Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Q&A with Professor Elias Salameh of the University of Jordan

Fanack Water speaks to Professor Elias Salameh of the University of Jordan about possible solutions to Jordan’s water crisis

Dead sea in Jordan at sunset
Dead sea in Jordan at sunset (Ruben Vermeer, 2018)

Jordan is confronting growing challenges when it comes to water resources management. Can you put the country’s water crisis in context for our readers?

Historically, Jordan is a naturally water-scarce country. It lies in a semi-arid climatic zone and therefore has only very limited water resources. In the past, when drought hit the area, people either starved or migrated to the north or east where water was available. They also had techniques, such as water cisterns, to collect and preserve water under harsh conditions.

Today, we live in a different world. While water use per person was just 5-10L per day in the past, it now exceeds 80L per person per day. If the population of Jordan had developed naturally over the past 70 years, scarcity may not have been a problem. But Jordan has had to absorb successive waves of refugees since 1948: first the Palestinians in 1948 and 1967, then the Iraqis and now the Syrians. The result is a sharp population increase, from 450,000 in 1945 to more than 8 million today.

As the population grew, the country started to develop its water resources intensively with the help of foreign technical experts and donors. As a result, Jordan’s water resources have been exploited to the limit and today there are no additional in-country water resources.

Our options for the future are limited: we are already recycling nearly 70% of our domestic and industrial wastewater and using the treated effluent in irrigated agriculture. The second area we are focusing on is increased efficiency in the agricultural sector, both in terms of conveyance systems and on-farm water-saving devices, but also crop choices and irrigation methods.

With that, all the domestic solutions are exhausted. Some say that agriculture – which still consumes 60-70% of water – should no longer be part of the Jordanian economy, but this isn’t realistic. There are socio-economic considerations tied to Jordan’s agricultural sector and these are highly complex.

But there is also some gain to be made by increasing network efficiency: cut down on leakages and illegal water connections.

There is indeed a big problem with water losses and the government is addressing this. Physical water losses are now in the range of 15%, which is not bad if you compare it to international standards. There is still work to be done, but we are in fair shape.

The government is doing its best to curb illegal water use, but it is a sensitive issue because many of these connections supply small farmers and families. So closing an illegal well can put a small farmer out of business. These are tough decisions but the government is not making any exceptions. Still, it is a process which will take some years to complete.

So what are the options for the future?

Realistically, desalination is our only option. The big question is where to locate the desalination facilities: should it be done through the Red Sea-Dead Sea (RSDS) Project, on the Red Sea coast or on the Mediterranean? Each of these options needs to be considered in its political and economic context. First of all, there is national security: is the country willing to put its water supply in the hands of the ‘old enemy’ and ‘new friend’ [Israel, ed.]? These are important considerations. But the Royal Committee on Water has been instructed by Prince Faisal that the country’s water and energy supply should be generated within the country.

With declining oil prices, desalination has become much cheaper but for how long? Atomic energy is also an option but where should the nuclear power plant be built? In the north, the south or in Aqaba? This is complicated, because Jordan lies in a tectonically active zone and there is a permanent risk of earthquakes.

What do you see as the most viable location for a desalination plant?

To me, the RSDS Project is fantastic. But I am not sure it will be implemented. I have a feeling the Israelis are more in favour of basing the desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea and transferring water from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea or the Jordan River. The problem here is that the Jordanians don’t want to place the future of their water supply in foreign hands.

I have suggested that instead of transferring desalinated water to Jordan, Israel should provide us with seawater, so that we can take care of desalination. That way we treat the water, use the hydropower generated by transferring it down to the Dead Sea and use the desalination brine to replenish the Dead Sea. The same could work for the Palestinians. But the Israelis desalinating and then selling us the water? That won’t work.

Whatever happens, whether it is the RSDS Project or a ‘Med-Dead’ Project, the Dead Sea has to be rehabilitated.

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written by
Mohammed Abdullatif
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