Water Scarcity in Jordan Increases with Refugee Flows

Water Scarcity in Jordan Increases with Refugee Flows
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As Jordan copes with a wave of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria, Amman’s already dire water security is stretched to its limit as water scarcity increases.

An article published May 26 in The Jordan Times reported that Jordan’s water demand would increase by 16% in 2013, contributing to a doubling of the country’s water deficit. This latest development is due in large part to the substantial influx of Syrian refugees into the kingdom, whose population is projected to increase by 20% this year.

These figures represent but the most recent update in a well-established dilemma. Jordan is one of the more water-scarce countries on earth. Maplecroft, a firm that assesses ecological risks, places Jordan in the “extreme” category for water stress. Jordan’s lack of water presents the country with a multitude of challenges. Beyond the necessity of water for daily use, water is connected with many other aspects of the country’s vitality, especially energy and security. From an international business perspective, Jordan’s water scarcity is a reason to be cautious when considering investment in Jordan.

A water depleted country

Jordan suffers from inconsistent and relatively low levels of rainfall. According to the FAO, the average precipitation rate is 8.35 km3 per year. Rainfall is seasonal in nature and, despite this average, can fluctuate greatly. Of the rain that does fall, 94 percent evaporates.

Other water resources can be divided into two primary categories: surface water and groundwater. Surface water is renewable but is less reliable due to fluctuation in levels. Jordan features three main rivers: the Jordan, the Yarmouk, and the Zarqa. It also has six “Side Wadis,” streams, which trickle from the mountains down to the Jordan Valley. Both the Yarmouk and Zarqa Rivers are tributaries of the Jordan River. The Yarmouk, which travels down from Syria, is Jordan’s most significant surface water source and carries 400 million m3 annually. This figure is deceiving, however, because Israel siphons off about 100 million m3 of that, and Syrian water use also interferes with that yearly flow. Notably, the Yarmouk River feeds the King Abdullah Canal, an important irrigation channel. The King Talal Dam, which sits atop the Zarqa River, is the country’s biggest aboveground reservoir.

Meanwhile, Jordan has twelve groundwater basins, most of which are being fully exploited or over-exploited. Over-use of these resources has not only depleted the supply but has also damaged the quality of the water. Of these, ten renewable basins provide 450 million m3 per year, but 253 m3 of that feeds the rivers mentioned above. Jordan’s two non-renewable groundwater basins, the large Disi Aquifer and the smaller Jafer Basin, can provide roughly 143 million m3 annually for about fifty years.

Demographic considerations apply further strain to the already depleted and over-taxed water supply system. Jordan faces the challenge of managing the water demands of a population inflated by refugees—historically from the Palestinian territories and most recently from Iraq and Syria.

Weighing challenges and opportunities

Last week’s post, “Shale Oil is Key to Jordan’s Energy Future,” discussed the emergence of business opportunities in the field of shale oil. Those who would consider pursuing shale oil ventures in Jordan should proceed cautiously given the water situation.

Water is an important component of the standard process for extracting shale oil. While water requirements for this process have declined in recent years, a few barrels of water are still required for the extraction of one barrel of shale oil in the standard process. As reported last week, estimates suggest that Jordan holds between 40 and 70 billion barrels worth of shale oil, and Jordan has recently taken significant steps toward developing its shale oil industry. But in order for these developments to take shape, the water issue must be addressed.

With water scarcity in mind, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation established the National Water Plan in 2001. One key initiative, the Disi Water Conveyance Project, aims to draw water from the Disi Aquifer, which lies below the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In February 2013, The Jordan Times reported that the project, which is supposed to provide the capital city with over 100,000 m3 of water per year, was 93 percent complete. But even as Jordan takes steps to address the water shortage, one must keep in mind that the use of water for sustenance and irrigation takes precedence over industrial applications.

These concerns should not discourage investors entirely from pursuing opportunities in Jordan. But they should keep the systemic picture in mind. Given the high humanitarian demand for water, the most successful shale oil ventures in Jordan will be those that make most efficient use of water. Extraction processes that use the lowest amounts of water will be the most competitive. Meanwhile, the process of plasma gasification, which allows for extraction of shale oil without water, could be a viable option if developed further.

In addition to these shale oil-related considerations, opportunities may arise as Jordan seeks to optimize its use of existing water resources. Jordan could stand to benefit from an expansion of wastewater treatment and reuse, which is already implemented for some irrigation. Putting in place infrastructure that reduces water waste is also an impending necessity. In order to maximize efficiency, Jordan should reduce non-revenue water, which is water that is lost or stolen in the distribution process. Steps can be taken to fix this problem by overhauling pipe systems marred by corrosion and leaks. Infrastructure projects to address these issues may be on the horizon.

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