Refugee influx worsens Jordan’s water woes

Thousands fleeing war in Syria have compounded shortages.

Jordan Syria refugees
Young Syrian refugees fetch water in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan last February [Getty Images]

Amman, Jordan – Najeem Azzoubi, a heavy-set Jordanian in his mid-60s, is upset. Before Syrian refugees began arriving in droves in 2011, water was delivered once a week to his home in the northern Jordanian town of Ramtha.

Then, as more and more Syrians fled their country’s civil war, squeezing into apartments and occupying empty stores in Jordan, water grew scarcer. Now, Azzoubi says, water comes every 14 days and “has stopped being enough”.

Nearly half a million Syrian refugees are living in Jordan, according to official statistics from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). But many Jordanians, officials included, insist that about one million more have taken up residence in cities and towns throughout Jordan, whose population stood at about 6.3 million before the crisis.

The rapid population increase – 1,000 to 2,000 refugees cross into Jordan daily – has left the Jordanian government and local authorities struggling to keep up with the demand for its scant water resources, even as the country is considering drastic solutions to increase its water supply.

Water experts also point out that Jordan’s water sector has long been in need of reform, even before the refugee influx. It remains to be seen whether Jordan’s Syrian “guests” will push Jordan from a shortage to a full-fledged crisis, as so many Jordanians claim.

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Malik Rajdan, director of Ramtha’s water authority, is more reserved than Azzoubi, but no less concerned. “We have a refugee camp inside this city,” he pronounced soberly in an interview, deliberately stressing the word “inside”.

Another official said a water crisis could be imminent.

“We live in a chronic water problem,” said Hazem Nasser, Jordan’s minister of water. “And we are now at the edge of moving from a chronic water problem into a water crisis. The element that will trigger this movement is the number of Syrian refugees.”

Acute scarcity

One of the most water-scarce countries in the world, Jordan has an annual per capita water supply of 145 cubic metres, according to the government’s most recent water strategy. Countries with less than 500 cubic metres per person per year are classified by the United Nations as having an “absolute scarcity” of water.

Fifty-four percent of Jordan’s water supply comes from underground aquifers, which are being depleted at twice the rate of recharge. Jordan runs a water deficit of about 450 million cubic metres per year, and the quality of water overall, both surface and ground, has “deteriorated significantly because of pollution”, noted the most recent United Nations World Water Development report, published in 2012.

To alleviate water shortages in the longer term, Jordan is expected to begin experimental pumping from the Disi aquifer shared with Saudi Arabia. It is also considering a controversial project conveying water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and Amman, to supply parts of the country with desalinated water from the Red Sea.

In the meantime, to accommodate the spike in water demand, Jordan has begun drawing on additional water resources, including buying water from private wells. It is estimated that the extra demand on water and sanitation services would cost the Jordanian government more than 500 million dinars ($706m) per year, even as Jordanians receive less water per capita.

Northern governorates have been particularly hit hard by the refugee influx, noted Nasser. “A good part of the water that is usually allocated to these governorates is now, by force, shifting to the refugees, which is causing a water shortage problem all over these governorates.”

Ali Abu Summagah, director of the water authority in Mafraq, estimated that 110,000 Syrian refugees were living in Mafraq city alone, with at least as many in surrounding villages. To meet the extra demand, Mafraq has rented five private water wells and has also begun trucking water – an extremely expensive proposition – to surrounding villages.

He estimated that residents each receive less than 70 litres of water daily. In contrast, the USGS estimates that US residents each use up to 378 litres per day.

There is a limit to how much you can pump annually from aquifers, because you need to wait for the rainy season to replenish them ... You come to a point where the underground water is salty. That's when you lose that aquifer forever.

by - Munqeth Mehyar, president of Friends of the Earth Middle East's Jordan branch

“We are working 24 hours, in shifts,” said Abu Summagah. If pipes start to leak and “we leave it, some people will never have water”. People in and around Mafraq are “very tired from the shortage of water”, he added. “It’s going to be a hard summer for us.”

The Syrian refugees are having a hard time. For a month-and-a-half, Rathia, 39, and her nine children have been living in Ramtha, in a store-turned-apartment, empty save for a few mats and cushions. Rathia said she buys water to drink and wash every day, adding she is able to shower only once a week.

It’s not only low water quantity that plagues Jordan: low quality is also an issue.

Munqeth Mehyar, president of the Jordanian branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East, noted a large aquifer lies under Zaatari refugee camp. Eventually, he predicted, the aquifer will be damaged. “We’re talking about half a million people with all their sanitation effluence – so it will definitely find its way to the aquifer,” he said.

Nasser, the water minister, voiced similar concerns.

Yet not all agree. Kitka Goyoi, a specialist in water, sanitation and hygiene for UNICEF, which is responsible for overseeing facilities in Zaatari camp, including trucking 3.5 million litres daily there, called the risk of such pollution “very, very low”.

“We decided to do a study to look at the risk of pollution on the groundwater in Zaatari as a result of the activities in the camp,” he said. “We do not directly dispose of wastewater into the ground, and studies have shown that, if there is a travel time of up to 50 days from the top of the ground to the groundwater, any germs within the water will die off.”

He said UNICEF’s study, which is currently being finalised, showed that the minimum travel time for such water in Zaatari was 90 days.

Pre-existing challenges

Even without the refugee influx, Jordan’s water sector needs major reforms, said Mehyar. Sixty percent of Jordan’s water is used by the country’s agricultural sector, according to the UN water report, although agriculture makes up just 3 percent of Jordan’s gross domestic product.

At current rates of consumption, Jordan’s existing ground water reserves cannot last forever. “There is a limit to how much you can pump annually from aquifers, because you need to wait for the rainy season to replenish them,” Mehyar explained. “You come to a point where the underground water is salty. That’s when you lose that aquifer forever.”

But such concerns have not stopped Jordanians from illegally digging private wells. Nasser confirmed that, in recent weeks, he had confiscated two drilling machines being used to dig such wells, noting hundreds of others exist throughout the country.

And in parts of Jordan that don’t feel the water crisis as sharply, some wealthy residents have their cars washed every morning.

“Cleaning cars with an open hose,” Mehyar sighed. “You always find an Egyptian doing that, and I tell him: ‘Look, man, we don’t have a Nile in our backyard, so what are you doing? A bucket of water will be enough.'”

Follow Elizabeth Whitman on Twitter: @elizabethwhitty

Source: Al Jazeera