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Q&A with Tawfiq Habashneh, Secretary General of the Water Authority of Jordan
Jordan was already one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, but the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees has placed additional strain on the country’s dwindling water resources. Fanack Water speaks to Tawfiq Habashneh, Secretary General of the Water Authority of Jordan, about supplying water to a growing population.
What are the key challenges facing the Jordanian water sector?
As the third most water-scarce country in the world, Jordan faces unique challenges, specifically the combination of water scarcity and the unequal distribution of water. The country’s main water resources are far removed from the population centres. The transport of water over long distances and, more importantly, between sources that are situated at low elevations and users who are mainly located at higher elevations is very costly.
For example, the recently completed Disi Project transfers water from the south-east of the country over a distance of 360km to Amman. We also transfer water to Amman from the Jordan Valley through the Zai Project and the Zarqa-Ma’in Project. Such projects are very costly, especially in terms of operation costs and electricity as the water has to be pumped uphill, but they are essential to safeguard the water supply for the population of Amman.
The large influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 has also put considerable pressure on the country’s water resources. The refugees are present across the country but they are concentrated in the north, especially in Mafraq Governorate. The Water Authority of Jordan estimates that around 22% of the country’s overall water production goes to Syrian refugees. If you look just at the northern governorates, we estimate that it is 35%.
What do you see as the solutions? How can the government deal with all these combined challenges: the natural scarcity, the pressure from population growth, decreasing supplies?
Projects like Disi that I mentioned earlier are very important. Since it was opened in 2014, we have received an additional 100 million cubic metres per year. We have also drilled many wells in the northern governorates to increase groundwater supply in these areas.
But isn’t that causing over-abstraction of groundwater resources?
This is undeniable. But we have no choice. Water is necessary for survival; you can wait to get electricity, you can wait to get food, but you can’t wait to drink.
What about issues of water pollution in the context of the refugee crisis?
This has also been a problem. The largest refugee camp in the north of Jordan, Zaatari, is located on the best groundwater aquifer in the area. Wastewater is collected in septic tanks and then taken for treatment to the Al-Ekeder treatment plant in the south of Jordan. We are also about to operate two mobile units with the support of UNICEF in Zaatari, which will allow us to treat water locally and reuse it in agriculture.
Many refugees have also settled outside the camps, in towns and villages in the north. Is this putting pressure on municipal services and local communities?
Definitely, this is a huge problem. The population of a town like Mafraq, which had around 65,000 inhabitants before 2011, has doubled to more than 130,000 inhabitants. This is creating a major problem for water supply and the processing of wastewater. Apartments that used to house a family of four or five now accommodate up to 50 people. Obviously the network can’t cope with this.
How is the local community coping?
The influx of refugees has affected all aspects of life for host communities. Not just the water sector, but also health, education… Schools now run double shifts because there are too many pupils. It also affects social structures: before, if a young man wanted to get married, he could rent a small apartment for around $70. Now you pay more than $350 for the same space. The [monthly] minimum wage in Jordan is $270 and these are generally poor communities so people cannot afford these prices.
How does Jordan plan to address this situation in the long term? On the one hand this is an emergency, but the crisis in Syria is unlikely to end soon so there also needs to be a strategy to cope with the increased demand for water and other services.
We can’t predict the future. Obviously we hope the situation will improve and the refugees can return home soon, but in the meantime we have to do whatever we can. This is a question of humanity: there are children, women, elderly people crossing the border and they have lost everything.
Over the past two years and with support from the international community, we have been able to implement a number of projects, but it is not enough. It is increasingly clear that we also have to provide support to the host communities who are often impoverished and struggling to make ends meet. It is important we address this in order to avoid growing tensions between the refugees and local communities.