Jordan is burdened by an extreme scarcity of water and the challenges related to this have been aggravated by an influx of refugees since the year 2013. The total number of registered and unregistered Syrian refugees is estimated to be around 1.3 million. The majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan, about 84%, live in urban areas and it’s highly likely that the majority will remain in Jordan. The Syrian refugees were, and still are, highly vulnerable and they continue to struggle - especially with: high housing rental prices; sourcing income-generating activities; overcrowding of public sector services such as education and health; and competition over resources, such as water.
The tense water situation in Jordan was already apparent long before the influx of Syrian refugees. The population growth due to refugees from Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as droughts, trans-boundary tensions over water resources, water mismanagement and an inefficient agricultural sector, have all been identified as the main issues affecting the water sector (Hussein et al., 2020).
Today, however, the effects are even more apparent than ever before. In particular, the Northern Governorates Irbid and Mafraq have been affected by the influx of Syrian refugees where the population increase has caused a significant additional demand for water, resulting in local water shortages and, ultimately, enormous pressures on the sewage network and wastewater treatment plants.
The old distribution networks were not built to support the vast increase of the population. Additional stresses on the existing water infrastructure require urgent repairs and maintenance of water pumping stations, and renovation of wastewater treatment plants in order to prevent further contamination of the water supply.
The overall demand for water has increased by 40% in the Northern Governorates in the last few years as a direct result of hosting Syrian refugees. However, the frequency of water supply in some locations has decreased from once a week to once every four weeks. It has been calculated that the expected water demand and wastewater generation will almost double by the year 2045, if all the Syrian refugees stay in Jordan.
Apart from that the presence of the Syrian refugees is directly related to the securing of large amounts of humanitarian aid and infrastructure investments.
Water is often considered a public good rather than a commodity, and water theft is one of the main issues being addressed by the Jordanian Government (Baylouny and Klingseis, 2018). Groundwater is the main source of freshwater. However, more than 50% of the total groundwater abstraction is considered unsustainable due to overexploitation or abstraction from nonrenewable fossil aquifers (Breulmann et al., 2020b).
Furthermore, the indirect disposal of untreated wastewater through cesspools or leaking sewer systems has further threatened the quality of Jordan’s scarce groundwater resources. Moreover, competition among the domestic, agricultural and industrial sectors seriously jeopardizes water sustainability.
Another controversial point is that although the agricultural sector’s water requirements accounts for around 52% of national water needs, it contributes only 3% – 4% to gross domestic production (Breulmann et al., 2020b). Moreover, aside from the fresh water supply, the issues of wastewater and sewage treatment are one of the most prominent issues in the water sector in general. Complaints against local water companies have significantly increased due to clogged sewage systems which led to a public outcry in 2013 (Baylouny and Klingseis, 2018).
Overall, we can say that the Syrian refugees did not create the water scarcity in Jordan; however, it has clearly been exacerbated by their presence. Indeed, it could be said that the influx of Syrian refugees has exposed the inherent deficits of the Jordanian water infrastructure and its mismanagement.
The Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation (MWI) has therefore conducted various large and costly studies during recent years in order to secure water supplies and wastewater treatment for the future. It has focused principally on sub-urban and urban areas of the Irbid Governorate, which has had the highest influx of Syrian refugees. However, little has been achieved so far.
The Jordanian government is in a dilemma. The potential costs are enormous. It’s already obvious that the intended investments will not meet future demands and solutions need to be implemented immediately. If current water management practices continue without change, many aquifers will soon be lost: they will either dry out, become too saline, or become polluted. With this clear investment backlog, traditional decision pathways of conservative planning must be left behind and regionally adapted concepts for the future need to be implemented. For example, an integrated wastewater and water management approach and the implementation of semi- and decentralized wastewater treatment systems will assist in mitigating extreme water scarcity and protect groundwater resources in Jordan.
Technological changes are clearly needed for the long-term in order to mitigate the problems within the water sector. However, these will only result in positive outcomes if institutional changes are initiated through the political will of the Jordanian government.