‘Catastrophe’ faces Jordan’s water sector as climate heats up

Decreased rainfall and depleted groundwater sources mean water has become an increasingly scarce resource in Jordan.

Some Jordanians, such as Majidah Naser, build wells to help supply their additional water needs [Melissa Pawson/Al Jazeera]

South Ghor, Jordan – When Aida Deissat started farming with her husband 30 years ago, she says life was easy.

“There was water. A box of Jordanian tomatoes was eight dinars,” Deissat recalled. “We were blessed and things were good. Right now, nothing.”

Deissat explained that now, four boxes of tomatoes would earn her just one Jordanian dinar.

“These last years [it has been worse] but this year we really felt it,” she said.

Deissat, the former head of the local council for South Ghor Municipality in the southern Jordan Valley, shares a water spring with her neighbouring farms. The farmers take turns to pump groundwater from the spring to supplement the limited government supply, which runs for about 17 hours every two days.

She explained the extra water source has made a difference, however, the spring requires cleaning and maintenance, and when the electricity cuts out, they cannot pump the water.

Amal Um Radaat, who runs a neighbouring farm with her husband in South Ghor, said even this extra groundwater is not enough. “Today I might farm and there will be water. Another day, I can’t farm because there is no water,” she said.

Um Radaat added she and her husband are currently losing money from their farm, and have had to take out loans to finance their business. “We can’t leave the land empty just like that,” she said, shaking her head.

“No one knows what to grow any more. The tomato yield is bad, and onions are the same. Every farmer in Al Ghor is at zero.”

As world leaders meet in Scotland at COP26, the issue of increasing water scarcity is high on the agenda. According to UNICEF, Jordan is the second most water-scarce country in the world, and water levels have been falling in recent years.

Aida Deissat started farming this land with her husband 30 years ago, but conditions have worsened recently [Melissa Pawson/Al Jazeera]

‘Physical and administrative gaps’

The Ministry of Water and Irrigation’s 2016-25 National Water Strategy states each person in Jordan has access to about 61 litres (16 gallons) per day, with a further 65 litres (17 gallons) per person being lost because of “physical and administrative gaps”. By contrast, the average American uses more than 350 litres (92.5 gallons) of water per day.

Jordanians receive their water supply from the government anything from twice a week to once in two weeks, with the water being stored in tanks on rooves or in garages for use until the next delivery.

Some households resort to buying extra tanks of water from private companies when their water tanks run dry. However, with many in the kingdom unable to afford to buy tanks of water, this has led to a disparity in water access between the rich and the poor.

A resident of Deir Alla in Jordan’s Balqa governorate, who asked to remain anonymous because of his job in the Amman municipality, said he did not receive his water supply for about four months this year.

He explained that, because of this, he has had to buy four water tanks at 10 dinars ($14) per tank, plus the cost of the water. “We are disgusted,” he said. “Yesterday, my aunt had to take a tank of water from me just to drink. She doesn’t have [the money] to buy [an extra tank].”

Majidah Naser, an architectural engineer living in Irbid in the north of Jordan, said she has not received water for two weeks. “I have started to use my rainwater collection,” she said, adding the municipality informed her the supply will resume in the next two weeks.

Naser has a well in her garden, which she draws water from when the water from the government runs dry. “[I use it] so that I can survive. Otherwise, I have to go to buy a tank of water, and it’s expensive.”

Like this, Naser said she thinks she can survive for “maximum two weeks”.

The system of tanks on Naser’s roof that stores water for her house [Melissa Pawson/Al Jazeera]

Depleted groundwater

Increased temperatures and lower rainfalls, plus a rapid growth in population over the last decade because of arrivals of refugees from neighbouring Syria, have seen water become an increasingly scarce resource in Jordan.

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned without intervention, climate and population changes could see almost all low-income households in Jordan having access to as little as 40 litres of piped water per person per day by the end of the century.

“The water management during the last six, seven decades has been crisis management,” said Elias Salameh, former professor of hydrology and hydrochemistry at the University of Jordan, and member of the Royal Committee on Water.

“You plan something, you start to implement, you have a refugee wave, you resort to crisis management, your original programme is not implemented and so forth,” he explained.

Salameh added the effects of population increase and climate change have all been exacerbated by poor policy. “There is no long-term planning,” he said.

“Groundwater levels are depleting, and all our surface water resources are being utilised … The only way to increase our water resources is desalination. There is no other way for the country,” Salameh said.

Aida Deissat, Amal Um Radaat and Naifeh al-Nawasrah on the onion plot of Deissat’s farm [Melissa Pawson/Al Jazeera]

Win-win situation

With Jordan’s own desalination projects having faced delays and funding losses, the country recently agreed to increase its water imports from Israel.

In July this year, Israel and Jordan reached a deal for the sale of an unprecedented 50 million cubic metres (13.2 billion gallons) to Jordan, effectively doubling the existing amount. The deal also intends to boost exports from Jordan to the occupied West Bank.

“Israel is number one in the world in desalinating water on the Mediterranean,” said Yana Abu Taleb, Jordanian director of EcoPeace Middle East, an environmental organisation operating in the West Bank, Israel and Jordan. “They’re producing excess water, more than they need.”

She explained Jordan’s ability to produce solar energy could mean a renewable energy exchange with Israel creates a “healthy interdependence”.

“Jordan [could] produce renewable energy in exchange for the desalinated water on the Mediterranean,” Abu Taleb said. “And this is a win-win situation for all.”

Abu Taleb added that water issues between Israel and Palestine could be addressed first without holding them hostage to “final status issues”. However, she stressed that interim water agreements are not meant to negate Palestinian water rights.

“[We see] climate change as a multiplier of opportunities rather than as a risk multiplier,” she said.

Aida Deissat and Amal Um Radaat pick fruit on Deissat’s farm [Melissa Pawson/Al Jazeera]

Dependence worries

Some have expressed fears that dependence, rather than interdependence, will be the outcome of the water agreement. “Importing water from Israel, it may serve the purpose for one or two years,” said Salameh, “but we should not depend on another country in our drinking water supply.”

Citing the existing gas deal with Israel, which was met with widespread condemnation from Jordanians last year, Salameh said additional dependence for water will be “a killing factor for [Jordan]”.

“Go desalinate at Aqaba under Jordanian territory and Jordanian authority,” he stated. “And I hope we will get better rainfall this year, otherwise it will be a catastrophe.”

Mahmoud Oran, general director of the Jordan Farmers Union, also raised concerns about the agreement. “Nobody is comfortable to buy water from any country. In this case, you are faced with the water from your neighbour who you dislike,” he said.

However, some Jordanians have expressed that they cannot afford to refuse the deal. Naifeh al-Nawasrah, a farmer and head of the Women’s Association in Ghor al-Safi in south Jordan Valley, said, “I don’t know the details of the agreement between Israel and Jordan, but there has to be an agreement.”

“Us [farmers], and the companies, we need water. We should benefit from this,” she added.

Omar Salameh, the official spokesman for the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, declined to comment further on the details of the water agreement. However, he stated that the national water carrier is expected by 2027. The proposed project will desalinate about 300 million cubic metres (79 billion gallons) of water from the Red Sea and convey that water to governorates around the country, he said.

“Until we do the national carrier, desalination for the water from Aqaba, we will face a shortage of water and we have to deal with it,” Omar Salameh stated.

While the national water carrier is a measure that EcoPeace “encourages”, Abu Taleb said the plan is not sufficient alone. “It’s not going to be enough to meet our water demands.”

Instead, she explained that the plan has to be part of a wider strategy, which also includes securing other sources of water, sustainable agriculture, reducing water losses and reforming the water sector.

Until then, many Jordanians are concerned about the future, with water scarcity fast being considered a potential source of future conflicts in the region. “I am terrified,” said Naser. “Either we will have a war – it’s coming, if no solutions are there … And still, our people are sleeping.”

Source: Al Jazeera