(Not only) the Middle East: Water over gold
Addressing the water crisis requires the cooperation of the whole region
Climate change affects almost every country in the world, and the MENA region, which includes the Middle East and the North Africa, is no exception. On the contrary, the countries in this region are among the most water scarce countries in the world. More than 60 % of the region's population lives in areas with high or very high surface water shortages. According to Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for MENA, by 2050 water shortages in the region, mainly related to climate change, will be responsible for economic losses 6 to 14% of GNP.
Let's take a closer look at Jordan. According to a study published by the prestigious scientific journal PNAS, water availability per capita will fall by 50% by the end of the century, and more than 90% of low-income households will have to cope with less than 40 liters of water per day. Stanford University researchers further predict that by the end of the century, Jordan could be up to 4 ° C warmer and rain about a third less.
Drought and migration are connected vessels
Do you think that the drought in the Middle East has nothing to do with the life in the Czech Republic? Firstly, climate change affects almost every country in the world, and the droughts of recent years have convinced us of that. Second, the World Bank report further states that water scarcity in the region was associated with a 10 percent increase in overall migration to third countries between 1970 and 2000. And according to the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even the most conservative scenarios indicate rising temperatures so much that some areas of the region will be uninhabitable. Thus, all indications are that we can expect a further increase in migration from the region.
Jordan and the Dead Sea
Jordan is one of the driest countries in the world. Mainly due to climate change and extensive drainage and pumping of river water to meet the needs of the agricultural sector, the Jordan River turns into a muddy stream before the delta to the Dead Sea. Its southern part is almost dry, which is why the area of the Dead Sea is shrinking every year - the sea no longer has an active tributary. Its level drops by more than a meter every year.
What are the reasons for the Jordanian water crisis and what are the possible ways to solve or at least alleviate the current situation?
Limited water resources
Let's start with water resources. Most of Jordan is a desert, where between 50 and 100 millimeters of rainfall fall each year. Only 20% of the surface is richer in rainfall. In addition, more than 90% of precipitation evaporates. Nevertheless, the north of the country during the rainy season, ie in winter, green. Jordan has three main rivers - the Jordan, the Zark and the Yarmouk. Industrial and agricultural wastewater is discharged into Zarka and Jordan, so these are not the most suitable water sources. Jarmúk is less stressed, but it also serves as a sump for municipal wastewater.
The main source of drinking water is thus fifteen surface water sources and groundwater. However, according to the Jordanian authorities, groundwater is pumped twice as fast as it is naturally replenished. So it's only a matter of time before Jordan's underwater resources are emptied.
Agricultural production consumes almost half of all water consumed, with only between three and four percent of GDP. In addition, state subsidies to the sector mean that farmers have little incentive to use new and more expensive irrigation techniques that would save water. In addition, they focus on low value-added crops, such as tomatoes or cucumbers, which also consume large amounts of water. According to Raed Dawood, founder and head of Eco Consult, local farmers should focus on crops that are more profitable, such as dates.
Demography and the refugee crisis
Jordan has a reputation as a stable country in a not very stable region. The increase in water demand has been exacerbated by high population growth in recent years, mainly due to the excessive influx of refugees. Since the creation of the Hashemite Kingdom in 1946, Jordan has gradually accepted Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis and Somalis due to regional conflicts, and more than a million Syrians since the outbreak of war in Syria. In the 1960s, Jordan's population numbered around one million people. In 2000, it was already five million and now there are more than ten million people in the country. Such an increase in population is very burdensome for the already limited natural water resources available to the kingdom.
Dilapidated infrastructure and illegal drilling
As much as half of Jordan's water supply is lost due to water infrastructure shortages (eg leaks through leaking pipes) and poor network administration (incorrect meter readings, insufficient invoicing, illegal connections). The limited resource situation associated with growing demand has forced the government to allocate water supplies. In practice, this means that most households do not receive municipal water more than once a week. As a result, people buy water from private wells distributed by tankers. More and more residents are also illegally drilling wells.
Geographical location and regional disputes
The Jordan River is shared by Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the Yarmouk River Basin by Syria. Both rivers, together with the reservoirs, are the main source of surface water, but due to numerous diversions and excessive pumping from Syria and the West Bank, their potential for further use is exhausted. As already mentioned, the north of the country is richest in precipitation and watercourses, so even here we find the largest reservoirs, which are the Al-Wehda Reservoir on the border with Syria on the Yarmouk River and the King Talal Reservoir north of Amman on the Zarka River. This, in turn, is threatened by pollution because it lies downstream of wastewater treatment plants and landfills.
Syria, which controls the northern course of the Yarmouk River, has built more than 40 dams and thousands of wells for irrigation upstream, so Jordan can barely use less than a fifth of the river. That's why the Al-Wehda Reservoir has not been half full for a long time.
Israel, in turn, diverts about 600 million cubic meters of water into the Sea of Galilee, in fact a lake on the north bank of the Jordan River, just a few kilometers from the Jordan border. The result is a 90 % reduction in river flow to just 200 million m3. Under the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, Israel agreed to a regular supply of water to the kingdom. The treaty divides water resources between the two countries so that even if they are to be shared, Jordan is to draw most of its water from Yarmuk and Israel from Jordan. The Sea of Galilee is then to be shared. In addition, the two countries have agreed to help each other with drought and to cooperate in desalination. For Jordan, the treaty meant securing at least some water supplies, and for Israel, securing security and regional stability.
These and other challenges are the main reasons for the current unsustainable situation for the Kingdom of Jordan. What are the options for its solution or at least mitigation?
The Red-to-Dead project
One of the projects that the Jordanian government promises to improve the current situation is the Red Sea - Dead Sea, sometimes called the Channel of Two Seas or Red-to-Dead for short. It was designed in the late 1960s as part of the peace process between Israel and Jordan. It should use a 325 km long canal between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, pump seawater from the Red Sea, process it and transport it desalted for consumption to Amman, home to four million people. The remaining brine should be discharged into the Dead Sea, which should help stabilize the shrinking salt lake.
The latest strategic document, the National Water Strategy 2016–2025, assumes that the canal will be completed in 2025 and should cover only about 10% of total demand. Conservationists are boycotting the project because they fear damage to coral reefs in the Red Sea and unpredictable changes in the Dead Sea. Others doubt that implementation will eventually occur.
Czech companies can also help
Not only the Red-to-Dead project, but also other smaller projects can be an opportunity for Czech companies to participate in solving water shortages in Jordan. According to the Czech Embassy in Amman, the total turnover of mutual trade between the Czech Republic and Jordan in 2019 was around 95-100 million USD. The embassy also organizes a business forum in cooperation with the "Czech-Jordan Chamber of Commerce" (OKCJ) in order to deepen Czech-Jordanian trade relations, where Jordanian and Czech companies meet. In addition, the first meeting of the Joint Czech-Jordan Commission for Economic Cooperation took place at the beginning of 2019, where former Minister of Industry and Trade Marta Nováková met with Jordanian counterpart Tariq Hammamour.4 The water and waste industry was identified by the commission as a possible sector of long-term economic bilateral cooperation. …] "Potential areas for the application of Czech exports are equipment for water management purposes (wastewater treatment plants, irrigation systems, pumps, pipes, etc.)". Other areas of possible cooperation are the construction, railway and energy industries (Jordan has ideal conditions for the development of RES) or mining technology. Jordanian entrepreneurs recommend that Czech companies focus on finding small and medium-sized enterprises with which to set up joint ventures. Another option is to use Jordan as a gateway to the surrounding countries.
The solution is cooperation
If Jordan wants to find a lasting solution, it will have to make significant changes on several fronts, some of which we have already outlined. The loss of 50% of pipe water is a sad statistic.
First, proper maintenance must be performed on the pipelines to reduce water leakage from the piping. It is also necessary to prevent illegal well digging and wiring.
Secondly, demand must be reduced, which would be easiest in agriculture; reduce state subsidies for water so that farmers have an incentive to save water. Modernization of irrigation technologies would ensure further savings, especially in summer at high temperatures. Reorienting the sector to other crops would also increase productivity per unit of water.
Thirdly, wastewater must be treated as a resource. The recycling of this water for re-use in the agricultural sector, as well as the modernization of existing treatment plants, still have potential in Jordan and would further contribute to more efficient water management.
Fourthly, the drying underground reservoirs must be able to regenerate. Their complete drying up would have far-reaching consequences.
Fifth and large projects, such as Red-to-Dead, can often be inappropriate due to long implementation, political complexity and high capital investment. But Jordan should certainly try to cooperate in the field of desalination plants with Israel, which operates more than thirty of them on its territory and is their leading global developer. If this does not happen, it will be the first country in the world to run out of fresh water, and people will only travel to the dried earth to the sacred place of the baptism of Jesus Christ.
• Bulos Nabihm, The Dead Sea is dying. Drinking water is scarce. Jordan faces a climate crisis; LA Times; April 2021
• Hadadin et al., Water shortage in Jordan - Sustainable solutions, ResearchGate; January 2010
• World Bank, Beyond Scarcity - Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa, 2018
• The Economist, Jordan’s water crisis is made worse by a feud with Israel; November, 2017
• Whitman, Elizabeth, A land without water, Nature; September 2019
• Yoon et al., A coupled human-natural system analysis of freshwater security under climate and population change; PNAS; March, 2021
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