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Water contamination incidents highlight water shortage problem

 The once fertile land with all types of flora and fauna has painfully turned into a hostile terrain, Jordan, 24 May 2006. Public officials say the kingdom has been robbed of its fair share of surface water because neighbouring countries help themselves t
(Maria Font de Matas/IRIN)

Thousands of Jordanians have been rushed to hospitals over the past few months suffering from illnesses related to water contamination in villages and towns across the kingdom. Experts fear the worst is yet to come unless a lasting solution is found to the kingdom's water shortages.

The latest incident involved a refugee camp near Irbid, 120km north of Amman. People there told IRIN the water in their taps had turned yellow and feared their health was at risk.

"We don’t know what we are drinking, but for sure it is not pure water," said Mahmud Abdullah, a van driver who works in the camp's vegetable market.

The government immediately shut down the water supply after experts realised the water had been contaminated by sewage.

Last July, nearly 1,000 people from a village near the northern city of Mafraq were rushed to hospital suffering from severe diarrhoea and high fever caused by a parasite, Cryptosporidium, which, specialists said, made its way into the local water system. Investigations showed the source of the disease was the worn out water network supplying the town.

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On 28 October, another town, Sakib, near the Roman city of Jerash, saw at least 400 people rushed to hospital complaining of the same symptoms. The government tried to blame a small local restaurant for selling spoiled food, but residents insisted the reason was contaminated water.

Jordan is one of the most water-impoverished countries in the world. An average Jordanian consumes 170 cu. m. a day compared to 1,000 cu. m. used by citizens in water-rich countries. With 92 percent of the land being desert, Jordan relies on rain and underground water to supply its 5.6 million people.

In addition to the worn out water network, over-exploitation of some 2,000 wells, half of which were illegally constructed, is exacerbating the problem.

Figures from the Ministry of Water and Irrigation show that at least 45 percent of the water in the supply network is lost due to leaks.

The government is implementing a strict water rationing programme, pumping water to households only once or twice a week.


Water experts say a combination of the degenerated water supply network and irregular water pumping are the main reasons for water-borne illnesses.

"When water is pumped through the leaking network, a large volume of water returns to the network after pumping has stopped, bringing with it bacteria and other sources of disease," said Salameh Hiari, a water expert at the University of Jordan.

More constant pumping of water would prevent such contamination as the contaminated water would not be able to re-enter the system owing to the pressure in the pipes, he said.

Photo: Google Maps
A map of Jordan and the surrounding region highlighting Desi Aquifer and the Red-Dead project

Water projects

According to Hiari, the only way to end this predicament is to renew the water network and find a permanent water source.

The government has an ambitious project to pump water from Disi Aquifer in the south to Amman. This project will see water pumped 300km from beneath the mountains of Wadi Rum to the capital, where it will be sold to citizens at "an affordable price”.

But this project is still in its early stages. Studies show it will take at least five years to complete. Former Minister for Water Hazzem Nasser said the project was not practical and that the costs would be too high.

Another project involves linking the Dead Sea with the Red Sea by a 250-km long canal, and constructing a desalination station. Officials from the Ministry of Water say such a project is the only viable solution to end this conundrum.

A feasibility study is being conducted by an international consortium funded by the World Bank to determine the US$5 billion project's feasibility and its impact on the environment.

"We will not rest until the Dead Sea Canal project is completed, but because of Jordan's limited financial resources we will not be able to end this debacle without international assistance," added Hiari.

Refugee influx blamed

Officials from the Ministry of Water and Irrigation blame an "unexpected growth in the population” for dwindling water supplies.

''Rehabilitating the water network needs funds from the international community; it is their responsibility to help us.''

"The network was built to sustain a population growth at normal levels, but the sudden flood of refugees from Iraq has been detrimental to the water network," said Nael Zu'bi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Water.

Jordan has been saddled with nearly half a million Iraqi refugees. In the past 15 years over 1.5 million Palestinians and Iraqis have fled to Jordan - first after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and later after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The government has been trying to revamp the network for the past five years, said Zu'bi: Nearly $270 million has been spent on renewing Amman’s network and a further $150 million on water projects in other areas.

"Rehabilitating the water network needs funds from the international community; it is their responsibility to help us," said Zu'bi, adding that the kingdom needed $1.2 billion to improve the entire network.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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