How to save Jordan from a climate disaster

Jordan dead sea
19 April, 2022

Based in one of the most conflict-prone neighbourhoods in the world, Jordan has served as an island of peace and stability for decades. However, climate change threatens the nation’s humdrum reputation as rising global temperatures and waves of refugees stress the region’s dwindling water supply.

Already facing the most serious environmental crisis in its history, Jordan must heed the advice of environmentalists to ensure its population retains access to water and its farmers can realise economic opportunities.

"The UNFCC estimates Jordan will fall into the category of having an absolute water shortage that could threaten economic growth and endanger public health by 2025"

Among the most pressing needs are adjustments to Jordanian water management and farming practices, which pose formidable challenges to the agriculture-dependent nation.

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Jordan has one of the lowest per capita rates of water availability in the world, with only 147 cubic metres available per person.

With reduced precipitation, increasing temperatures, and mounting drought conditions, the UNFCC estimates Jordan will fall into the category of having an absolute water shortage that could threaten economic growth and endanger public health by 2025.

This past summer, with their dams dwindling below 50% capacity, Jordanians faced water rationing and were advised to sharply reduce farming. These sacrifices will grow more painful and unsustainable as climate change reduces the available water resources.

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“We are facing very difficult conditions,” says Abdelrahman Sultan, the Jordanian Deputy Director of EcoPeace Middle East, an environmental nonprofit. “We don’t store enough water and we don’t get enough water through the rain. We need to acknowledge that there are steps we can take.”

Diversification of the water supply is chief among Jordan’s needs. Though belated, the government has begun efforts to open up new streams of water, including this month’s announcement that the government will allocate nearly $2 billion USD to a project that will transport desalinated water from the salty Red Sea across the country.

Unlike neighbouring Israel, Jordan currently lacks large-scale desalination capacity, although it ambitiously aims to have its first plan up and running within five years.

Diversifying the water supply will entail diplomatic engagement with those at Jordan’s borders. In the past, Jordan has entered cooperative agreements with Israel and Syria on the use of water.

In 1994, Jordan entered into a treaty with Israel concerning the use of water. However, policymakers and environmentalists have pointed out that the treaty fails to specify water quality or procedures for drought. Israel’s technological capacity in addition to its upstream position effectively gives it veto power over the agreement, which Israel has used to reduce the quantity of water provided to Jordan during previous instances of drought.

"USAID estimates that Jordan loses up to half of its water to non-revenue water, meaning water lost through leaky pipes, theft, and under-billing"

Dr Mohammad Mahmoud, director of the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute notes that these agreements are difficult to enforce amid worsening environmental conditions, leading to water hoarding among nations that are both upstream and have the capacity to affect water flows.

“One of the things to alleviate that is having some agreement…" Dr Mahmoud tells The New Arab. "But when we have drought, there is nothing to hold nations accountable. We have a situation with that in the US with the Colorado River system. The difference is that within a nation, there are legal systems and courts. But when you’re looking across nations, how do you enforce that?”

The Water-for-Energy deal, where Israel is planning to supply Jordan with desalinated water in return for solar power, represents a starting point for establishing a mutually beneficial trade between the two nations. Unlike previous agreements, both nations have something to lose by reneging on the deal.

In addition to opening new streams of water, improving infrastructure will be vital to securing Jordan’s future. Dr Lucas Beck, an environmentalist focused on the MENA region explains, “Infrastructure improvements can help to prevent water losses, like reducing evaporation from open canals for instance. There you could save a lot of water. There are also advancements in irrigation technologies. Instead of flooding fields, farmers can use drip irrigation.”

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USAID estimates that Jordan loses up to half of its water to non-revenue water, meaning water lost through leaky pipes, theft, and under-billing. With support from international donors, Jordan’s Water Authority is taking steps to improve its water infrastructure and efficiency, upgrading piping and monitoring systems.

Lastly, environmentalists, policymakers, and economists alike are calling for changes to Jordan’s agriculture sector. Although the agricultural sector uses over half of Jordan’s limited water supply, it comprises around 4% of Jordan’s GDP and provides for less than 20% of the country’s food supply.

“When we export tomatoes, we are exporting water,” says Eshak Alguza, the National Projects Manager of EcoPeace Middle East-Jordan.

Hefty water subsidies and import tariffs render it financially feasible for Jordan’s farmers to continue growing water-intensive crops such as bananas.

Dr Tala Qtaishat, Associate Professor at the University of Jordan conducted a study on the impact of eliminating the water subsidy on banana production. “The study showed that the quantity of banana produced will decrease by lifting the subsidy,’ she says. “Then, Jordan would import cheaper bananas to the consumer.”

The system of water subsidies and import tariffs shields farmers in the Jordan Valley from paying the true cost of watering their crops. However, Jordan is unlikely to entirely jettison these subsidies given global supply chain instability and the likely political costs.

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Instead, a gradual approach to reducing the water subsidies may provide farmers with time to adopt new technologies. In the past, farmers in the Jordan Valley have used unauthorised water sources, digging underground aquifers to get around water quotas and billing requirements. To prevent this response, policymakers should focus on providing support to farmers who aim to adopt climate-smart solutions. 

“This is a key challenge for Jordan,” explains Dr Majd Abusalem, who works with WADI for Sustainable Ecosystems, an NGO based in Jordan. “Policymakers need to encourage farmers to shift their behaviour and adopt climate-smart agriculture approaches, smart irrigation systems, using greywater, water harvesting, planting the right crop varieties, like drought-tolerant crops.”

Zoe H. Robbin is a researcher in Amman, Jordan, where she conducts monitoring and evaluation for a variety of EU and USAID initiatives focused on women’s empowerment, governance, and education in the Arab Region for INTEGRATED. She is a Fulbright research finalist, a senior fellow with Humanity in Action, and a member of Foreign Policy for America’s (FP4A) NextGen Middle East working group.