which will desalinate 800-1,000 million cubic metres (mcm) per year shared by participating countries, and the pumping of brine to revive the Dead Sea via a 180km pipeline/canal.
According to the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan will have chosen the contractor by April 2015, construction will begin at the end of 2015, and implementation will last almost 2.5 years.
“With this, we will have solved Jordan’s problems at least for the next 30 years,” said Nabeel Zoubi, programme manager for the Red-Dead Sea programme at the ministry.
The plant is expected to produce at least 80 mcm every year, according to Zoubi. “Israel will buy approximately 50 mcm from Jordan at a cost of US$0.42 per cubic metre and the rest - approximately 30-40 mcm - will go to Jordan’s governorate of Aqaba,” Zoubi added.
According to the agreement, Jordan can purchase around 50 mcm of water from Israel (from the Sea of Galilee) to provide water to Amman and the northern part of Jordan.
“There is no other way Jordan can address water scarcity given the increasing population and challenges brought by climate change,” said Zoubi.
But some experts have voiced concerns about the RSDSWC project due to the cost, estimated at US$4 billion, and the potential environmental risks of delivering brine to the Dead Sea.
“It is a suitable solution, but it is very challenging due to the current political context, regional unrest, geographical location and its high cost,” environmentalist and climate change expert Amal Dababseh told IRIN. “The project will be located along the Rift Valley, which is quite seismically active. That will make any donor think twice before they fund a project like this.”
The project has received moral and technical support from the World Bank, which published a feasibility study, but so far no funding has been earmarked for the project, and it is still not clear who will pay for the infrastructure.
Jordan says it is trying to secure funding for the pipeline phase of the project from “neighbouring and friendly” countries: “Saving the Dead Sea is an international responsibility and not only Jordan’s,” Zoubi told IRIN.
The World Bank office in Jordan told IRIN that “Jordan is eligible for the World Bank’s loans and financial instruments but has not requested any financial assistance from them for the Red-Dead [project].”
As well as providing a source of fresh water in a water-scarce country, the pipeline project aims to revive the Dead Sea, which has been receding at a rate of more than one metre a year.
“There is a unique ecosystem in the Dead Sea area - plants, birds, insects, micro-organisms that must be protected. Also, mineral extraction [for beauty products] is very important for Jordan and must be maintained,” said Dababseh.
But water expert and international consultant Valerie York argues that “the amounts of water/brine channelled into the Dead Sea would be a fraction of the amount required to compensate for annual decline in Dead Sea levels.”
“Moreover,” she says, “such a Red Sea Dead Sea link could lead to environmental disaster.”
Citing the World Bank’s feasibility study, York told IRIN in a telephone interview that the mixing of the two seas’ waters (the introduction of brine into the Dead Sea) “could produce a chemical reaction that would possibly create gypsum and algae”.
Last month, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation issued a statement warning that it is already concerned about “meeting people’s needs” for drinking water this summer after the country received only 31.3 percent of its long-term average annual precipitation this winter (rainy season), which left its dams at 43 percent of their capacity.
“With few additional resources within the country that can be developed to narrow the gap, Jordanians could face absolute water poverty with only 90 cubic metres per head per year by 2025,” writes York in a working paper.
York and many environmentalists argue for an alternative solution to Jordan’s water problems: stronger regional water sharing and better use of existing resources. Many experts worry the pipeline scheme will not provide enough water, and will take years to finish, as Jordan’s water crisis continues to deepen.
Ranked as at best the fourth most water scarce country in the world, Jordan has an annual per capita supply of 145 cubic metres, down from 360 cubic metres in 1946, which was two years before Jordan welcomed many of the 700,000 Palestinians who fled the 1948 war.
Groundwater, which makes up 54 percent of total water supply, is challenged by “unsustainable abstraction” due to “population growth and agriculture expansion”, according to the government’s 2010-2022 water strategy. Water experts warn that groundwater sources in Jordan are over-exploited by up to 200 percent of the safe yield level.
“Ten out of the 12 groundwater sources in Jordan are facing over-extraction, sometimes at about twice their recharge rate,” said Atef Kharabsheh, from the International Research Center for Water, Environment and Energy at the Balqaa Applied University.
“This is alarming as the population continues to grow,” he said.
Things are not any better above ground: Jordan’s access to surface water is limited and is subject to trans-boundary water agreements. Jordan has long accused Israel of over-pumping the Jordan river, which is now highly polluted, and has also claimed that neighbouring Syria violates a 1987 agreement on sharing of the Yarmouk river.
“Syria built over 47 dams over Yarmouk river, which obstructed Jordan's access to it,” said Dababseh.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Jordan has received more than 1.3 million Syrians. Over 600,000 of them are registered as refugees with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
This has added tremendous pressure to the country’s limited water resources. Zaatari camp, which is home to 92,000 Syrians, consumes over a million litres of water every day, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The result has been delays and even interruptions to state water supplies to Jordanians, provoking protests and riots, especially in northern governorates, where more than 80 percent of Syrians reside in host communities.
Even purchasing water has become “impossible” for some Jordanians. “We beg the trucks to stop and sell us some water, but they continue their way to the camp [Zaatari],” said Ahmad Maseed, a resident of Mafraq city in Jordan.
“Things were never that bad two years ago,” he added.