Only a few hundred meters separate Jordan’s arid terrain in the north from Syria’s lush fields across the border.
The kingdom’s more powerful neighbor has, for decades, been exploiting water from the Yarmouk River, building dams and digging wells for agricultural use, leaving barely a trickle to reach its water-starved southern neighbour, despite a water-sharing plan originally conceived in 1953, then amended in 1975 and later in 1987. But none of these plans was ever implemented.
After a compromise agreement reached between the two countries in the late 1990s, following a period of relative thaw in diplomatic relations, Jordan built the much-delayed “Al Wehdah” (Unity) Dam on the Yarmouk river, to supply 50 million cubic meters (mcm) of water to Amman and 30 MCMs of irrigation water to the Jordan Valley. The dam, which cost $95 million, was completed in 2006, and has the capacity of 110 MCMs. But with the Syrian side reneging on its commitments, and continuing almost full exploitation of the river waters and groundwater, only a meagre 3 MCMs are currently held in the dam, financed primarily by a loan from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.
“They have an abundance of water on the other side [of the border], and their farms are lush,” said Shadi Dahamsheh, who owns a farm near al-Shajara, a northern village overlooking the Syrian borders. He laments that apart from Syria consuming most of the river waters before it reaches Jordan, the government in Amman also bans farmers from digging wells in to irrigate their farms.
With no hope of getting its share of the Yarmouk River waters, Jordan had to look elsewhere to solve its water shortage crisis, in addition to clamping down on illegal water at the home front.
The government says it is trying to crackdown on unlicensed wells and illegal water use, which are costing it 100 mcm of unaccounted for water every year.
But hydrologist and member of the Royal Water Committee Elias Salameh, says that the government has also contributed to the depletion of the country’s aquifers by depending on drilling groundwater wells and commissioning drilling licenses to farmers in the past two decades.
Recognised as one of the world’s most water-deprived countries, Jordan uses up to 900 mcm of water every year but is short of 500 mcm. The recently inaugurated Disi pipeline, which cost USD1 billion to build, is expected to provide the country with an additional annual supply of 100 mcm for another 10 years.
Now that the pipeline is pumping water to northern metropolises at full throttle, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation has launched several campaigns against illegal wells dug up by big farmers to siphon water. Most recently, the ministry said it caught 131 drilling machines digging up illegal water wells on state-owned land. There are currently 1,363 illegal wells in Jordan, mostly in the governorate of Mafraq and also in the Zarqa-Amman basin.
“If we take the area of south of Amman for example, the violations in this network, on its main line, cost us 10 mcm per year, the same amount serving the governorate of Irbid,” said Adnan Zoubi, ministry of water and irrigation spokesperson.
“Now the government is slowly working on persevering water by adding meters and persecuting people who are stealing water, but the issue needs good law enforcement,” said environmental expert Batir Wardam.
“Due to the dire economic and political situation, the police are either not interfering to enforce the law on the most basic things in the country,” Wardam explained. While there are attempts by the government to address this, “they sometimes come under tribal pressure and influence, which lessens the success of these campaigns. But there is a will there to enforce the laws even if the means were not adequate to deal with the magnitude of the problem.”
Zoubi says that the government is now more adamant in its campaigns against water theft. The gendarmerie, desert forces and the water authorities “are all working together to confront belligerent farmers and bring them to stop stealing water.”
Approximately 508 mcm of drinking water are being extracted form Jordan’s wells, twice the safe level of 275 mcm, according to water experts.
The government adopted a water-rationing program in the early 1980′s, pumping water to households for 24-48 hour weekly intervals.
Other attempts by the authorities to save water proved to be futile. The government invested in rehabilitating the water distribution network over the past years, but hydrologist and member of the Royal Water Committee Elias Salameh says that hundreds of millions were spent to fix the network, only to find out “that actual physical losses were very little, and that most of the water was stolen.” The amount lost before it reached customers accounts for approximately 6% (54 mcm) of the country’s annual water supply.
Water harnessed from the Disi aquifer, located in the southern most part of Jordan and is shared with Saudi Arabia is expected to close in on the widening gap between the demand and supply of water during the coming decade.
“These 100 mcm might keep pumping for another 50 years but with the population increase, the per capita share will decrease, because the resources are fixed,” said Zoubi. “It’s positive effect will last until 2020, so we have to look for other alternative sources of water that can meet the increase in the water deficit.”
Salameh says that in light of Jordan’s water situation, the decision to go forward with the Disi project was wise, but should have been, perhaps, developed differently.
He says the government should have adopted a more comprehensive view of planning before thinking of extending a costly 325 km long pipeline across Jordan. The alternative, he says, would’ve been to build an industrial city in the south, close to Aqaba port and the Disi aquifer, creating job opportunities for Jordanians living and working there.
“This kind of thinking would have saved us the costs of building the [Disi] pipe to Amman and moved the population to where the water is,” said Salameh. “But this is already too late.”
Wardam describes the Disi water project as “a temporary relief option,” that will merely reduce the water deficit, not root out the problem.
“The Disi doesn’t mean that now we can enjoy more wasting of water,” said Wardam.
The country’s annual water consumption currently stands at 900 mcm, approximately 40% of which is used as drinking water. Disi water is expected to increase the availability of drinking water by 30%.
But architect and conservationist Ammar Khammash, who’s also studied geology at Yarmouk Universtiy, rejects grand engineering schemes such as the Disi pipeline project, and argues that the solution for Jordan is much simpler. He suggests building tens of dams in Amman and its vicinity that would harness rainfall water and recharge the aquifers situated below the city.
He says the idea is to catch fresh water during the rain season at the highest locations possible and as close as to where you need the water, rather than transporting it from hundreds of kilometers away, a solution that includes the added costs of pumping and maintenance.
“I think I’d rather look at the simpler, whispering intelligence of the landscape below Amman, and work on that,” says Khammash. “It is the reason why Amman [became a city] historically, [we] could work on this fantastic aquifer collection system that we have, and help it with new technology and hybrid solutions.”
A study conducted in 2006 by two professors from the University of Jordan and the former minister of water and Irrigation, Munther Haddadin, compares the actual share used by a Jordanian to comparative averages in the region. The study estimate that after subtracting the amount of non-revenue water by regarding it as lost and unused water, the average Jordanian uses 70 litres per day – well below the average in other countries – 840 for Kuwait, 280 for Israel, and 120-140 in Iraq Syria and Egypt.
The cabinet announced earlier this year plans to go forward with the Red Sea water desalination project unilaterally, which was previously proposed as a tripartite project between Jordan, Palestine and Israel to desalinate sea water and pump resulting brine into the dehydrated Dead Sea.
The project is expected to cost $980 million and would provide Jordan with an additional 100 mcm of water.
The goal of the collaborative project was to get the three countries cooperating on an environmental project that would primarily rehabilitate the Dead Sea, but also produce drinking water and generate electricity at affordable prices for the three countries. The World Bank conducted a study looking into the feasibility of the project, in addition to its environmental and social impacts.
The study, which cost USD16 million, found that all six-project configurations are technically economically feasible, and that the “environmental and social impacts can be managed to an accepted level,” but favored the pipeline conveyance combined with a high level desalination plant.
“The study was presented but they kept delaying it depending on the political climate,” said Zoubi. “Jordan now can’t wait anymore because it has a strategy, if it doesn’t find additional water sources by 2020 the water deficit will increase.”
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said in August that Jordan would sell Red Sea desalinated water to Israel and buy approximately 50 mcm of drinking water from the Tiberias lake reservoir annually. Jordan would sell Israel water at a rate of JD 1.00 ($1.4) per cubic meter and buy from Israel at a rate of JD0.3 ($.50) per meter, since water from the Tiberias Lake will need treatment.
“There will be some sort of exchanging benefits between the two countries, said Zoubi. He adds that the two countries agreed to this because Israel needs more water in the South, while Jordan is short of water in the North.
Salameh believes that Israel wavered in its decision to go forward with the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project because of other more appealing and readily available options within its boundaries. Setting up desalination plants along the coastal line of the Mediterranean Sea that would supply the entire country, and eventually Israel will dispose of the Tiberias Lake as a water resource.
Unlike seawater, water from Tiberias Lake has a value. By selling Tiberias water to Jordan, Israel will be making profit that would cover the cost of desalinating free Mediterranean sea-water, explained Salameh.
Syrian dams on the Yarmouk River inhibit the flow of water to Jordan, and hinders hopes of sharing the region’s water resources as per agreements between the two countries.
Salameh believes that Syria is a major problem, and is the main cause of water shortages in north of Jordan.
Former water minister, Mousa Jamani, also expressed similar sentiments last year, stating that a resolution is yet to be reached to end Syria’s encroachment on Jordan’s water allocation from the Yarmouk River, which forms a segment of the border between the two countries.
Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel agreed to the principles of the US-guaranteed “Johnston Plan” of 1953, under which Jordan was allotted 375 mcm per year. But the agreement was abrogated in 1987 upon Jordan’s Prime Minister Zaid al-Rifai’s visit to Damascus. He signed a new agreement that brought down Jordan’s share to 200 mcm per year, which Salameh says Syria is not committed to either. Jordan now receives no more than 40-50 mcm per year.
“In the meantime Syria had built 20 weirs along the Yarmouk’s sources, taking in more than 60 percent of the total,” said Salameh. “So instead of (Rifai) signing [the new agreement] he could’ve said, stop, you are not allowed to build dams.
Jamani told the Jordan Times in 2012 that the number of Syrian dams increased by two fold, from 26 to 48, since the agreement was signed in 1987.
With the number of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country topping 600,000 so far, and expected to reach one million by the middle of next year, the world’s 4th poorest country in water resources is expected to suffer even more shortages than it had anticipated two years ago. The Disi project may have provided a temporary relief, but only for a few years.
Omar Khalil, a Jordanian farmer from the northern city of Irbid near the Syria border summed up the feelings of many Jordanians: “First they (the Syrian government) take our water, then they force their people to flee to our country. Hope things there will change to the better for us and the Syrian people… may God help us all.”
This story was produced as part of the Governance project, a reporting program in Jordan organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with “ARIJ” Network – Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.”
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