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A thirst for action: Jordan must resolve its severe water crisis

Jordan's Al Karamah Dam, shrunk by drought. US fund manager BlackRock sees investment opportunities in tech to improve water systems and other infrastructure Reuters/Muhammad Hamed
Jordan's Al Karamah Dam, shrunk by drought. US fund manager BlackRock sees investment opportunities in tech to improve water systems and other infrastructure
  • Limited supply and poor management lead to water scarcity
  • Private sector can help – and Jordan has PPP expertise
  • European Investment Bank supporting Aqaba-Amman project

Jordan is one of the most water-stressed nations in the world. Severe water scarcity is defined as less than 500 cubic metres per person per year, according to Unicef. In Jordan, the figure is just 100 cubic metres. 

With rainfall rates lowering and evaporation rates increasing as the climate changes, the kingdom has been plunged into crisis mode. Water is usually available once a week in urban areas and less than once every two weeks in rural districts. The frequency reduces further in the summer.

For agriculture, however, the month makes little difference. Dina Kisbi, programme manager at the Regional Climate and Energy Project Mena, which is run by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert foundation, says: “During discussions with farmers at Jordan Valley, they stated that they don’t know the seasons anymore.”

The quality and quantity of the country’s water has been degraded, either at source or because of reduced supply, aggravated by heatwaves and dust storms that also place additional stress on agricultural activities. 

The persistent shortages exact a heavy economic price. Shorn of reliable supply, many Jordanians buy water from private tankers, with prices surging in the sweltering summer. 

Most of the nation’s water is shared with other countries. Flows in the lower Jordan River have been reduced by the diversion of the upper Jordan River into Israel. Poor management compounds the problem.

“The government states that we have 50 percent water loss, which is mainly due to leakages in networks or theft,” says Kisbi, who is based in Amman. 

Most Jordanian dams do not have a maintenance budget. That leaves sedimentation to accumulate, so capacities are sometimes half of what they should be. 

“There are a lot of projects happening now with small dams and water harvesting systems. But it’s not being monitored or evaluated properly. When a project ends, there’s no systematic evaluation or sustainability,” she says.  

A boy fills a tank with water in Amman. Many Jordanians buy water from private tankers and pay a premium in summer. Picture: Video from Reuters TV/via ReutersVideo from Reuters TV/via Reuters
A boy fills a tank with water in Amman. Many Jordanians buy water from private tankers and pay a premium in summer. Picture: Video from Reuters TV/via Reuters

The government’s current National Water Strategy, which ends in 2025, proposes an integrated approach to water management. But the Ministry of Water and Irrigation is under pressure to step up desalination and wastewater treatment – and to bring in the private sector

Wastewater treatment is a strong option for Jordan, as it would free up more fresh water. Kisbi says: “There’s a lot of irrigation happening with treated wastewater. But the problem is that we lack the capacity to do tertiary treatment.”

This is the third stage of the purification process, which makes the water drinkable. In the absence of these systems, she adds, the quality of the treated wastewater “is not that good”.  

One ambitious water project took a step forward last December. The Aqaba-Amman Water Desalination and Conveyance Project could supply an additional 300 million cubic metres every year – and would become Jordan’s largest water investment initiative.

The concept has been around for many years but in December, the European Investment Bank agreed to provide a €200 million ($215 million) loan to support the project. 

‘A more sustainable solution’

Desalination is due to be powered by renewable energy from the Gulf of Aqaba, but it will have to pump water up significant altitudes to Amman and other main population centres.

“This will provide a more sustainable solution to the current water challenge,” says a source at the European Investment Bank, which has provided €970 million for water projects in Jordan over the past four decades.

The bank is also “on standby to provide additional financing for the public-private partnership element at a later stage.”

The PPP structure is likely to be critical. “Jordan’s track record with PPPs suggests that it can continue to implement these projects,” says Christian Fang, senior analyst at ratings agency Moody’s.

“We think the transport and logistics and energy infrastructure sectors will continue to be areas of focus – projects in these sectors typically lend well to PPP schemes and help address some of the structural constraints in industrial development.” 

Jordan has some PPP experience in its water sector. The As-Samra wastewater treatment plant, the largest in the country, is structured around a 25-year build-operate-transfer contract.

All water is used for agricultural purposes while the residual sludge is used for electricity generation – a zero-waste, zero-emission scheme. 

Sun-baked soil in Balqa, northwest Jordan. Heatwaves and dust storms affect the quality and quantity of water supply. Picture: Video from Reuters TV/via Reuters

The Aqaba-Amman scheme is a strong fit for PPP. “A project of this size requires a broad range of finance, which is why it’s being opened up to PPP investors,” says the European Investment Bank source. 

The project is not without critics, however. Questions remain over the impact on marine life in the Gulf of Aqaba and how the brine will be dealt with.

There is also a steep learning curve if Jordan is to tap private investment in its water sector. Despite the potential, Kisbi says there needs to be more stability on incentives and tariffs for the private sector to be engaged.  

That leaves Jordanians at risk of the taps running dry, for all the attention on the problem.  

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