Land of No Rain: How Jordan Is Facing a Parched Future
Jordan is running out of water. The arid country has limited rainfall and a population that has doubled in the last 20 years, reaching over 10 million today. In 2019, it was ranked the fifth most water-stressed country in the world by the World Resources Institute. Middle Eastern countries make up most of the list’s top 1O.
Given this, Jordanian experts, researchers and scholars are trying to find solutions to the water shortage—including desalination of water from the Red Sea, changing irrigation practices, and treating wastewater to make it fit for agricultural use.
Jordan has tried to do its best with the water it has. “Water management in Jordan is a success story, considering the climatic, demographic, hydro-political and financial challenges we are facing,” says Marwan Alraggad, who heads the Inter-Islamic Network on Water Resources Development and Management (INWRDAM). Nonetheless, he adds, the country’s looming water crisis is undeniable. “There are not going to be surprises; there is not going to be good news.”
Over Pumping From Aquifers
The average per capita water consumption in Jordan is already low—about 80 liters a day, compared to 200 liters a day in many European countries and 130 liters a day in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Water is rationed, pumped to homes and businesses once a week and stored in tanks. In the summer months, many households supplement this with bottled water and water from private companies.
To meet its needs, Jordan has been over-pumping from its aquifers for decades. As reported in Nature magazine last year, today Jordan is over-pumping from 10 of its 12 aquifers, and groundwater is being drawn out at twice the rate that it can be replenished. It’s hard to even know how much is being drawn by thousands of illegal private wells.
Aquifers are underground basins of water that form over millennia, and some are nonrenewable, meaning the water that is pumped out will never be replaced. Jordan’s largest aquifer is expected to last no more than 50 more years.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate the country’s water shortage. A study by Stanford University’s Jordan Water Project estimated that under current conditions, rainfall in Jordan could decrease by 30 percent and temperatures increase by 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
There is no single solution to Jordan’s daunting water crisis. But a combination of measures could work, say Alraggad and others. These include building the country’s first desalination plant; treating more household wastewater so it can reused; encouraging farmers to adopt hydroponic irrigation systems that can save as much as 80 percent of water; and curtailing water waste and theft.
Drinking the Sea
Elias Salameh is a professor of hydrogeology and hydrochemistry at the University of Jordan and the founder of a water research center there. Salameh believes that Jordan’s best option is to build a desalination plant at the port city of Aqaba.
“Water management in Jordan is a success story, considering the climatic, demographic, hydro-political and financial challenges we are facing.”Marwan Alraggad
Head of the Inter-Islamic Network on Water Resources Development and Management.
“We don’t need to imagine any other solution than desalination at Aqaba—it’s the only solution we have,” he says. “It’s practical, and it’s under our sovereignty. If you don’t do it, you are exposing the country to a big crisis.”
Salameh emphasizes the need for Jordan to be self-reliant and to find a solution that does not depend on agreements with neighboring countries: “Water is life. We have to be independent.”
Jordan is a small country surrounded by powerful neighbors, in a region that has been destabilized by recurring conflicts. Jordan’s only surface water sources, the Yarmouk River and the Jordan River, are shared with Israel and Syria, which take sizeable shares. In fact, one problem Jordan faces is that as the Syrian civil war winds down and people resettle and re-engage in agriculture, Syria is expected to use a majority of the Yarmouk River water. Jordan is hosting 750,000 registered refugees, many of them Syrian, who also need water.
A proposed Israeli-Jordanian desalination venture, the Red Sea–Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, envisaged the construction of a desalination plant at Aqaba that would produce drinking water for Jordan, Israel and Palestine, while pumping the byproduct, a concentrated brine, and seawater to the shrinking Dead Sea. The project has been under discussion for decades but seems less likely than ever to materialize today, when relations between the two countries are at a low point.
Instead, Jordan wants to build a desalination plant of its own at Aqaba. The project is in the initial study phase and one thing that’s not clear yet is how the brine would be disposed of. It can be treated inland to produce salt and other useful chemicals, but it would most likely be dumped into the Red Sea, whose fragile ecosystem it could damage. But both Alraggad and Salameh argue that Jordan simply has no other choice but to pursue desalination while working to mitigate any negative environmental impact.
And it would still be necessary to address the continuous drop in the level of the Dead Sea, says Salameh, because “it has major other negative impacts: erosion, sinkholes, and water from aquifers that seeps into the Dead Sea to compensate for its loss.” Salameh estimates that every year’s drop of one meter in the Dead Sea level means that Jordan, Israel and Palestine are losing 375 million cubic meters of water.
Another way for Jordan to conserve water is to treat its wastewater and reuse it for agriculture, experts say. This is already taking place at one of the country’s largest wastewater treatment plants, the As-Samra plant. But much more could be done to recycle water on a community level.
“There are a lot of people in Jordan with good educations in water management.”Noama Shareef
A senior wastewater engineer with a Germany government agency working in Jordan
Noama Shareef is a senior wastewater engineer with the German government’s Centre for International Migration and Development. “There are a lot of people in Jordan with good educations in water management,” says Shareef. But there is a need for hands-on practice.
Partly to address this, in 2009 the German Ministry of Education and Research agreed with the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation to fund the creation of a demonstration site for different wastewater treatment systems at Al-Balqa Applied University.
“We are looking to solve the water problem in Jordan,” says the university’s president, Abdallah Al-Zoubi, himself an eminent hydrogeologist. “Every drop of water is important to us. We are looking not just to have more water treatment plants; we are planning to teach the people how to treat their own water.”
At the demonstration site, on a hillside a quarter of an hour’s drive from the university, sewage from a nearby wastewater treatment plant is routed through a dozen different small treatment systems, which clean the water using mechanical and biological processes like sedimentation, oxygenation or filtration. In some models, it is plots of sand or wetlands that filter the impurities out of the water. Rose bushes and lemon trees are watered with the treated water.
The site is the only one of its kind in the country, and is used to train students in the university’s recently established associate degree in wastewater management program—as well as engineers and operators from the water ministry, and schoolteachers and students.
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The demonstration site is intended to promote research on small, decentralized wastewater treatment systems for homes, businesses or public institutions. The systems are cost-effective and suitable for rural communities that aren’t connected to the sewage system yet. And water doesn’t have to be pumped far to be treated—a significant consideration in Jordan, which is a hilly country.
But making wastewater treatment a part of the solution requires overcoming people’s hesitancy to invest in new ways of doing things, and their concerns that treated wastewater is still unclean.
“The majority of people prefer to think inside the box,” says Al-Zoubi. “It will take time, but the main thing is that we have started.”
Al-Zoubi believes that once wastewater treatment technology becomes more widely understood, available and affordable, “Jordanian families will adopt it.”
In fact, a pilot project in the nearby city of Salt, started a decade ago, has had positive results, Shareef told me.
“If you make something successful, you will motivate others, because the need is there. At first families in Salt hesitated, they were afraid the wastewater was dirty; the culture refused the idea,” she recounts. But after a couple of years, when they witnessed their neighbors’ flourishing gardens, “families came to us asking to be part of the project; some of them paid to build [a wastewater treatment system] themselves.”
The Agriculture of the Future
Agriculture consumes over 50 percent of Jordan’s water supply but accounts for as little as 3 percent of gross domestic product (some argue that the figure is higher if related economic activity is counted as well). Critics say that by growing water-intensive crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries, Jordan is effectively exporting its precious water. Others argue that agriculture is a strategic sector, necessary to maintaining socio-economic and political stability, and that it needs to be supported. The question is whether this can be done more efficiently.
In a large greenhouse near the town of Madaba, rows of strawberries are growing a foot off the ground. This is a hydroponic farm. The plants are not growing in soil but rather in slabs of coco peat—a medium made from coconut husks—that are irrigated with carefully calibrated doses of water and fertilizer.
“This is the way to go, this is the future,” says Nabil Essa, a technical manager at ECO Consult, a development consultancy that is managing a program, funded by the Dutch government, to promote hydroponic and efficient farming.
The Madaba facility, Al Jabala farm, has a state-of-the art greenhouse in which temperature and humidity are calibrated and monitored. A system like this can use 60 to 80 percent less water than traditional irrigation; run-off water is reused to water nearby fruit trees.
This system cost half a million euros to build—an investment that can be recouped in about six years. Of course, few farmers can afford this. So ECO Consult also proposes two smaller hydroponic systems which still conserve water but rely on simpler and less expensive technology.
“It’s very important to shift behavior,” says Lina Baj, a project manager at ECO Consult. “Farmers need to say, Now I am willing to try it out, I am willing to change. But farmers face many challenges: access to financing, information, incentives.”
For now, hydroponics account for less than 1 percent of Jordan’s agriculture. As with other shifts in water use, widespread adoption of this technology requires strong government intervention and support. The team at ECO Consult were excited by the fact that the minister of agriculture had recently mentioned hydroponics as part of the government’s plans to support and develop the agricultural sector.
There are also plans to create hydroponics knowledge innovation centers at Jordan University of Science and Technology, the University of Jordan and the National Agricultural Research Center, which would include demonstration sites, training, seed trials, and research.
“It’s very important to shift behavior. Farmers need to say, Now I am willing to try it out, I am willing to change. But farmers face many challenges: access to financing, information, incentives.”Lina Baj
A project manager at ECO Consult
“It’s important to give water a value,” says Alraggad. “We have a lot of data, but it’s not always transformed into knowledge and solutions.”
Fighting Waste—and Worse
Everyone can agree that in Jordan water is extremely precious. Which makes its needless loss especially galling.
Estimates are that Jordan loses half its pumped water to theft and leakages. Huge amounts of water are brazenly stolen to irrigate farms, or even to be resold, at many times the price, back to customers.
In the fall of 2019, water supply to many Amman neighborhoods was interrupted for five days because, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation said, someone had damaged a major pipe in the south of the country to divert water. The year before, authorities discovered illegal pipelines in one locality were stealing 60,000 cubic meters a month—enough water to meet the needs of 20,000 people.
While the authorities have repeatedly announced that they are cracking down on water theft, and have found and removed thousands of illegal pipelines, the practice continues. In fact, some of the offenders are reportedly powerful landowners and local notables.
Figuring out how to address Jordan’s water crisis requires hard choices and creative, strategic thinking.
“We have to take a deep breath,” says Alraggad. “It’s going to be a long process. And we have to invest in the youth. They are the future water users, the farmers of the future, the future water planners. It’s easier to build a better understanding with them of water challenges, of innovative solutions—to build cohesion with the environment and between different water users.”