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Avoiding crisis in Jordan’s tenuous water future

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Jordan is facing a deepening, multi-faceted freshwater crisis. Climate change and population growth are exacerbating its extremely limited natural water availability and dependence on transboundary rivers and groundwater. Water-poor and functionally landlocked, Jordan serves as an archetype of a water-stressed nation.

Unfortunately, the situation in Jordan is emblematic of water crises around the world, in which rapid population growth, intensifying water use, sudden demographic shocks (like the Syrian refugee crisis), climate change, transboundary water competition, and institutional challenges pose serious threats to freshwater security. In recognition of these global water challenges, the United Nations identified the long-term provision of freshwater as one of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. But to achieve this goal, we need an integrated analysis of freshwater systems that accounts for both the physical processes that govern freshwater supply and the human institutions and behaviors that influence the management, allocation, and consumption of water.

Jordan’s Evolving Water Security Problem

In a recent PNAS paper co-authored by our international team, we share a framework developed through the course of two multi-year research projects (Jordan Water Project and Food Water Energy for Urban Sustainable Environments) to assess Jordan’s future water security. The Jordan Water Model allowed us to examine the complex environmental, socio-economic, and physical infrastructure interactions that affect Jordan’s freshwater. We explore the long-term impacts of policy interventions aimed at achieving freshwater security. These interventions encompass policy interventions such as supply enhancement, demand management, and sectoral water reallocation. We evaluated the policies under a range of assumed scenarios related to potential climate change impacts, commodity prices, and population change (including the possibility of an additional future refugee influx). The outlook by the end of the century is sobering, even under the most optimistic assumptions.

Growing Population, Dwindling Water Resources. Across all scenario conditions, Jordan experiences significant growth in population and decreases in freshwater resources availability, resulting in marked declines in per capita water use. As population trends upward, available water resources shrink. Even under optimistic scenarios by 2100, groundwater levels decline by approximately 60 percent in Jordan’s highly populated northern governorates, containing the largest cities of Amman, Zarqa, and Irbid. By the end of the century, average total surface water inflow decreases by 25 percent compared to the 2016-2020 period.

Widescale Decline of Household Water Security. Our analysis reveals widescale decline in water security for Jordan’s household sector even under relatively favorable future conditions, with the nation’s low-income population bearing the most adverse impacts. The percentage of the population that is water-vulnerable increases from 16 percent to 58 percent for average income households, while the lower income households experience a drastic increase from 52 percent to 91 percent.

Climate Change is a Contributing Factor, but Not the Most Significant

While much attention has been given to the impacts from climate change on water resources and temperature increases, our results indicate that the impacts of socioeconomic changes will likely outweigh climate impacts on Jordan’s water security. Model findings indicate that conditions solely attributable to more rapid population growth and a worsened economic outlook result in a two-fold increase in household water vulnerability relative to those solely attributable to adverse climate change.  These results point to the need to carefully consider future socioeconomic changes in future assessments of water security, especially for regions undergoing substantial demographic shifts such as Jordan.

Aggressive Action is Needed

To gain a foothold on its water future, Jordan and its international partners must take aggressive action. This would entail implementing all currently planned water projects, including the full-scale Red Sea desalination project, greatly reducing water theft and physical losses, raising piped water tariffs on higher water use tiers, reallocating water from the agricultural to urban sector, and equalizing the distribution of piped water supply among urban users. With implementation of this sweeping set of infrastructure enhancements and policy measures, our analysis shows marked improvements in all aspects of water security metrics. For example, household water vulnerability would remain below 33 percent through the end of the century for both higher- and lower-income households—a dramatic improvement over maintaining business-as-usual policies. The aggressive action portfolio further results in a substantial narrowing of the water use disparity gap that exists between wealthy and low-income users.

If Jordan continues on a business-as-usual path, the results may have potentially destabilizing water security impacts on Jordan’s population. Without intervening measures, over 90 percent of Jordan’s low-income population will be experiencing critical water insecurity by the end of the century. To avoid a crisis in its water future, Jordan needs to implement an ambitious, politically challenging portfolio of coordinated supply- and demand-side measures to mitigate water security declines driven by socioeconomic growth, groundwater overexploitation, and climate change. Such an undertaking presents a monumental, yet critical effort for Jordan and its international partners in the decades ahead.


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