By Sulafah Shami | 16 December, 2013
(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A flood of Syrian refugees is threatening to turn Jordan’s chronic water shortage into a crisis, stoking tension among Jordanians already resentful of what they see as Syria’s unfair exploitation of shared water supplies.
Jordan has long accused neighbouring Syria of ignoring regional water sharing agreements, leaving most of the kingdom a virtual desert, but an influx of refugees fleeing Syria’s raging civil war is now straining its scant water resources to breaking point.
“First they (the Syrian government) take our water, then they force their people to flee to our country,” said Omar Khalil, a Jordanian farmer from the northern city of Irbid, near the border with Syria.
“Hope things there will change for the better for us and the Syrian people … or may God help us all,” he added.
The Jordanian government’s poor management of its dwindling water supplies has exacerbated the problem, say experts, who doubt the long-term viability and efficiency of state plans to boost water flows.
The Yarmouk River is the main tributary to the Jordan River, which forms the border between Jordan and Syria then Jordan and Israel. Experts say Syrian dam building on the Yarmouk has sapped flows to Jordan, contravening a 1953 water sharing deal.
Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel agreed in principle to the United States-backed Johnston Plan, under which Jordan was allotted 375 million cubic metres (mcm) per year, about enough to fill 150,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
However, the deal was never ratified and Jordan’s allocation was subsequently reduced to 200 mcm by mutual agreement. Yet it receives no more than a quarter of that amount.
“Syria’s building of dams on the Yarmouk River inhibit the flow of water to Jordan, and hinders hopes of sharing the region’s water resources,” hydrologist and Jordanian Royal Water Commission member Elias Salameh said.
“In the meantime Syria has built 20 weirs along the Yarmouk’s sources, taking in more than 60 percent of the total,” said Salameh.
While Jordanian authorities struggle to devise ways to conserve and increase water supplies, the number of Syrian refugees in the kingdom has swelled to an estimated 700,000 people, roughly 10 percent of Jordan’s population.
Officials expect that number to hit one million by the end of the year.
Jordanians have been subjected to water rationing rules since the 1980s, and use only a fraction of the water enjoyed by their neighbours in the region – an estimated 70 litres a day for the average Jordanian, compared to 840 litres a day in Kuwait and 280 litres a day in Israel.
Yet that has not stopped the kingdom of seven million people becoming the world’s third poorest country in terms of water resources, the influx of Syrian refugees bouncing the country up from fourth place, Jordanian officials say.
Making matters worse is the threat posed to underground aquifers by the sprawling Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, which houses more than 120,000 Syrian refugees.
The desert refugee camp is the world’s second largest, behind Dadaab in eastern Kenya, and has become Jordan’s fourth largest city.
Water and Irrigation Ministry Secretary General Bassem Tilfah this month said a study showed that sewage and waste from the camp threatened underground water sources nearby.
“The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous. We have floated bids to build water desalination plants to deal with this crisis before it’s too late,” he said.
“The infrastructure simply can’t handle the pressure,” he added.
Partly in response to growing resentment among Jordanians, U.N. aid workers last year started a programme to educate Syrian refugees accustomed to plentiful water supplies in their homeland about the scarcity of water in Jordan, and the importance of reducing waste.
In a loudly trumpeted bid to help alleviate the problem, the Jordanian government this summer inaugurated a $1 billion pipeline to carry water from the country’s ancient Disi aquifer in the south to Amman in the north and later to other Jordanian cities.
But the 325 km pipeline is a short term solution, and water experts question the project’s efficiency. The pipeline is expected to boost water supplies by 100 mcm a year, but only for 10 years, and even within that time frame flows are unlikely to keep pace with population growth.
“With the population increase, the per capita share will decrease … It’s positive effect will last until 2020, so we have to look for other alternative sources of water,” said Ministry of Water and Irrigation spokesman Adnan Zoubi.
Some experts say the government would do better to crack down on the rampant drilling of illegal water wells before embarking on more grand infrastructure projects.
The government spent millions of dollars in the past two years to revamp the country’s water distribution network, but found that most of the water that had vanished before reaching customers had been stolen rather than lost through leaks.
The theft amounts to about six percent of Jordan’s annual water supply.
“The police are sometimes either not interfering to enforce the law or are simply unable. They sometimes come under tribal pressure and influence,” environmentalist Bater Wardam said.
Jordan’s battle to quench the nation’s thirst will be an ongoing one, and water experts and environmentalists are keen to see greener and more efficient solutions than the Disi pipeline.
Salameh said a new city should have been considered close to the Disi aquifer, creating new opportunities and jobs for the southern region, rather than pump the water hundreds of kilometres north, incurring expensive long-term pipeline maintenance costs.
Architect and conservationist Ammar Khammash proposed a different solution, which involved building dams around Amman to catch rainwater to recharge the hilltop city’s ancient aquifers.
“I think I’d rather look at the simpler, whispering intelligence of the landscape below Amman,” he said.