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Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Jordan Water Report

Petra, Jordan - Water in Jordan
Photo 1: Ad Deir (Monastery) in Petra, Jordan. (Credit: Ruben Vermeer)

Contributors:

Author: Fanack’s Water editorial team

Peer review: Dr. Majd Al Naber is a specialist in integrated water resources management (irrigated agriculture) and water policies for arid lands. Currently, she is the team leader and senior researcher for the sustainable development pillar at the WANA Institute. She took an interdisciplinary approach in managing projects and developing studies related to a sustainable environment, governance, security, and climate change.

Introduction

Throughout history, water has been central to life in Jordan (Map 1), and the presence or absence of water has played an important role in shaping the geography of human settlements across the territory. Historically, engineering skills have been wisely used to provide water to the country’s inhabitants, as evidenced by the archaeological sites of Petra and Jerash.[1] Water is important today not only for drinking but also for agriculture, economic development and social structures.

As the second driest country in the world according to the latest United Nations (UN) data,[2] the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan faces a deepening water crisis. The Jordanian population is among the most water-deprived globally. As UNICEF put it, ‘Jordan’s annual renewable water resources are less than 100 m3 per person, significantly below the threshold of 500 m3 per person which defines severe water scarcity’.[3] Internationally, water availability below 1,000 m3 per person per year is defined as water scarcity, while below 500 mis considered absolute scarcity.[4] Jordan’s lack of water resources impacts the country’s economic growth, with potential implications for public health as well as political stability and national security.[5]

At the same time, demand for water continues to rise, putting huge pressure on the country’s water resources. The growing gap between supply and demand is mainly due to rapid population increase, the rising standard of living and agricultural expansion, as discussed in detail in the next chapters.

Map of Jordan - Water in Jordan
Map 1: Jordan and its neighbours. @Fanack water

Geography and climate

Covering a total area of 89,342 km², Jordan lies in the heart of the Middle East. It borders Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The country has a combination of semi-arid and Mediterranean climates. Annual precipitation varies from less than 50 millimetres (mm) in the eastern and southern desert regions to 600 mm in the northern highlands.[6]

In general, Jordan has warm, dry summers and mild wet winters, with annual average temperatures ranging from 12°C to 25°C and summertime highs reaching 35°C in the desert.[7] Precipitation falls predominantly in the winter. Occasionally, heavy rainstorms cause flash floods of short duration in surface watercourses (wadis) (and 3). Part of the precipitation recharges the groundwater systems.

The country has a diverse range of geographical features:

  1. The Jordan River Valley, which runs from north to south and stretches from the western border to the desert plateau in the east.
  2. The highlands, made up of a range of small hills running the length of the country from north to south.
  3. The Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth at about 430 metres below sea level.
  4. Semi-arid desert, which covers 92% of the country, mainly in the east.
water evaporation in Jordan - water in Jordan
Map 2: Annual open water evaporation. @Fanack water
rainfall in Jordan - water in Jordan
Map 3: Annual average rainfall and precipitation. @Fanack water

Population

Jordan’s population has risen substantially, from around 400,000 in 1946, when the country became an independent nation, to over 10 million in 2020.[8] The population growth rate is amongst the highest in the world and is heightened by periodic surges of mainly refugee immigration caused by regional conflicts.[9] Finding solutions to increasing water demand in general and domestic demand in particular is becoming more difficult as a result.

Amman is the capital of Jordan and the largest city, with a population of over 4 million people.[10] Due to rural-urban migration as well as massive immigration waves, Amman’s population has grown more rapidly than elsewhere in country and with it, its water demand (Map 4).

Population in Jordan - water in Jordan
Map 4: Population density in Jordan. @Fanack water

Political context

Politics have played a major role in shaping the water situation in Jordan. Owing to a history of regional instability and conflicts, Jordan received millions of refugees from Palestine following the nakba in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967, from Iraq following the 2003 war and from Syria in the past decade (Map 5). The influx of refugees has been and continues to be a major contributor to population growth, further widening the gap between water supply and demand.[11]

Geopolitics have also affected Jordan’s water supply. Most of Jordan’s water resources (surface and groundwater) originate outside the country’s borders and are shared with neighbouring countries: Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Syria. This adds an element of uncertainty to current and future water availability and makes Jordan vulnerable to external political dynamics. For example, Jordan’s downstream position along the Jordan River and the Yarmouk River has created a divisive power dynamic among riparians (countries that share the same surface water resources), mainly Israel and Syria. This has impacted Jordan’s access to and control of water resources throughout its history.[12] This will be discussed further in Shared Water Resources.

refugees in Jordan - water in Jordan

Map 5: Overview of successive refugee waves into Jordan. Source: Fanack after Altz-Stamm, 2012.

Economy

Because of limited natural resourceslow water availability and often suboptimal management of these resources, Jordan’s economy is among the smallest in the Middle East. The government is heavily dependent on foreign assistance to bridge the budget deficit and support development. High rates of poverty, unemployment and government debt are persistent economic challenges.[13]

Despite regional conflicts and domestic tensions, the Jordanian government has introduced some fiscal reforms that are expected to boost revenues and reduce the budget deficit, including the launch of Jordan 2025, a national strategy to grow the economy. The strategy was introduced even as the influx of Syrian refugees put additional pressure on expenditures.[14]

[1] AbdelKhaleq, RA and Alhaj Ahmed, I, 2007. ‘Rainwater harvesting in ancient civilizations in Jordan.’ Water Science and Technology: Water Supply 7(1): 85-93; Lichtenberger, A and Raja, R, 2020. ‘Management of water resources over time in semiarid regions: The case of Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan.’ Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 7(1), e1403.
[2] UNICEF, n.d. Water, sanitation and hygiene – Access to safe water and sanitation for every child.
[3] Ibid.
[4] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2004. Changing Unsustainable Patterns of Consumption and Production. Experiences in Human Settlements and Water. Background Paper No. 11.
[5] MWI (Ministry of Water and Irrigation), 2017. ‘Jordan Water Sector Facts and Figures 2017’.
[6] Nortcliff, S et al., 2008. ‘Jordan’s water resources: Challenges for the future.’ Geographical Paper No. 185, 1-24; Al-Kharabsheh, A, 2020. ‘Challenges to sustainable water management in Jordan.’ JJEES 11(1): 38.
[7] Freiwan, M and Kadioglu, M, 2007. ‘Spatial and temporal analysis of climatological data in Jordan.’ International Journal of Climatology 28(4): 521-535.
[8] The World Bank Data, n.d. Population, total – Jordan.
[9] Zeitoun, M, 2009. ‘The Political Economy of Water Demand Management in Yemen and Jordan: A Synthesis of Findings’. WADImena Water Demand Management Research Series: 29-30.
[10] Department of Statistics, 2022. ‘Population estimates for the end of 2021.’
[11] Yorke, V, 2013. ‘Politics matter: Jordan’s path to water security lies through political reforms and regional cooperation’. NCCR Trade Regulation, Working Paper No. 2013/19.
[12] Hussein, H, 2017. ‘Whose ‘reality’? Discourses and hydropolitics along the Yarmouk River.’ Contemporary Levant 2(2): 103-115; Zeitoun, M et al., 2019. ‘The Yarmouk tributary to the Jordan River I: Agreements impeding equitable transboundary water arrangements.’ Water Alternatives 12(3): 1064-1094; Zeitoun, M, 2008. Power and Water in the Middle East. IB Tauris & Co Ltd.
[13] CIA, 2015. The World Factbook: Jordan.
[14] Government of Jordan, 2014. Jordan 2025 – A National Vision and Strategy.