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Jordan faces up to water crisis

Water trucks outsie Amman
Water trucks carry fresh water to the parched Jordanian capital Amman

By Natalia Antelava
Amman, Jordan

At a big well on the outskirts of Amman, water scarcity is what drives business.

In Jordan, the government can provide tap water to the capital only once a week, and so every day dozens of private distributors queue up at a private well to fill the tanks of their lorries with water, which they then sell onto the residents of Amman.

Demand is enormous, but supply has been a problem.

"There is less and less water in the well," says Youssef, a lorry driver who has been selling water for 10 years.

"Sometimes we queue for four or five hours, but there is not enough water for everyone."

Across the rest of this mainly desert state, Jordanians are quite literally tapping into their very last supplies: underground water resources that can never be renewed.

The man in charge of Jordan's fast depleting water resources says Jordanians don't have much of a choice.

"We have no surface water left, no rivers, no lakes - nothing whatsoever. According to the experts in the climate change, things are not looking promising either. It's actually very scary," says the Jordanian Minister for Water and Irrigation, Raed Abu Saud.

Deepening crisis

Like the rest of the Middle East, Jordan is suffering from a severe drought, but while climate change is a problem, the political climate in the Middle East is making things worse.

The country's main river, the River Jordan, has lost 95% of its natural flow because of diversion. Syria, Israel and Jordan have built dams along the banks of the river Jordan and its tributaries.

Retreating Dead Sea
The retreating Dead Sea seen through a derelict building

"The conflict made every country do their best to grab as much as they can, and non-cooperation between them is what really affected the area," says Munquth Meyhar, the chairman of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organisation which works on trying to get Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian communities to share their resources.

Mr Mehyar says that at the local level, sharing works - but at the regional level it doesn't.

Neither Syria nor Israel, Mr Mehyar believes, give Jordan its rightful share of water. But the Jordanian government does not want to blame it neighbours.

"Even building those dams or not building dams, at the end of the day you have to have rain to fill the dams," says Mr Abu Saud. "When you get less water, things get more sensitive, and we have to be very careful about how we approach the subject of water with our neighbours."

Possible solutions

The government says re-distribution and desalination are the only solutions. At the heart of the country's new water strategy are two major projects that would carry water from the deep aquifers and the Red Sea in the South to the north.

The first pipeline would pump water from the Disy aquifer, which Jordan shares with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have long voiced concerns about the project, but the Jordanian government says the agreement has now been reached and that construction is due to begin within months.

Sink holes by the Dead Sea
Land along the shore of the Dead Sea has been collapsing

But the Disy pipeline will only satisfy a quarter of the demand, and it has taken so long to get it off the ground that many in Amman have grown sceptical.

"I have been hearing about this pipeline for almost 15 years, I will believe it when I see it built," said one resident of the capital who did not want to be named.

Reviving the Dead Sea

The government says its second, even more ambitious project, could not only generate drinking water but also save the disappearing Dead Sea.

Because of the diversion of rivers as well as evaporation caused by industry along its shores both in Israel and in Jordan, the levels of the Dead Sea have been dropping.

BBC Map

In order to bring them back, the governments of Israel, Jordan and Palestinian Authority have come up with a joint plan of pumping desalinated water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

The project, called the Red Dead Canal, has been hailed as an example of regional co-operation. But it is still very much of a pipe dream: getting investment for it has been a problem and there are some serious concerns about the environmental impact of mixing waters of two seas.

"I would like to see the feasibility study, the environmental impact assessment, more public hearings. The government has not been transparent enough about the project, and they are rushing it. Because politically they are in a rush to tell people: don't worry, a solution is coming," says Munqeth Mehyar of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

The government has recently launched a number of water management projects, but up to 40% of water is still being lost because of leaks in the old pipes of Amman.

Critics say more needs to be done to reduce water waste and to re-think the way the country uses water.

"Agriculture is one example of water mismanagement. It uses up 70% of our water resources, while its contribution to the economy is minimal. All of these are things that we need to rethink," says Mr Mehyar.



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