Home / Jordan’s scarce water reserves under pressure from refugee influx

Jordan’s scarce water reserves under pressure from refugee influx

Palestinians, mainly from the West Bank, were the first large group of refugees to settle in the kingdom. The main influx of Palestinian refugees occurred after the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967. They were initially housed in tent camps, which were gradually replaced by brick houses. Many Palestinian refugees have adopted Jordanian citizenship and left the camps to settle in cities such as Amman, Irbid, Salt, and Zarqa. Nonetheless, more than two million Palestinian refugees were still registered at the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in January 2014. Around 370,000 Palestinian refugees in Jordan live in ten refugee camps, which are located mainly in the north-west of the country (UNRWA, 2014).

Truck delivering water at Zaatari camp (source: Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan)
Truck delivering water at Zaatari camp (source: Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan)

The influx of Palestinian refugees strained Jordan’s water resources. The refugee camps needed a domestic water supply, as did Palestinians settling elsewhere. The camps receive water from municipal networks and newly drilled wells managed by local authorities. Some camps receive additional water supplies that are delivered by truck and sourced from private wells. In certain camps the production of well water is limited by declining groundwater tables and the deterioration of water quality, as untreated wastewater from the camps enters the local aquifers. The Jordanian government has taken appropriate action by constructing wastewater collection networks and treatment plants at the camps, but there is still a risk of groundwater pollution.

In smaller numbers and later than the Palestinians, Iraqi refugees have also settled in Jordan, in two main waves. The first influx was after the Gulf War in 1990, when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein stepped up repression, and the second influx occurred after the US-led invasion in 2003. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 750,000 to 1 million Iraqi refugees have entered Jordan over the years. Many are middle- and upper-class citizens and few camps have been established for Iraqi refugees. Instead, Iraqis have settled mainly in urban areas, where they use the municipal water supply systems and wastewater collection networks. A number of wealthy Iraqis have bought large rural properties in Jordan, where they consume large amounts of water for irrigation purposes, thus placing heavy pressure on local water resources.

The most recent wave of refugees comes from Syria, where millions of people have been displaced following the outbreak of violent conflict in 2011. After Lebanon and Turkey started hosting the first Syrian refugees in 2011, Jordan started providing refuge to those fleeing the fighting in the country’s south in early 2012. According to UNHCR, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan had reached nearly 620,000 by the end of October 2014. However, this figure does not include refugees who have not registered at UNHCR or the nearly 14,000 Palestinian refugees who previously lived in Syria and have been forced to flee the violence. With the assistance of relatives and friends across the border, most refugees have been absorbed in the northern cities of Ajlun, Irbid, Jerash, Mafraq, and Ramtha; others found refuge in the major cities, such as Amman, Salt, and Zarqa. Nonetheless, the Jordanian government, with the assistance of UNCHR, has established four refugee camps (Fig. 6.5) at Zaatari (see below), Marjeeb al-Fahood, Cyber City, and, most recently, Azraq. The camps, which hosted a total of around 100,000 people in 2014, have a limited water supply. Water is usually delivered by tanker truck after being drawn from municipal wells near the camps, causing additional stress to local aquifers. The wastewater in the camps is collected at stations and transferred to septic tanks from which the water is transported to the nearest treatment plant. As the camps were only built recently, few wells and wastewater treatment plants have been built in the compounds themselves.

The Syrian refugee crisis has further stretched Jordan’s water supply and wastewater treatment systems. In addition to increasing the stress on local aquifers, water supply facilities are also struggling to cope, especially at the four camps where nearby municipal wells are scarcely able meet the growing demand. A proposal by Germany’s Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) to increase water availability in the camps from the current 25-35 L/cap./d will place additional pressure on municipal wells and water treatment facilities, especially at local treatment plants that are already overloaded. The Jordanian authorities, including the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, and the international aid agencies intend to improve the water situation at the recently completed Azraq camp. By drilling new wells for the camp and transporting wastewater to a new treatment plant, the pressure on existing facilities will decrease, which will benefit both the local population and the refugees in the camp.

Baqaa camp

The Palestinian refugee camp at Baqaa is located about 20 km north-west of Amman in a topographic depression of four by ten kilometres with an internal surface water drainage system (i.e. with no natural outlet at the surface). The area is underlain by unconsolidated sediments and semi-consolidated sandstones of the Kurnub Formation, which are part of the Deep Sandstone Aquifer System. The sandstones form an excellent open aquifer containing fresh groundwater of good quality.

Groundwater-level decline in well AL 1430 in the Baqaa area (source: Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan)
Groundwater-level decline in well AL 1430 in the Baqaa area (source: Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan)

The Baqaa area was allocated to Palestinian refugees who left the West Bank after Israel annexed the area in 1967. Before the establishment of the camp, the area was used for rain-fed agricultural production. At that time, only a few wells had been drilled for drinking and irrigation water. Vegetables were produced with little or no use of fertilisers or pesticides. The construction of the camp transformed this agricultural landscape into a vast built-up residential area with narrow alleys where stone houses are set close together. Schools were built, health care introduced, and water supply and wastewater services established. By 2014, UNRWA registered just over 100,000 refugees in the camp.

The water supply at the Baqaa camp is complex and comes partly from wells drilled into the Kurnub sandstone at the western margin of the built-up area. Well water for household use is distributed by a simple supply network to Baqaa camp, under supervision of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation and managed by the local authorities. When the local well is out of operation, water is transported from Amman Municipality. In addition, private wells have been drilled near Baqaa. The pumped water, which is transported by truck, is sold to Baqaa residents who are not connected to the supply network.

The extraction of water from the Baqaa wells (and other agricultural wells) is exhausting the groundwater resources in the Kurnub sandstone aquifers. The water levels in both the upper and lower aquifers have dropped during the last few decades by an average of 0.5 m/yr, as reflected in the groundwater level records of observation wells, such as well AL 1430 that is drilled into the upper aquifer (Fig. 6.6). Water quality is also a problem at Baqaa. As a result of the high permeability of the unsaturated zone, any surface pollution migrates down to the water table (depth: 70-150 m) of the pumped aquifer in such a short time that pollutants cannot be removed adequately by adsorption or breakdown. Another problem is the high iron content of the groundwater, which is probably exacerbated by the falling water tables. The iron in the water increased to levels above the standards adopted by the Jordanian government, and water at the camp well is currently treated before it is distributed into the supply system (Fig. 6.7).

Since the establishment of the refugee camp, pollution from the camp’s wastewater has been a threat to the Kurnub Aquifer in the Baqaa area. When the impact of the establishment of the refugee camp on the aquifer was first recognised in the early 1980s, a sewerage system and wastewater treatment plant were built in the camp in order to protect the groundwater from pollution and reduce damage to the aquifer. Although pollution levels decreased with the introduction of the wastewater facilities, the threat of water-quality deterioration is still present as not all houses in Baqaa are connected to the sewerage system, the system itself is leaking in places, and there is agricultural pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. Wells that produced water from polluted parts of the aquifer were closed and cleaned, and pumping was only resumed after water was found suitable for household use.

Zaatari camp

Zaatari is a relatively new camp that was built in response to the worsening conflict in Syria. Since 2012, it has received tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and destruction in their home country. Like other refugee camps that were hastily built to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, Zaatari faces severe water problems as a result of the vulnerable physical environment of the camp and the attitude of its inhabitants.

The entrance of Zaatari camp near Mafraq (source: Hollandse Hoogte)
The entrance of Zaatari camp near Mafraq (source: Hollandse Hoogte)

The camp is situated about 10 km east of Mafraq and about 8 km from the Syrian border in a relatively flat desert landscape, in the northern part of the Zarqa Basin. Below the soil and surface sediments, the surface geology of the area consists of basalts belonging to the Shallow Aquifer Systems. At greater depth, the basalts are underlain by limestone and marls of the Upper Cretaceous Aquifer System. The basalts and limestone are productive aquifers with generally good water quality. Before the construction of the camp, the area was mostly uninhabited, and cattle grazing and some agricultural activities provided the main source of income for the local population.

Since the establishment of the camp in 2012, however, the population in the area has soared, inevitably putting pressure on local water resources. The camp has a logical, nearly circular, layout, in which tents and prefabricated buildings are grouped in several zones. Services were established, including an educational centre, schools, a hospital, a youth centre, and other facilities. By October 2014, the refugee population exceeded 80,000, making it by far the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

Refugees in the camp receive their domestic water supply mainly from containers that are regularly replenished by water trucks that draw water from municipal wells at Mafraq and Zaatari village (Fig. 6.8). In January 2013, this supply provided 80% of the water consumed. The remainder of the water was taken from a private agricultural well located near the camp. Truck water is tested to verify that it has been adequately chlorinated. As the population of the camp is rising rapidly, the partners responsible for water supply, including the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, the Yarmouk Water Authority, the German TWH and the French NGO Agence d’Aide à la Coopération Technique et au Développement (ACTED) have made plans to drill two new wells near the camp. The Yarmouk Water Authority has also proposed the construction of a pipeline.

The water pumped from Mafraq, Zaatari village, and agricultural wells for the refugee camp places extra stress on the already-overexploited basalt and limestone aquifers. As the camp has been operating for only a few years, the decline of the aquifer cannot yet be fully evaluated. The groundwater quality of the aquifers at the camp may also be affected, and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation has conducted a study to assess the risks (MWI, 2013). The main conclusion of the study is that pollution by wastewater at the surface was not a large risk for the saturated aquifer underlying the camp because of the great thickness (in the order of 200 m) of the unsaturated zone. Migration times for water percolating down from the surface through this zone to the aquifer are sufficiently long to allow pollutants to be removed. This assessment was based on a model study and may need to be verified in the field.

Nonetheless, while the camp’s wastewater may not form an immediate threat to the aquifers, it has to be dealt with properly to avoid health risks at the surface. The collection stations in the camps, installed mainly by TWH and ACTED, are supposed to handle the camp’s wastewater. From these stations the wastewater is transported to septic tanks, which are emptied as needed by trucks. The trucks deliver the wastewater to the nearby Al-Ekeder treatment plant. There are plans to install a treatment plant at the refugee camp or construct a pipeline to the plant in Mafraq. Although the early designs of the septic tanks were not optimal, the collection of wastewater has not been much of a problem from a technical point of view.

Another problem at Zaatari is that refugees do not feel responsible for the infrastructure and have, at times, damaged or destroyed the treatment facilities.

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