In the best of times, the solitary well that services this parched border town produced only enough water to let each household run its taps for a few hours a week. That was before civil war broke out in Syria, and before 180,000 thirsty refugees took up residence in a vast city of tents and trailers next door.
Today the town’s antique water pump whines and strains round the clock, but the flow of life-giving liquid for tiny Um Esserb has been reduced to a trickle. With refugees still arriving, the local water manager is bracing for the day when the well gives out altogether.
“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.
“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.
Residents of border towns such as Um Esserb complain about the sheer number of refugees and say they don’t seem accustomed to conservation.
“Syrians are consuming 35 liters per day — six times more than the average Jordanian,” said one regional government official who requested anonymity because of his frequent dealings with refugee communities. “You see them washing cars or even hosing the streets. Meanwhile, some villages in Jordan are down to two water deliveries a week.”
Some of the resentment is being directed at the government, adding to concerns about stability in a country that was rocked by a week of rioting in the fall over higher energy prices.
Summagah, the water manager for the border district that includes Um Esserb, said angry customers sometimes show up at his house when promised water deliveries don’t materialize. At least once, during a hot spell last summer, angry patrons burned tires in front of the district water office where he works.
“When people don’t have water, they get upset,” Summagah said as he toured a line of sun-bleached villages near the Syrian border. “They think the government should do whatever it needs to do to get water for them.”
Summagah is trying to oblige, using whatever short-term remedies are available. He rents private wells from local farmers. He digs new wells when he can and tweaks existing ones to coax up as much water as possible. But the demand constantly outstrips his ability to pay for improvements, he said.
“We don’t have the money to drill,” he said. “Our budgets were written before we had the refugee problem.”
Things could be even worse, Jordanian officials concede. The country was lucky to experience an unusually wet winter and early spring, allowing shallow aquifers to recharge and helping fill the large water collection tanks that most Jordanians keep on their roofs.
Naser, the country’s water minister, said his office is borrowing water from provinces with severe water shortages to help meet the needs of towns and cities facing extreme crises.
“I take resources from Amman and give them to Irbid, or take from Zarqa to give to Amman,” Naser said.
How the country will ultimately provide for the needs of its residents and guests is unclear, even to him. Naser, an author and former international consultant on water management, contends that water scarcity helped drive many of the Arab Spring uprisings of the past two years by driving up prices for food staples. Jordan, like most countries in the region, is feeling those pressures as well, and the droughts of summer are just beginning.
“For us, water is agriculture. It sustains life. But is also a national security issue,” Naser said. “Water scarcity triggers unrest, because when people don’t have water they tend to rise up. They will join the next group that comes along and says, ‘Let’s go to the streets.’ ”