“The pressure is dropping, dropping,” said Ali Summagah, eying the pump’s rusty gauges during a recent visit. “We need a new well, now. We needed it last week.”
The same plea is being sounded in towns across northern Jordan, where a perennial problem of water scarcity is turning into a crisis. Already ranked as one of the most water-poor countries in the world, Jordan now is forced to share its meager supply with an estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees, a human tide that has increased Jordan’s population by 10 percent in less than two years.
Government authorities have been forced to dig more and deeper wells to supply Jordanians as well as tens of thousands of their new neighbors. Prices for delivered water are spiking, driving local resentment against the newcomers. Budget managers are scrambling to find the extra dinars to pay for more pumps, pipes and drilling gear.
More ominously, water levels in underground aquifers — the region’s most important source of liquid for drinking and farming since Roman times — are beginning to plummet.
Poor in surface water
“We’re on the edge of a cliff, and if it continues this way, we will fall,” said Hazim el-Naser, Jordan’s minister of water and irrigation. “We are in a water crisis, and it is spreading.”
By some estimates, Jordan was slipping over the precipice before conflict erupted in neighboring Syria more than two years ago.
Situated on an arid plateau bounded by deserts to the south and east, the small Arab kingdom is exceptionally poor in surface water. Its two largest rivers — the Jordan, with headwaters in Israel, and the Yarmouk, which originates in Syria — are nearly depleted before they enter Jordan. The country’s only seaport, Aqaba, at the tip of the Red Sea, is hundreds of miles from the country’s population centers, making desalinization impractical.
The kingdom recently embarked on a joint project with its neighbors to construct a Red Sea canal that could
alleviate some of its water problems, but completion is years away. Until more resources become available, the Jordanian government had been seeking to stretch the limited supply through intensive water management, including wastewater recycling and highly efficient irrigation practices.
The outbreak of fighting in Syria changed everything. Within months, tens of thousands of Syrians were spilling across the border, swelling Jordan’s already sizable and semi-permanent refugee population of ethnic Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis and Libyans. U.N. relief organizations provide food and shelter for many of the newcomers, but it has fallen mainly to Jordan to supply water for the camps as well as for the legions of Syrians who have taken shelter in Jordanian border towns and in Amman, the capital.