Plugging the holes in Jordan’s water crisis

king talal dam
(File photo: Jordan News)
king talal dam

Suha Ma'ayeh

The writer is a journalist based in Amman. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria. ©Syndication Bureau

Jordan’s taps are drying up. One of the most water-starved countries in the world, Jordan is in the midst of a crippling water crisis fueled by population growth, climate change, drought, and depleted aquifers.اضافة اعلان

But among the biggest contributors to Jordan’s water scarcity is something far more mundane: plumbing. Non-revenue water (NRW) — water lost to leaky pipes, theft, inaccurate metering, and improper management — is draining the country dry.

A staggering 50 percent of Jordan’s potable water resources are lost to NRW, which costs the country hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually. Most of this loss is “attributed to water theft and malicious damage to the water networks,” Hazem Nasser, a former minister of water and irrigation, told me.

In recent years, water theft and shrinking water resources have forced authorities to ration supplies. Today, public water is available only once or twice a week. In 2021, the government even had to buy water from Israel to make up the shortfall.

Flooding the sector with grants Given the huge sums allocated to the water sector in recent decades in the form of grants and loans, it is difficult to fathom why Jordan’s water infrastructure remains in shambles, and why theft continues unabated. A May 2022 report by USAID found that old water pipes are not replaced, and leak-detection methods are inadequate. “Many water system assets are in poor condition, which would be a problem even under continuous supply,” the report concluded.

International donors — including USAID, the European Investment Bank, and Germany’s KfW Development Bank — are trying to plug the holes with technical and financial support. Last year, for example, USAID gave Jordan a $22.6 million grant to reduce water loss, renovate water networks in Amman and Zarqa, and insulate water lines.

But while there has been some progress in improving infrastructure and reducing water losses, challenges persist, and water theft remains rampant.

Plans on paper On paper, the authorities recognize the gravity of the situation. Water is a key area of focus in Jordan’s 10-year economic modernization vision, an ambitious strategy launched last year to transform the country’s economy. As part of the plan, the government aims to reduce NRW by two percent annually, cutting it to at or below 25 percent of total losses by 2040.

Amman also has plans to launch national desalination projects to provide a stable water supply and create opportunities for the private sector to improve water delivery.

For instance, the National Water Carrier Project, expected to be completed in four years, will deliver 300 million cubic meters of potable water annually to the capital and surrounding areas, and potentially regions along the pipeline. The European Investment Bank is contributing 200 million euros to that project to help the Jordanian government with implementation.

Jordan has also agreed to a water-for-energy deal with Israel. Under the agreement brokered by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan will deliver 600 megawatts of solar power to Israel, and in return, Israel will provide Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of water every year.

Such collaboration has angered many Jordanians, who feel that their country has become dependent on Israel. Jordan, however, is in a critical situation. Annual renewable water resources in Jordan are just 64 cubic meters per person — well below the 500 cubic meters per person that defines severe water scarcity.

A call for stricter enforcement And yet, mega projects alone cannot solve Jordan’s problems. Reducing water losses from theft should be a national priority, handled with the same urgency as other national security issues, like terrorism.

What is needed most is aggressive enforcement of existing legal frameworks. Despite harsh laws — illegally tapping water mains is punishable with a prison sentence of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000 — authorities have been reluctant to enforce them, fearful that doing so could incite public backlash. Previous crackdowns on water theft have led to armed clashes between security forces and those engaged in illegal well drilling.

A recent plan by the water ministry to use drones to monitor illegal tapping of the Disi aquifer, one of the country’s strategic water resources, could have been more effective. But it faced setbacks. One drone was defective and even after several drones were later used, the ministry halted surveillance when it proved too challenging to monitor the full 325-km pipeline connecting the aquifer to Amman.

Where there is a will, there is a way Jordan is not alone in this struggle. Many countries face a future without easy access to clean, potable water, and climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Unlike many drought-stricken regions, however, Jordan’s crisis has a blueprint for remediation. What is lacking is the will to implement.

Strengthening infrastructure and water management must be made a priority. Theft must be punished, and more public awareness campaigns should be launched to encourage people to save water. School children need to understand water conversation from an early age.

Without water, societies, like bodies, fail to function. As Nasser told me, “Water is everything.”

The question is, when will Jordan’s government begin acting like it?

Suha Ma'ayeh is a journalist based in Amman. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.

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