Full Spectrum Jordan: Thirsty for fairness

Jordan's ongoing battle for water resources

Al-Wehda Dam
Al-Wehda Dam / Unity Dam. (Photo: Wikimapia)
As the Jordanian- Syrian diplomatic reopening unfolds, both political and security relations are growing – especially border security cooperation. However, one key aspect that has received little to no attention is water agreement. This issue may be dwarfed next to the immediate security threats Jordan faces on its border with Syria, but water scarcity and climate change are an integral part to maintaining national security. Other than a brief headline announcing the re-activation of the water agreement between the two countries that was signed in 1987, nothing else has been done or written. اضافة اعلان

4 things you should know:
1. History of Syrian-Jordanian water agreementsWhile Syria and Jordan may have had a bumpy relationship while the region was inflamed with conflict in the 1960s, trade and cross-border cooperation was always a pillar of relations – including water sharing. One of the first agreements to try to regulate and develop Jordan River water resources was the Johnston plan of 1955. This plan would have entitled Jordan to 55% of the water share, Israel to 26%, and 9% for Syria and Lebanon. However this agreement was never finalized or signed. It was rejected by the Arab League for political reasons and was ultimately killed by Israel’s raid across Tiberius in December 1955.
This has become a common theme for Jordan. Levels of the flow to the lower Jordan River have dropped by 90 percent, largely due to Israel’s capture of water. Jordan’s largest freshwater surface is shared with Syria, who captures most of the rainfall water in its 42 dams.
Each country then signed its own bilateral water agreements. In the first water agreement Jordan and Syria signed, water shares were not specified, and a conflict resolution mechanism was not identified. The agreement only outlined management of the Yarmouk river (a tributary of the Jordan river), and construction of dams. In 1987, Jordan and Syria were back at the negotiation table, revising the original agreement and detailing dam building. This revision of the original 1953 document authorized the construction of the Al Wehda dam (Maqaran dam) on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Under the agreement, Jordan had to finance the construction and ongoing maintenance costs of the dam. Jordan signed an agreement without leverage to resolve conflicts, bearing the financial burden, and in a less than fraternal relationship with Damascus.

2. Impact of Syrian conflict on Jordan’s water resources
In the years between 2012-2016, Jordan welcomed approximately 1.4 million refugees – equal to almost 12% of Jordan’s population at the time – who brought significant water needs with them. Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation stated that by 2014, Jordan’s water usage had increased 20%, reaching levels they had not planned until 2021, noting that the government discarded their water strategy in favor of ‘emergency planning’ that gets renewed every summer. The Syrian conflict also brought the disappearance of water stability along the Yarmouk. Massive sections of water infrastructure were damaged in the conflict. Exact information and research is non-existent due to the fact that research was almost impossible to conduct, and infrastructure repair in the near future is unlikely. But satellite imagery shows a 3.5 fold increase in water flow to Jordan. This is due to conflict-related changes in land use and irrigation in Syria, not due to official Syrian policy. Southern Syria was largely controlled by armed rebel groups and no Syrian regime institutions were allowed to operate in the area. This also meant no official institutional know-how or tools to gather and save water from dams built across the Yarmouk basin. With all the other costs of the conflict, it is specious to claim the downstream water flow as a benefit.

 3. Jordan’s water loss:
Water loss and theft are pressing challenges in Jordan, exacerbating the country's water scarcity issues. The inadequate infrastructure and aging water networks contribute to significant water loss throughout the distribution system. It is estimated that almost 50% of the water supply is lost due to leaking pipes, underbilling, water theft, and inaccurate meter readings. This loss not only depletes valuable water resources but also puts additional strain on the already limited water supply, affecting both domestic and agricultural sectors. Jordan's efforts to regulate water use and implement water conservation measures are hindered by the urgent need for infrastructure upgrades and repairs to reduce water loss and improve efficiency.

 In addition to infrastructure challenges, water theft is a significant concern in Jordan. Illegal tapping into water networks, unauthorized connections, and unauthorized drilling of wells contribute to the loss of water resources. These activities not only disrupt the equitable distribution of water but also exacerbate water scarcity for the general population. The government faces the challenge of combating water theft while ensuring access to water for all citizens. Stricter enforcement measures, public awareness campaigns, and investment in advanced monitoring technologies are crucial for addressing water theft and preserving the limited water resources in Jordan.

4. Jordan’s water scarcity fact sheet:
Jordan's renewable water resources amount to only 100 cubic meters per person annually, well below the UN-defined threshold for severe water scarcity (500 cubic meters per person annually).In April 2020 PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)  published the a study conducted by 17 scholars and researchers that Jordan will possibly reach destabilizing levels of water scarcity with 90% of the country’s low income population expected to deal with the severe water insecurity.
This has become a common theme for Jordan. Levels of the flow to the lower Jordan River have dropped by 90 percent, largely due to Israel’s capture of water. Jordan’s largest freshwater surface is shared with Syria, who captures most of the rainfall water in its 42 dams.
It is projected that by the year 2100 the overwhelming majority of  Jordanian households will be receiving less than 40 liters per person per day.

My Take:
Jordan usually lacked leverage against more powerful neighbors to secure a sufficient share of resources, agreements were often political rather than practical, and regional conflicts frequently disrupted water availability and stability.  This has become a common theme for Jordan. Levels of the flow to the lower Jordan River have dropped by 90%, largely due to Israel’s capture of water. Jordan’s largest freshwater surface is shared with Syria, who captures most of the rainfall water in its 42 dams. Scarce fresh water resources, population growth, outdated treaties with uncooperative neighbors, and ever growing hydro-political competitions amid worldwide climate change leave Jordan with few options. Measures taken by the government to regulate water use, such as the desalination projects that are undergoing in Aqaba and the government’s attempts to control underground wells  are all minor steps that can keep Jordan afloat for the next few years but not long term.

It is important to note that Syria also grapples with its own bleak water reality. Northern and Northeast Syria acutely suffers from water scarcity and, as a result, food insecurity. 3 lakes in Syria have dried up during the years of the conflict. The region is heavily dependent on the Euphrates River, which also provides electricity through three hydroelectric dams. These dams are largely unworkable due to critically low levels of water. Additionally, weaponization of water, a tactic used at historically unprecedented levels in the Syrian conflict, was carried out by various fighting sects. From the first years of the Syrian conflict, water and water infrastructure was targeted and captured. In 2019 alone, a United Nations investigation documented and verified 46 attacks on water facilities in Syria. With the addition of ongoing security problems, Syria is even more dependent on the water sources it can control, which may include the Yarmouk – also a desperately needed source for Jordan. If that wasn’t enough, Syria has to deal with a strong and aggressive Turkish presence and subsequent theft of water. (Turkey’s role in water theft in Syria deserves its own newsletter).

For both Syria and Jordan, an effective agreement is required in order to ease water scarcity, though the Yarmouk alone is not sufficient to address the issue in both states. For Syria, any secured agreement is an additional step towards regime legitimacy in the region. For Jordan, easing the water crises bolsters its social contract in the face of decreased agricultural output and increased citizen distrust in state institutions.

The Yarmouk agreement is a precautionary lesson against an ambiguous agreement where rights in water shares are not clearly defined, conflict resolution methods are not created and joint coordination and research facilities are lacking. A detailed, robust, agreement is a step forward in addressing regional climate change, bringing stability to a contentious border, and contributing to desperately needed water sources.

Katrina Sammour was first published on Full Spectrum Jordan, a weekly newsletter on SubStack. 

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