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Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Water Challenges in Jordan

Wadi Rum, Jordan - Water Challenges in Jordan
Photo 1: Wadi Rum, Jordan. (Credit: Ruben Vermeer)

Climate change

Experts predict that climate change will result in summer temperatures in the Mediterranean region rising between 2.2°C and 2.5°C. This will be accompanied by a 4% to 27% decrease in annual precipitation, increasing the risk of droughts. Increased evaporation and reduction in soil moisture will reduce surface and groundwater recharge.[1] This will, in turn, lead to a higher need for crop irrigation. Climate change is also expected to increase the number of extreme weather events such as rain and snowstorms, which can result in flooding. It will also cause greater variability in annual temperature extremes.

In the past decade, Jordan has experienced a series of extreme events caused by climate change. In 2018, flash flooding killed 21 people, among them 16 schoolchildren near the Dead Sea. Overall, precipitation is decreasing, but when it does rain, it does so with higher intensity.[2]

Jordan’s water supply will be significantly affected by these factors. Additional effects include increased risks of soil erosion, flooding, siltation of rivers, dams and reservoirs; increased salinity and year-on-year variability of water supplies; and reduced flows of major rivers such as the Jordan River (by up to 80%). All of these risks will have economic, health, and water and food security impacts.

To address these impacts, Jordan ratified the main international climate change-related agreements, specifically the Convention in 1993, the Kyoto Protocol in 2003 and the Paris Agreement in 2016. It also submitted three National Communication Reports in 1997, 2009 and 2014, a National Adaptation Plan in 2021, and developed Biennial Update Reports on climate change mitigation in 2018 and 2021. The Jordanian focal point on climate change is the Ministry of Environment.[3]

Financial capacity

Jordan has limited financial capacity to implement major projects. Hard choices need to be made and critical projects with low cost/benefit ratios should be targeted.

Increasing tariffs and taxes could help finance the maintenance of existing water infrastructure and the development of new projects. However, this is politically and socially sensitive, and substantial rate increases would probably not be feasible.

Jordan is largely dependent on external funding sources (e.g. foreign private enterprise, NGOs, foreign aid, foreign governments). However, foreign funders’ priorities are not necessarily in line with the government’s goals.

Water scarcity: understanding the problem

Jordan has struggled to bridge the growing gap between water supply and demand for several decades. Different aspects of supply management were discussed previously (Water Infrastructure and Water Management). Besides this, there are several other obstacles to effective water management. While a comprehensive discussion of these challenges is beyond the scope of this country file, the key issues are summarized below.

Leakage, water loss and water theft are a huge problem. An estimated 40% to 60% of the water supply is lost in the network, depending on the location. Inefficient administrative processes, outdated infrastructure and inadequate maintenance are the main culprits of this huge waste. Administrative issues include unbilled water use, illegal extractions from the system and metering problems (e.g. reading errors/inaccuracies, equipment failures, connections not metered). In some areas, lack of maintenance or poor quality of repair materials, limited penalties for illegal water use (no or ineffective law enforcement, no or very small fines) and a lack of public awareness and/or personal responsibility for water wastage also play a role.

However, the country’s geography also forms a challenge to water supply. Jordan’s key water resources (main rivers and aquifers) are generally situated at a considerable distance from the cities and agricultural areas, meaning that water needs to be transported between the source and the consumer, sometimes covering a great difference in altitude. Almost 80% of the population lives in cities in the northern part of the country, at elevations significantly higher than the main surface water sources. As a result, the Jordanian government has had to invest in an extensive and expensive water network, which needs to be constantly maintained and upgraded. The energy requirement and cost of transporting the water is also substantial.

Moreover, recent research has provided a clearer understanding of the different ways in which the issue of water scarcity is viewed. In fact, the issue of water scarcity can be framed in different ways, resulting in certain solutions being prioritized over others. According to this study, there are two main discourses of water scarcity and seven sub-discourses or causes that are more or less emphasized by the two discourses.[4]

The first discourse emphasizes the following four causes of water scarcity: climate change; low precipitation and aridity of the area; population growth and refugees; and the transboundary nature of most water resources. Consequently, the solution suggested by proponents of this discourse is to increase water supply to meet growing demand. Increasing supply would occur through the infrastructural mission of the state: constructing dams, desalination, and pumping and using fossil aquifers such as Disi.

The second discourse emphasizes the main causes of water scarcity as: non-revenue water due to leakages and physical losses; non-revenue water due to illegal connections, uses and wells; and the ‘unsustainable’ agricultural sector. The proposed solutions focus on the demand management side: repairing the water distribution network to reduce physical water losses; monitoring illegal connections and wells and closing such connections; increasing tariffs, especially for agricultural water use, and removing water subsidies; and introducing more guidelines on making agricultural use of water resources more sustainable (e.g. type of crops, irrigation technology, etc.).[5] In short, the study underlines the need to reflect on how we understand the problem, in order to be able to implement comprehensive and effective solutions.

Public awareness and education campaigns

Raising public awareness of the growing water crisis and engaging citizens in water conservation continues to pose a major challenge for the government. As water scarcity has been part of life for several decades, many Jordanians are not aware of the scope or severity of the problem. This is why education is important – not only to teach methods of water conservation but also to explain why it is so important.

The government as well as several NGOs and donors have launched initiatives in this direction, including mass media campaigns, school textbooks discussing the water crisis[6] and the necessity of changing behaviour at the domestic level, and trainings for and increased involvement of religious leaders. While most initiatives have focused on water use at the domestic level, future campaigns could also target the agricultural sector.

The National Water Strategy established several goals and measures to raise awareness of water scarcity and involve the Jordanian population in ways to mitigate its impact. The main international donors (USAID, GIZ, SIDA etc.) have also funded and developed a number of awareness-raising campaigns that targeted different sectors of society such as schools, households and communities as well as major cities.

For example, in February 2015, the US government provided a grant to the Jordanian government to launch a public awareness campaign in the Zarqa Governorate, in conjunction with water and sewage projects overseen by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation. The campaign slogan, ‘By Water We Live – We Preserve It to Survive’, encourages people to save water at home through a series of water-saving practices. Another campaign targeted religious leaders, encouraging them to discuss from a religious perspective the importance of not wasting water during their weekly sermons.

In addition, water scarcity and demand management concepts and practices have been introduced into school curricula to educate schoolchildren on the critical needs and practical responses available. Education at the technical (plumbers) and university level (a master’s degree in water demand management) has also been introduced.[7]