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Got Water? Agriculture, Waste and Desert in Jordan

January 21, 2013

By Jude Al-Sajdi

This is the second part of a post about water scarcity. The first post framed the debate by presenting the pros and cons of two different approaches: water supply solutions and demand management. This post takes Jordan as a case study and shows why water scarcity is such a thorny issue. 

The water problemin Jordan  starts with Jordan sharing its surface water with four riparian countries, one of which is Israel who diverts 47% of the Jordan River to its National Water Carrier leaving 25.24% for Syria, 23.24% for Jordan and 5.05% for Palestine (Gafney et al., 2010). Groundwater resources in Jordan are being extracted beyond safe yields, as high as 135-225%. However those are not the only problems and in fact the problem is much deeper.

Agriculture. The most argued topic amongst anyone interested in the water situation in Jordan is agriculture and the fact that the agricultural sector receives the lion’s share of water resources at 64%, while its direct contribution to GDP is minimal. The argument goes both ways; some believe that such a high percentage is unjustifiable, especially in a situation where rural residents receive water every 12 days only, while others think that such allocation is fair as agriculture contributes indirectly to the Jordanian economy, be it in transport, packaging, pesticides and so on, as such, agriculture constitutes a means of subsistence to over 1.5 million Jordanians.

Your Water to Waste. The second most heated topic in the water sector is what is known as Non-Revenue Water (NRW). This is basically the difference between the input of water in the supply system and the water that is actually billed. The non-accounted for water is a result of one of the following: First there is unbilled but authorized water consumption, such as water provided for fire-fighting and similar services. Second, there is water lost due to leakages and overflows, in other words, the water draining the streets every now and then. Last but not least, are inaccuracies in metering and billing, and sadly water lost due to theft and illegal use. But that’s not the sad part, for a country to have 20% inefficiency in its system due to evaporation and leakages is comprehendible, but when losses in revenue amount to almost 45% on a national level –as they do in Jordan, something is definitely going wrong. NRW constitutes a real problem in  Jordan. If the system is flawed, costing the nation both money and water, then increasing the supply of water into the system will only make the problem worse.

The problem in the agricultural sector and NRW are two serious issues that instead of being properly addressed by the government, are only touched upon from the surface and left to miraculously ‘solve themselves out’.

Water in the Desert (source toonpool.com)

Why It Makes Sense to Grow Banana in the Desert? Does it make sense to grow banas in the desert? Large farmers in Jordan constitute a strong political lobby (Zeitoun, 2009), in a country such as Jordan which is tied to a strong tribal culutre. When Jordan joined the World trade Organization (WTO) in 2000, and as part of WTO regulations, subsidies on crops are not allowed. The government however was allowed one crop to protect, and as paradoxical as this may seem, it chose bananas, the highest consumer of water (one KG of banana requires 1000 liters of high quality water). As the bananas produced in Jordan are more expensive than those produced in other places, a tax was imposed on imports, without which a lot of water could be saved. This was done to buy the popularity of one powerful tribe[1]. Although the position that farmers take in terms of opposition-to or support-for WDM is ambiguous, some of them (not all) influence the way certain policies are made in a way that impedes the country’s progress in the demand management path.

Sweep It Under the Carpet. So what has Jordan been doing to solve this problem? In the 90s, it was all about supply, extending pipelines all over[2]. Today, however new buzzwords are being introduced in Jordan by international funding organizations like sustainable development and demand management. International agencies are all over promoting demand management on both the household and agricultural levels, but supply projects seem to be the more preferable option from a government’s perspective, regardless how controversial, time consuming and costly they are. The result is mixed: Jordan receives funding from donors for supply projects yet it is forced to implement WDM sector reforms such as raising water tariffs. However, as Jordan might approach a point of donor fatigue, the government should figure out a long term strategy. Yet, the problem continues to be swept under the carpet.

And there you have it; a country going through chronic water shortages and struggling with power dynamics in its water sector. To manage or not: that is the question.

Gafney et al. (2010). Towards a Living Jordan River: An Environmental flows Report on the Rehabilitation of the lower Jordan River

Ministry of Water and Irrigation (2008). Water For Life: Jordan’s Water Strategy 2008-2022. Report available at: http://www.idrc.ca/uploads/user-S/12431464431JO_Water-Strategy09.pdf (Accessed: July 1, 2010)

Turton, A. (2000) Precipitation, People, Pipelines and Power: Towards a ‘Virtual Water’ Based Political Ecology Discourse. SOAS Water Issues Study Group, School of Oriental and African Studies / King’s College – London (Occasional Paper 11).

Zeitoun, M. (2009). The Political economy of Water Demand Management in Yemen and Jordan: A Synthesis of Findings. Water Demand Management Research Series, October 2009, International Development Research Council – WaDImena project.


[1] The system in Jordan is tied to a strong tribal culture. The phenomenon of Wasta – preferential treatment based on connections and tribal relations – is negatively affecting the way life and business is run in Jordan.

[2] To a point where that time has become to be known as the ‘4 inch galvanized’ era

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