Jordan scrambles to deal with water scarcity
Amman - Acute water shortages often put Jordan in awkward political positions, having to negotiate with Israel to lend it supplies or with international donors to bankroll ambitious water plans.
With the United Nations saying climate change could dry up water resources in several Middle East countries within two decades, Jordan is looking for immediate and long-term solutions to provide drinking water for its people.
Water pumped through the state network to Jordanian households has been rationed to one day a week since the early 1980s. To cope during the rest of the time, Jordanians store water in bins on the roofs of their homes.
“We call it ‘water day’, whereas the government calls it ‘water rationing day’,” Amman bank employee Samar Ghazi said.
“This is the day when we run all our household chores such as cleaning and washing,” she said. “Water is a serious challenge to us. The situation is not easy at all. We worry about water shortages more than anything else.”
In the Jordan river valley, the country’s food basket, no water is pumped during the torrid summer, when temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius on average. Farmers buy water from private firms to irrigate crops.
In the Dead Sea, which is shared with Israel and the Palestinian territories, the level of water has been receding 1 metre per year since 1990, threatening an ecological disaster to the world’s ancient treasure.
The receding water is blamed on evaporation and Israeli industrial projects on the western side of the 50-kilometre sea stretch.
Experts warn that the Dead Sea, a hypersaline lake that boasts minerals and mud used for skin treatments and where the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to be buried, will become extinct by the year 2050.
“As the world is anxious about receding water resources, Jordan is already there and has been suffering from acute shortages for several years”, said Water Ministry spokesman Omar Salameh.
He said Jordan was the second poorest country in terms of water in the region after Bahrain.
Covering an area of 97,000 sq. kilometres, of which 91% is arid land, Jordan lacks the rivers of neighbouring Israel, Syria and Iraq and the expensive desalination plants of Saudi Arabia. It depends on rainfall for its drinking and municipal water needs. However, the region has been hit with a drought in recent years. Jordanians complain of a persistent water deficit. The reasons include the drought; water lost in a rusty 60-year-old network, which is being rehabilitated; and water theft by farmers and even households, schools and others who illegally tap underground wells.
Jordan needs 1.4 billion cubic metres of water per year, of which a maximum of 850 million cubic metres is available through various sources, which include supplies from Israel under a 1994 treaty.
With a 500 million cubic metres annual deficit, a 2.2% annual population growth and tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, Jordan opted for a short-term plan that had Israel storing about 50 million cubic metres of water for its neighbour each year to help with the problem.
The water is considered Jordan’s rightful allocation of the Yarmouk river, which is shared by Syria. The supply is pumped to Jordan in the summer, when need increases.
A medium-term plan has Jordan drawing water from under the southern desert in al-Dissi, the country’s only strategic basin with supplies estimated to last 100 years.
Currently, 50 million cubic metres are pumped in a 280-kilometre pipeline to Amman, home to about 30% of the country’s population of 7.5 million. The pipeline is to be extended to northern districts by 2017. It will then provide 100 million cubic metres of water per year.
A long-term ambitious plan involves building a 250-kilometre canal from the Red Sea north to the Dead Sea, to be financed by the World Bank, of $900 million.
Initially, Israel had insisted on having the water drawn from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea in a canal passing through its territory, clearly to keep Jordan and the Palestinians in check.
However, Israel back-pedalled under pressure from the United States, Jordan’s long-time ally which is financing several wastewater treatment and other water plans across the kingdom.
The three-year “Red-Dead Project”, as it is widely known, envisages a desalination plant in Aqaba on the Red Sea. It would provide fresh water to Jordan and replenish the shrinking Dead Sea, where sink holes — some as deep as 50 metres — appeared on the seashore in the past few years.
Under the agreement, the Aqaba desalination plant would produce about 80 million cubic metres of water annually. Israel would buy part of it at preferential prices with the rest going to Aqaba. The pipeline, however, is projected to pump 300 million cubic metres of water annually to the Dead Sea.
An influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in their country hiked water demand by 20%, according to Salameh. He said the ministry has been cracking down on water theft since 2013, dismantling 14,805 illegal fixtures and sealing off 616 wells across the country.
Recently, an Amman court sentenced a water violator to three and a half years in prison and a fine of $500,000 in the first ruling of its kind in the kingdom.