Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—The water issue in Jordan has a complex history. The country is among the 10 poorest in the world when it comes to water resources, and is one of the few facing a serious water problem. There have been many reasons for this over the years, most prominent of which is the large and rapid increase in population, as well as Israel’s use of water from the Yarmouk River.
Asharq Al-Awsat met Jordan’s Minister for Water and Irrigation, Dr. Hazem Al-Nasir, to discuss the water shortages facing the Hashemite Kingdom. Nasir believes this is an issue whose solution is essential if the country is to solve other developmental issues, and to do so both the regional and international communities need to come together, especially in light of Jordan’s population increasing by more than a quarter due to the influx of Syrian refugees.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did the Ministry overcome the water shortage last summer?
Hazem Al-Nasir: The management of the water sector in Jordan faces a series of daunting challenges. The most important of these is the lack of water in some regions, which has sometimes led to public demonstrations. The water network covers more than 99 percent of the Kingdom of Jordan, and more than 62 percent in terms of sanitation services, but the water deficit exceeds 600 billion liters (4.54 liters = 1 gallon) of water each year. This in addition to a decline in per capita use to 70 liters per day in some areas, the growing phenomenon of illegal water use, and the absence of a national network of water canals by which water can be moved flexibly.
With this in mind, we have raised many questions about the mechanisms we can use to tackle these issues within the strategies and programs set by the Ministry for Water and Irrigation, and have put in place plans to be executed with immediate effect. We put all our energy into launching a project to pump water from the Disi Basin so we could complete some of it before the summer season in 2013. In fact, we succeeded in bringing the project to 70 percent capacity before the summer, with water arriving in the capital, Amman, as well as other, more crowded areas such as Zarqa and Rusaifa, after overcoming problems by implementing a series of managerial procedures, activating existing frameworks and reorganizing the program in order to provide water to certain areas, while also increasing the hours during which the water was pumped.
The government has also launched a plan for the water issue spanning 2013–2020, aimed at improving the water sector to levels that will help realize the Kingdom’s vision to make it almost infallible by 2020.
After the completion of the first, larger plan—the pumping of water from the Disi Basin—the Ministry began to discover deep waters in the Hisa Basin, and is currently working on important strategic plans, such as the ‘two seas canal’ project, as well as a number of other water and sanitation projects in various regions and the creation of a national network of canals to transfer water to high-demand regions with ease and flexibility.
Q: What is the most important project aimed at solving the difficult situation regarding water, especially given the rise in the number of Syrian refugees?
The Ministry is overseeing plans for the establishment of a council to deal with the water situation facing the Kingdom in light of the Syrian crisis and the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees to Jordan, which already suffers from a scarcity of water resources, being one of the poorest in the world in terms of quantities. Per capita consumption of water currently stands at between 26–150 liters per day, which is around 50 cubic meters per year; average global per capita consumption is per year.
As such, the Ministry has launched an urgent plan to deal with the situation—to expedite the completion of the Disi Basin project and make it a reality after such a long wait. In fact, the Water Authority succeeded in executing the project before the summer of 2013 to meet the increased demand for water, also expediting other water projects intended to deal with the water situation in all regions.
The most important project the Ministry is currently working on is a nationwide water transportation network, which began with the Disi Basin project. Work is currently finishing on a strategic link to transfer water from the Disi Basin which will provide water to the provinces of Karak and Tafilah, as well as an additional link serving the north, another serving Madiba and another serving Zarqa and Rasifa provinces, the most populated areas in the Kingdom. This has created the flexibility to transfer water from one region to another, thus raising the supply rate.
There are also projects currently under way worth more than 500 million Jordanian dinars (705 million US dollars) to extend the water network to various regions, especially the northern regions that have been hugely affected by refugees. This is reflected in deteriorations in both the water supply and in sanitation services to Jordanian citizens in these regions. Water networks are currently being improved in order to increase the efficiency of networks and supply stations.
Similarly, sewage networks and treatment plants are being developed in several regions, as well as the development of a water treatment station for Amman, Zarqa and Rasifa and a refinement station in the north. Work is also currently underway to activate the South Amman station, which will serve wide areas to the south of the capital, as well as a number of others.
In Jordan there are 27 wastewater treatment works operating to international standards. They treat around 122 billion liters (122 million cubic meters) of water, providing more than 115 billion liters (115 million cubic meters) for different purposes in industry and agriculture involving crops and fodder, especially in alfalfa and corn fodder, which generate a large economic reward for farmers and livestock breeders.
There are also other projects underway to develop pumping stations in various regions and to make use of renewable energy for the water sector through the use of bio, solar and hydro energies, as well as organic waste, in order to reduce the enormous pressure on the sector due to huge energy costs, currently accounting for 60 percent of the sector’s total running costs.
Q: How will these projects contribute to improving the water situation in Jordan?
They will definitely have a huge impact on improving the water supply, raising its efficiency and reducing water loss on both the administrative and technical levels. This will reduce the sector’s running costs and will provide larger quantities of water to citizens in different regions of the Kingdom. It will also encourage economic and agricultural development, as well as development in industrial and trade sectors and more, since water forms a fundamental pillar of development and is necessary for improving the environmental quality of life for citizens.
Q: Were these measures brought in just to deal with the increase in the number of refugees or as a solution to the water problem in Jordan generally?
There is no doubt that the water and energy sectors have been severely affected by the waves of Syrian immigrants coming into Jordan, as the daily increase in their numbers is forcing us to think of new projects to improve the water situation and to adequately maintain water and sanitation services across different regions, especially in the north, where, in some areas, refugees outnumber Jordanian citizens both inside and outside the camps.
The Ministry has designed various scenarios to deal with the exceptional circumstances that have arisen in the wake of the Syrian crisis, especially in the northern and central areas, where refugees are currently costing the water sector alone more than 360 million dinars per year. The Ministry is seeking the help of international and Arab communities to assist with the country’s service sectors, the most affected being the water sector, where we are executing projects in various regions to deal with the situation. International organizations have been asked to provide support where the sector is in need of projects valued at more than 750 million dinars between 2013–2015 in order to deal with these exceptional circumstances.
I would like to underline that the primary goal of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation is to provide everything our Syrian brothers need in terms of water, in spite of the difficult water situation and scarcity of resources from which Jordan is suffering.
Q: Is the water problem in Jordan one of resources or management? Has the management of resources improved since the Disi Basin project, and does the Ministry have a strategy to deal with this challenge?
The problem is twofold: it is one of both resources and management. In terms of management, the sector is suffering from the exodus of talent from Jordan as a result of the economic situation. And in terms of water resources, they have diminished astonishingly in recent years.
Q: Can you tell us about the cost of water, and how much of it the government bears?
We bear a huge amount of the cost of delivering each cubic meter of water. It costs over 2.5 dollars, while it is sold to the citizen for 500 fils (70 cents), so the state contributes 1.6 dinar for every cubic meter. We also bear the additional burden of electricity costs, which lie at around 280 fils. Given the increase in consumption during the summer and the decrease in consumption during the winter, this cost is changeable. The state supports the water sector to the tune of 277 million dollars per year.
Q: How have you dealt with the thousands of Syrian refugees coming into the country, most of whom live outside camps?
There is no doubt that this constitutes to be a heavy burden. Northern areas, the northern and eastern deserts, and central Amman witness eslarge waves of refugees every day. It is estimated that the number of refugees both inside and outside the camps is more than a quarter of the population of Jordanian citizens. We are currently spending nearly 508 million dollars [360 million dinars] on the water sector alone—at a time when we need 1 billion dollars [750 million dinars] to finance projects between 2014–2015 in order to deal with the influx of refugees, fulfill demand, protect groundwater and overcome the serious effects of this bottleneck.
Q: What can you tell us about the Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal project, and why are Israeli companies taking part in it?
The Jordanian state is constantly striving for complete economic development, as well as to provide adequate water supplies to its citizens—for there can be no prosperity without water. We are undertaking this project after having exhausted all other alternatives after the Disi Basin project. So we must come up with creative solutions in order to desalinate seawater as a permanent replacement [for fresh water] and to fulfill demand. The Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal project is an entirely Jordanian one, and the agreement recently signed in Washington guaranteed that Jordan would be well taken care of and that the historical world heritage site of the Dead Sea would be looked after. Jordan is guaranteed 100 billion liters (100 million cubic meters) [of water] at a reasonable cost during the first stage. Large quantities of water will also flow into the Dead Sea to halt the yearly decline in its surface area, and 30 billion liters per year will be for the Palestinians to cover the serious water shortage in parts of the West Bank.
As for the rumors that Israel will be provided with water, I assure you that any country that has a sea coastline must seek international agreement before commencing any project. As for Israel being supplied with 50 billion liters from Eilat, it will bear the entire cost.
The project will be launched in the near future after plans have been finalized at a cost of 637 million dinars for the first stage, which will be financed according to a build–operate–transfer model and which will represent the first real step to a comfortable water situation in Jordan within the next five years, returning it to constant water supply.
Q: How do you see the water situation in the Arab world?
It is no secret that the issue of water is no longer just a national or a regional one, but rather a global one in a world facing the greenhouse effect, the increasing scarcity of water, the exhausting of water resources due to the lack of modern management systems and the regional and national conflicts in our region. The Arab world is most at threat given the water shortage, especially as more than 66 percent of Arab water resources come from outside [the target countries], leaving it prey to the practices of the source countries, as is the case with the Euphrates, the Nile and the Jordan River—all because of the lack of unified Arab policies regarding water. Ten Arab countries are among the poorest in the world when it comes to water.
Furthermore, less than 1.2 percent of water in the Arab world is renewable, and precipitation rates there are less than the 2.1 percent world average. Its population, which makes up 5 percent of the global figure, receives less than 1 percent of the world’s water. This population will multiply by somewhere between 1–3 percent by 2050 and freshwater pumping rates will be 20 times higher than in equivalent countries. This is ringing alarm bells in the region, especially since by 2020 water prices in the Arab region will be 11 times more than in other country. We have seen a sharp increase in the price of bottled water, which is 50 percent more than in 2011, and at the moment 18 percent of people [in the region] do not have a water source. In addition, 24 percent are not served by sanitation services despite the huge spending of Arab [countries’] GDPs—around 30 billion dollars each year—on the water sector.
The Arab strategy towards water must be crystallized and realistically applicable. A united vision will ensure that the interests of the Arab countries concerning water will be looked after. Clear policies must be adopted concurrently, which will strengthen common initiatives in this area.
The fact is that the water situation in the Arab world suffers from a weakness in the structure of the sector and its resources due to the general lack of awareness and the inability of those managing water resources to drive home the message that there is a dangerous water crisis, and to inform [people] how best to preserve water resources. And so what is needed is a united Arab strategy to govern water, as it is one of the biggest problems faced by the Arab water sector.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.