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Declining rainfall, population growth spur search for water

Jordan Valley Farmers are experiencing a severe lack of rainfall and urgent steps are needed to expand the area covered by greenery and promote the efficient use of water, environmentalists say
(Dale Gillard/Flickr)

Declining rainfall levels in water scarce and debt-ridden Jordan, the population of which is growing rapidly, have given further urgency to the search for alternative water sources.

Jordan captures and utilizes 90 percent of its rainfall, but climate change has led to decreasing levels of precipitation, particularly over the past two years, environmentalists say.

In 2008-2009, eastern areas of the kingdom saw sharp declines in rainfall, said an official at the Jordan Meteorological Department who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

"There is some evidence of climate change affecting levels of rain, but it is very difficult to say for sure as we need a longer period of time to compare rates of rainfall," the official told IRIN.

There are no major rivers in the country apart from the River Jordan, which has been steadily depleted over recent decades, leaving just a stream separating Jordan from the West Bank. As the kingdom has no lakes or renewable sources of water, the country relies on rain and non-renewable underground aquifers for two-thirds of its water.

One third of its water needs are pumped to it by Israel as part of the 1994 Wadi Araba Treaty (also known as the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace). The water is pumped to Zai plant before being treated and sent to Amman and nearby cities.

But after a scandal in the late 1990s when the government of former Prime Minister Fayes Tarawneh was sacked amid rising public fury over its mishandling of a water contamination scandal which originated from the Israeli supply, the authorities were forced to look into alternative and sustainable water resources.

Nedal Hadadin, a water scientist at Jordan's government-run University of Balqa, said the significant drop in rainfall levels was a result of climate change caused by humans. It is "triggered by a depleted ozone layer", he said.

Hadadin fears the reduction in rainfall will only get worse as a more unpredictable climate continues to change rain patterns.

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Increasingly water scarce

According to figures on water resources provided by the UN and other organizations, Jordan is one of the most water-insecure countries in the world, with average Jordanians consuming five times less water than their European counterparts.

According to the 2009 Arab Human Development Report  by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Jordan had some 150 cubic metres of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in 2005, the sixth worst in the Arab world after Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Libya, the UAE and Egypt.

The global average is 6,800 cubic metres per person and any country with below 1,000 cubic metres per person is considered water-scarce, according to UNDP.

However, as Jordan has had a particularly dry spell over the past few years, it is likely to have an even lower per capita figure now.

The water level in Jordan's dams is also falling, said water expert Elias Salameh from the University of Jordan.

"Our dams are half empty and the population is growing rapidly," he told IRIN. "We need a long-term solution. Jordan cannot continue depending on rain and underground water."

A senior official at the Ministry of Water who preferred not to be named said they "try to harvest every drop of water that rain offers" but that the rain-filled dams that supply the kingdom with most of its water had halved in volume over the past 10 years.

A map of Jordan and the surrounding region highlighting Desi Aquifer and the Red-Dead project.

Google Maps
A map of Jordan and the surrounding region highlighting Desi Aquifer and the Red-Dead project.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Où trouver de nouvelles sources d’eau ?
A map of Jordan and the surrounding region highlighting Desi Aquifer and the Red-Dead project.

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

Water distribution programme

To cope with chronic water shortages this year, the government adopted a strict water distribution programme in June at the start of summer by reducing the number of times water was pumped to households from three or four times a week to just once or twice. In those periods, residents can fill their household tanks to see them through until the next week as no running water is available between deliveries.

Managing water distribution is a difficult task carried out by an army of officials in pumping stations.

But strict water management is not enough, say experts, as Jordan's population is growing rapidly while sources of water are diminishing.

Disi aquifer

One alternative proposed for years has been to pump water out of the Disi Aquifer in the south. Experts say the water basin has enough fresh water to satisfy Jordan for more than 100 years.

However, political and financial obstacles have stalled the idea until recently.

Saudi Arabia and Israel, which share the aquifer with Jordan, were concerned that taking water from it would reduce their water reserves.

But the project was given the go-ahead in 2008 after Jordan managed to persuade its neighbours of the importance of the initiative to the kingdom's water security. An agreement between the government and Turkish company Gama was reached to launch the Disi project at a cost of US$800 million, paid for through loans from various organizations, including the World Bank.

In August 2009, Gama started work on the project in the Wadi Rum area of southern Jordan.

Jordan's minister of water, Raed Abu Saud, said residents of Amman could receive fresh water from the Disi aquifer by 2012, much earlier than anticipated.

''Our dams are half empty and the population is growing rapidly. We need a long-term solution. Jordan cannot continue depending on rain and underground water''

Looking further ahead

The aquifer would certainly go some way to alleviating the kingdom's water shortages but officials concede that another major source of water is needed to meet the demands of the population.

The Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project is the answer, say officials at the Water Ministry. This project aims to save the Dead Sea by siphoning off at least 2.5 billion cubic metres (cu. m) of water from the Red Sea and pumping it to the Dead Sea.

Running alongside this is another project, the Jordan National Red Sea Water Development Project (JRSP), which aims to address the country's chronic potable water shortage by pumping water from the Red Sea through pipelines to a yet-to-be-built nuclear-run desalination plant that will produce some 700 million cu. m of drinking water a year when fully operational.

But amid an uncertain global economic outlook and resistance from environmentalists, the future of the project remains uncertain.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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