Jordan is a nation of 5.9 million people, about 40-50% of whom are formerly Palestinian refugees, and an increasing number of whom are Iraqis fleeing violence. This week, I am in Amman to meet with Jordanian and U.S. government officials, NGO representatives and analysts on a fact-finding mission regarding the effects of the Iraqi humanitarian crisis on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
This is my first trip to the Middle East, and the first thing that struck me about Jordan was how dry everything is. The landscape is dusty and greenery is scarce. On the weather report, where I am used to seeing "sunshine" or "partly cloudy" or "rain," the Jordanian forecast indicates "smoke." Indeed, the air is so dry, it is at times difficult for me to breathe.
One of my first meetings, with the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation (MOWI), revealed why: Jordan is the fourth most water-poor country in the world, and in fact the top ten are all in the Middle East. Jordan has about 140 cubic meters of water per capita per year, compared with a world average water use of about 650 cubic meters/person, and around 1,900 cubic meters/person in North America. You don't have to be an expert in the metric system to see the huge difference there -- can you imagine reducing your water consumption by 92.6 percent?
That's hard enough, but imagine having to decrease your use of this precious resource even more as your country's population expands rapidly due to an inflow of other nationalities. Whether you accept the Fafo estimate of 500,000 Iraqis in Jordan since 2003 or the larger UN estimate of 750,000, and whether you consider these people refugees, immigrants or visitors, the strain on the Jordanian infrastructure is clear.
All the Jordanians with whom I've met, particularly at MOWI, have been extremely compassionate towards the plight of their Iraqi neighbors. The MOWI officials made clear that protecting these people and meeting their needs is the top concern. "We want peace for the region and an end to Iraqi suffering, and only secondly to decrease the pressure on Jordan's water resources," one MOWI representative told me. And I believe him. But how many more people can one little water-poor country take?
Jordan is currently in the process of revising its "Master Plan" for future investment projects to meet the water needs of its people. When I asked whether the needs of Iraqi refugees were being incorporated into this new plan, with the assumption that these newcomers would be around for a while, the answer I received was straight-forward and realistic. "We regard them as people settling in Jordan, not as citizens. But yes, we are including them in our planning. We must revise our plans to accomodate these demographic changes. The plan must be dynamic, to provide for things like drought or increased numbers of refugees."
The Jordanian government, as well as organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and USAID, is working hard to develop solutions to Jordan's chronic and worsening water shortages. Projects include desalinization, dams, canals, more efficient usage and re-usage, expanded and improved treatment plants, and tapping into the "Disi Aquifer" shared with Saudi Arabia. But such projects cost money, and despite a relatively high economic growth rate of 6.1%, cash for investment in Jordan can be as difficult to come by as water. Many projects must compete for scarce resources. Yet the strain on Jordan's water supply continues to grow.
This month, fewer refugees returned to Iraq from Jordan than in previous months, and the flow of people leaving Iraq remains considerably higher than the rate of return. But the future is uncertain. MOWI officials expressed optimism that with continued development of alternative water sources, by 2022 Jordan will actually have a water surplus. Less hopeful are USAID estimates that, absent dramatic changes in water resource management and public perception, water shortages will bring economic development to a halt and disable the Jordanian government's provisions for its people by 2020. Precisely what role the possible continued and/or increased presence of Iraqis will play in those predictions remains to be seen.