A Line in the Sand: Jordan’s Water Crisis

You would not be able to tell unless you knew, of course. It does not matter where you are – in an air-conditioned hotel room; a pre-booked taxi or an Uber; a fancy restaurant hidden in lush greenery just off Al-Rainbow Street or in a falafel shop with plastic cutlery – but a bottle of still water will be duly offered to you, very often brought along with food and no questions asked. It is just assumed that you would like a bottle of water and Jordan will deliver accordingly. By the time we left our small unpretentious hotel in a quiet neighbourhood in Western Amman, there were more unopened bottles of water in our room than what we had encountered upon arrival. You will come across some very decent bathrooms in the desert, luxurious swimming pools dotting the Dead Sea’s shore, and royal family portraits in decorative fountains – and all of this in a country desperate for water.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan covers some rather inhospitable terrain with sand, sun and under-25s as its main nondepletable resources. Given that most of the country is some sort of desert, one could expect water to be in high demand. Yet what makes the water crisis in Jordan particularly interesting, at least to foreign observers, and urgent to anyone facing it daily is the fact that it both reinforces and is reinforced by a variety of local, national and regional dynamics with some on the brink of explosion. While one may hope for this to remain a figurative expression, the Jordanian government with the royal family at its helm are acutely aware of how quickly a fire spreads in such a dry climate. Despite various efforts to address the escalating situation, however, water poverty remains a deeply troubling, albeit frequently under-reported internationally, issue which can be expected to continue to develop links with a variety of plights battering the Levant. This article will provide an overview of some of the major factors which exacerbate the water crisis in the Hashemite Kingdom as well as demonstrating how drinking water shortage on the one hand, and social, political and economic trends on the other, are interconnected. While the discussion does not claim to offer a practical solution to the problem explored, it aims to unpack the multi-faceted nature of the crisis and to highlight that addressing water poverty is likely to be at the heart of Jordan’s multiple challenges.

Climate Change: a Global Challenge

First things first though. There are various ways to measure desperation, but having some numbers tends to help. Jordan’s freshwater per capita availability has dropped dramatically to currently being less than a third of what is internationally considered the level of absolute scarcity, shrinking by about 96% over the past 75 years.[i] The Kingdom is among the top five countries in the world experiencing the most pressing water shortage; it also belongs to the group of the ten driest countries in terms of annual precipitation.[ii] Jordan is heavily dependent on underground water in aquifers which supply most of the resources used in the country as well as on its surface water from the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. It has been noted that both rainfall and groundwater levels have been in a long-term decline although this is not the only reason for the critical situation the country faces.[iii] Probably the most obvious explanation for such a sad state of affairs is climate change and subsequent droughts, the frequency and severity of which have made the already difficult conditions even more challenging to adapt to.

One may be surprised by the fact that others are surprised by a drought in a desert. Equally, it may be tempting to assume that the inhabitants of such seemingly unwelcoming lands must surely be equipped to weather hostile conditions, especially given the fact that droughts, however severe, are ultimately a temporary phenomenon. Yet one of the key difficulties environmental scientists, and everyone else affected, are having to grapple with is the tradition of poor record keeping. Limited scholarly literature on weather patterns in this corner of the world makes it next to impossible to reliably establish which droughts should be considered ‘normal’ and what is an extraordinary situation, when to expect a dry season and how long it may last.[iv] The same applies to all other climatic manifestations, such as rainfall.[v]

It is true that the Jordanian state acknowledges the importance of having access to this vital data and is thus determined to collect it for future use.[vi] However, sustaining life in a harsh environment depends on regularities and predictable cycles here and now, the luxury many Jordanians are unable to afford. Crop cultivation and animal rearing are becoming untenable, which has forced many people to make the frequently irreversible decision of selling whatever they may have and moving to larger cities such as Amman and Irbid in the hope of a better life for themselves and their children, and more water.[vii] Sadly, too often both of these expectations are dashed with poverty, marginalisation and resentment becoming the new everyday reality among rural migrants. Climate change and dwindling natural resources do not feature extensively in radical Islamist discourse, but socio-economic ills do although it is controversial to claim that they single-handedly generate the appeal of dogmatic religious interpretations.[viii] Jordan cannot tackle either of these global challenges on its own, and there are multiple reasons, however self-interested, for the international community to be keen on assisting the struggling country. While there may be scientific merit in the argument that climatic shifts are a recurring natural phenomenon, Jordan is not in a position to prove it right or wrong; it is running out of water and time, fast. 

Regional Dynamics: down the Drain

Regardless of how much of a priority addressing climate change manifestations is considered to be, ultimately, not many life transforming changes can be implemented overnight, and a consistent medium- to long-term policy approach complemented by global effort would be required to achieve tangible gains. Yet severe and frequent droughts is not the only aspect which, while being out of the Kingdom’s direct control, has profound implications for its water resources. As though being a desert country was not enough, Jordan finds itself in a geographically disadvantageous position when compared to its neighbours. A downstream state, it has been adversely affected by water management decisions taken by Israel and Syria with regard to the Upper Jordan River and Golan Heights, and the Upper Yarmouk basin, respectively, which has led to a decrease in the amount of water reaching the Kingdom.[ix]

As far as Syria is concerned, Jordan seems to be on the losing side regardless of regional politics. It is indeed the case that irrigated farming activities in Syria have been significantly affected by the ongoing conflict, which has meant more water in the Yarmouk – Jordan river system. Despite this, however, some argue that under the best case scenario of moderate environmental change and limited Syrian agriculture the inflow Jordan is projected to receive in the near future is half of what it normally would a few decades ago.[x] While the amount of surface water has temporarily gone up, so have Syrian refugees. Jordan has witnessed and welcomed multiple refugee waves since the mid-1950s, priding itself, and rightly so, on its people’s hospitality. However, while this behaviour still remains the norm rather than an exception, the population in the northern communities of Jordan has skyrocketed with some fearing violence sparked by competition for already strained resources such as water.[xi] Additionally, local tensions are exploited by officials who tend to present the refugee issue as the key reason behind Jordan’s water crisis instead of recognising its complex nature.[xii] Having said that, such simplistic discourse could equally be aimed at attracting the attention of, and financial assistance from, the West. Overall, while it is evident that an increased population leads to growing demand for basic necessities, it is clear that the Kingdom’s water poverty is caused by multiple factors, with the most recent arrivals from Syria having exacerbated but not created it. 

In the South, Jordan has access to the Gulf of Aqaba, but despite the fact that water desalination is sometimes presented as a panacea to drinking water shortages, the process is generally costly and has historically been inaccessible to the countries of modest means such as Jordan. It is, however, becoming more cost-efficient, which could be evidenced by the mega-project initiative involving Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Red Sea – Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. The basic premise of this undertaking is desalinating water from the Red Sea in Aqaba and transferring it to Israel who in return will supply more water to Amman from the North.[xiii] An additional benefit of the project is expected to be its positive effect on the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea: the brine produced during the desalination process is hoped to keep the Dead Sea alive.[xiv] Given the Levant’s geopolitical circumstances, which are routinely conditioned by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some view the fact that such a consensus (or any consensus for that matter) has been reached as a historic milestone, both in terms of water availability and regional peace.

While the Red Sea – Dead Sea Project and the hope it gives to cooperation based on the need which does not recognise borders, ethnic and religious differences, and past conflicts is promising, this solution could exacerbate as many problems as it claims to resolve. At the environmental level, there is scepticism regarding the extent to which this initiative can contribute to saving the Dead Sea. Furthermore, not everyone has been convinced by its safety standards, and a technical fault could have devastating consequences for groundwater reserves among many other potential victims.[xv] Some argue that as long as the project is well planned and executed, all of these issues can be mitigated against.[xvi] Yet in a country where nothing unites people as much as anger with rampant corruption and where the notions of pavement and traffic lights do not seem to resonate with the public, one would require a lot of optimism to hope for impeccable project management – nothing less, however, will do.

The above does not even start to unravel the project’s Israeli-Palestinian dimension. While international cooperation is believed to contribute to regional stability, if not peace based on mutual interdependence, there is very little discussion on how this will happen.[xvii] Large-scale projects may bring closer the technocratic elites of the three parties involved, but it has been noted that the controversial issues of water rights and land control have been shelved, at least for now (expect this ‘now’ to last), with the Palestinians having been marginalised in the negotiations process. This has led some to argue that the Red Sea – Dead Sea Project is more likely to perpetuate the current conflict rather than adding to its resolution,[xviii] which in turn may serve as further inspiration to Jordanian domestic opposition groups looking for something to throw in the government’s face. While this latter internal dynamic has been characterised by recurrent yet temporary peaks,[xix] one is left to wonder how long the country has before this relationship gets out of control – the droughts already have.

On the National Stage: Drama Season

Now let us take a step back. My guess is that if asked what they know about Jordan, the majority of those who are not acquainted with the region are unlikely to have much on offer other than Petra, a renowned UNESCO site. Do not take me wrong – this is a good ‘not much’. When it comes to places such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and many others collectively referred to as the Middle East, the world seems to have produced an innumerable number of self-proclaimed experts sharing unlimited content on everything ranging from women’s rights to international migration to religious law. Having an interest in Jordan, both academic and lay, I feel rather lucky – the competition seems to be lower here. More importantly, the Hashemite Kingdom is often considered an island of serenity and calm with easily-identifiable pro-Western attitudes in the regional sea of violence and lawlessness filled with ideational inflexibility, which probably accounts for the country’s somewhat low ranking on everyone’s agenda. This, however, is not to suggest a lack of dramatic storylines unravelling in its national arena: in a way, everything which has been explored so far is only a setting for internationally low-profile but intense dynamics with many adding yet another dimension to the Kingdom’s water crisis.

The Jordanian government has introduced multiple reforms to address the drinking water shortage with some success in reducing the amount of free water allocated to farmers and in clamping down on illegal wells.[xx] The former may appear rather harsh given the difficulties highlighted above, but the agricultural sector is estimated to contribute less than five per cent to the country’s GDP while consuming around half of its water supplies.[xxi] Additionally, the Amman water infrastructure has been upgraded, which has led to fewer leaks and decreased water theft, and to more water recycling; despite the progress, over-pumping groundwater remains a problem.[xxii] Some suggest that this results from the state’s short-sighted approach to water management. The Zarqa governorate in Eastern Jordan has been able to partially revive the Azraq oasis, a highly rated destination and a wildlife sanctuary. Yet it has been noted that while such initiatives may be good for migratory birds, they deplete groundwater resources at an alarming rate without providing tangible benefits to local dwellers, who often choose to leave the area anyway.[xxiii] This could be linked to the fact that employment opportunities for the predominantly young, male population outside large cities are disappearing with the army having become the main and sometimes only source of reliable income.[xxiv] While defence and internal security are routinely considered an employment bonanza for regime loyalists, there is a limit to the numbers these sectors can absorb. As a result, people leave either because they cannot find work or because they can and are deployed elsewhere. Thus it may be tempting to interpret the state’s actions not simply as an isolated case of water mismanagement but as evidence of more systemic failure to address the developmental stagnation of rural Jordan. 

The question of employment constitutes a significant theme in the overarching debate on what the Jordanian state’s responsibilities to its citizens are, which plays out rather interestingly in the Red Sea – Dead Sea Project. As mentioned above, one of the key reasons why this undertaking is expected to result in more stability is its focus on technocracy within the general neoliberal framework which promotes privatisation and economic gain for all parties. These trends are in turn believed to have a depoliticising effect on regional dynamics.[xxv] It has already been demonstrated that this assumption is at best questionable; furthermore, domestically such initiatives have potential to ignite highly political issues. The Jordanian monarchy’s enthusiasm for liberal reform has been pleasing the International Monetary Fund since the late 1980s. This, however, has also meant significantly curbed capacity to provide for its citizens, especially those who have traditionally supported the Hashemite monarchy and become accustomed to preferential treatment when it comes to state benefits such as public sector employment and extensive subsidies.[xxvi] Ultimately, if the Jordanian state insists on addressing water poverty primarily within a commercially-oriented framework, an approach the Red Sea – Dead Sea Project exemplifies, it risks adding fuel to the various grievances which are driving the traditionally loyal segments of the Jordanian society to take their discontent to the streets (or directly to the palace), something the country had not witnessed until relatively recently. 

Inadequate water provision, both in major urban centres, but even more so in the countryside, coupled with the gradual disappearance of the traditional safety net has led to rampant corruption, a phenomenon which unites the Jordanians in their fury like nothing else.[xxvii] Although dealing with illegal wells is on the government’s agenda, many boreholes are still run by well-connected tribal leaders and businessmen with the state very hesitant to intervene. Furthermore, the Jordanians complain about poor water quality, unreliable state water delivery and unreasonably high costs charged by water tanker operators (a common fall-back option in the countryside).[xxviii] Some believe that all of these indirectly related failings represent a string of self-enrichment opportunities for those involved in overseeing national water delivery although evidence is lacking to demonstrate that this is anything more than the opportunism of a few.[xxix]

So far, a rather bleak picture has been painted, but it does not have to be so – as a country expected to fall since 1946 (the year it was established as a fully independent state), Jordan is adept at demonstrating that nothing is inevitable. A few years ago an initiative called ‘Water Wise Women’ was implemented, thanks to financial support from the Germany’s Agency for International Cooperation. The project was inspired by the fact that in the highly traditional society that Jordan is, male plumbers are unable to access a household to fix a water leak if there is no male family member to let them in.[xxx] While this may seem like a minor factor compared to the grand challenges discussed above, the country loses scandalous amounts of water as a result of such incidents.[xxxi] It was thus proposed to train women as professional plumbers who would not only attend to daily plumbing issues but also raise awareness of the water crisis and various ways to ameliorate it domestically. The results have been very encouraging with a fall of up to 40% in household water consumption as well as the forming of an all-female cooperative which now services public institutions.[xxxii] Additionally, while the project is mainly aimed at Jordanian women, it has also welcomed a number of female refugees from Syria.[xxxiii]

One, however, should preach caution. The project currently faces insufficient funding to continue its work at the initial level, let alone expanding to attract women from across the country. Participants are not paid for their work, and the initiative does not actively explore employment opportunities with the cooperative being an exception. This echoes the point that Jordan remains socially very conservative, and many, both men and women, find the idea of female plumbers rather controversial.[xxxiv] In a way, undertakings such as Water Wise Women can come across as putting a plaster on an infected wound. Having said that, we may be witnessing a deeper, more powerful transformation than is routinely acknowledged. Jordan is a country where women have been ‘honourably’ murdered by their family members for socialising with unrelated men. It is a country where until very recently a rapist would avoid punishment by marrying his victim; it is a country where the former is always a ‘he’ and the latter – a ‘she’. Yet Jordan is also a country which in response to its traditional gender dynamics has decided to give its women a toolbox, and most people seem to have swallowed the pill however bitter they expected it to taste. The gravity of the water shortage has sunk in, and the importance of the robust action which may trump cultural sensitivities has been recognised. What is needed now is a pragmatic, long-term strategy informed by scientific findings and responsive to the population’s needs which go far beyond the Kingdom’s water crisis.

Conclusion: Who Draws the Line

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a truly fascinating country which has been able to negotiate its way out of an extensive catalogue of crises since its founding. What it lacks in various quantifiable resources, it makes up for in its people’s creativity, hospitality and generosity. Yet there are certain challenges which will require more ingenuity and determination than ever before, and the water crisis is one of them. From the farmer to the businessman to the King, tough decisions will have to be made. Short-term, unsustainable gain currently seems to be driving the agenda when it comes to both water poverty and various social, political and economic developments connected to it. Something which should be kept in mind is that Jordan may not have an alternative to the short-term; those presently in charge may not have the option of ‘after me, the deluge’ (a rather unlikely scenario in any case). While there are multiple factors such as climate change and neighbours’ internal politics over which the Kingdom may have little control, there are other, domestic challenges which state and non-state actors should focus on. The success, however modest, in the latter has potential to secure popular backing for attempts to rethink and to renegotiate Jordan’s role in the former. Ultimately, as this article has tried to demonstrate, the links between the water crisis and other dynamics explored by the author are too intricate to be dealt with separately, let alone to be ignored. Just as water provision can be expected to be a factor in Jordan’s relations with Israel, it is equally likely to be affected by national and international migration patterns as well as the government’s will and ability to (mis)handle widespread corruption. What remains to be seen is the extent to which water poverty will be prioritised in these very difficult conversations. Alas, this is a topic for another discussion.  It took me some time to determine whether a question mark was needed at the end of the conclusion’s title. Now it is Jordan’s turn to decide how to read the lines in the sand: as either the indiscernible remnants of a dried up current or as the heralding of a new stream.

[i] E. Whitman, ‘A Land without Water: the Scramble to Stop Jordan from Running Dry’, Nature, Vol. 573, 2019, pp.20-23.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] D. Rajsekhar and S.M. Gorelick, ‘Increasing Drought in Jordan: Climate Change and Cascading Syrian Land-Use Impacts on Reducing Transboundary Flow’, Science Advance, Vol. 3, No 8, 2017, pp.1-15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] P. Schwartstein, How Jordan’s Climate and Water Crisis Threatens Its Fragile Peace’, Climate and Security, [website], 2019, <https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/09/climate-water-security-and-jordans-fragile-peace/>.

[viii] M. Hafez, Why Muslims Rebel. London: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

[ix] D. Rajsekhar and S.M. Gorelick, ‘Increasing Drought in Jordan: Climate Change and Cascading Syrian Land-Use Impacts on Reducing Transboundary Flow’, Science Advance, Vol. 3, No 8, 2017, pp.1-15.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] P. Schwartstein, ‘How Jordan’s Climate and Water Crisis Threatens Its Fragile Peace’, Climate and Security, [website], 2019, <https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/09/climate-water-security-and-jordans-fragile-peace/>.

[xii] C.R. Ryan, Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

[xiii] E. Whitman, ‘A Land without Water: the Scramble to Stop Jordan from Running Dry’, Nature, Vol. 573, 2019, pp.20-23.

[xiv] D. Markel, et al., ‘The Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Feasibility Study, 2008-2012’ in N. Becker, Water Policy in Israel: Context, Issues and Options. Dordrecht: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

[xv] E. Whitman, ‘A Land without Water: the Scramble to Stop Jordan from Running Dry, Nature, Vol. 573, 2019, pp.20-23.

[xvi] D. Markel, et al., ‘The Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Feasibility Study, 2008-2012’ in N. Becker, Water Policy in Israel: Context, Issues and Options. Dordrecht: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

[xvii] K. Aggestam and A. Sundell, ‘Depoliticising Water Conflict: Functional Peacebuilding in the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project’, Hydrological Sciences Journal, Vol. 61, No 7, 2016, pp.1302-1312.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] C.R. Ryan, Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

[xx] E. Whitman, ‘A Land without Water: the Scramble to Stop Jordan from Running Dry’, Nature, Vol. 573, 2019, pp.20-23.

[xxi] M. Maghayda, ‘Jordan: Water Resources & Environment’, USAID, [website], 2020,<https://www.usaid.gov/jordan/water-and-wastewater-infrastructure>.

[xxii] E. Whitman, ‘A Land without Water: the Scramble to Stop Jordan from Running Dry’, Nature, Vol. 573, 2019, pp.20-23.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] P. Schwartstein, ‘How Jordan’s Climate and Water Crisis Threatens Its Fragile Peace’, Climate and Security, [website], 2019, <https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/09/climate-water-security-and-jordans-fragile-peace/>.

[xxv] K. Aggestam and A. Sundell, ‘Depoliticising Water Conflict: Functional Peacebuilding in the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project’, Hydrological Sciences Journal,Vol. 61, No 7, 2016, pp.1302-1312.

[xxvi] C.R. Ryan, ‘Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State’, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] P. Schwartstein, ‘How Jordan’s Climate and Water Crisis Threatens Its Fragile Peace’, Climate and Security, [website], 2019, <https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/09/climate-water-security-and-jordans-fragile-peace/>.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] O. Chalaby, ‘Jordan is Solving Its Water Crisis by Training Women as Plumbers’, Apolitical, [website], 2017, <https://apolitical.co/en/solution_article/jordan-solving-water-crisis-training-women-plumbers>.

[xxxi] M. Maghayda, ‘Jordan: Water Resources & Environment’, USAID, [website], 2020,https://www.usaid.gov/jordan/water-and-wastewater-infrastructure.

[xxxii] A.V. Ibáñez Prieto, ‘JOHUD’s “Water Wise Women” Wins Best Water Conservation Project’, The Jordan Times, 9 May 2018.

[xxxiii] O. Chalaby, ‘Jordan is Solving Its Water Crisis by Training Women as Plumbers’, Apolitical, [website], 2017, <https://apolitical.co/en/solution_article/jordan-solving-water-crisis-training-women-plumbers>.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

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