One of the driest places on Earth struggles to safeguard its most precious resource: water

To prevent a water crisis, the kingdom of Jordan is looking to move past decades of regional animosity as it works to provide water security to its 10 million residents.

Leaky pipes, theft and dwindling rainfall threaten Jordan's water supply

A mosque in Amman, Jordan, has restricted access to the taps where worshippers prepare before praying. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

This story is part of our series Water at Risk, which looks at Cape Town's drought and some potential risks to the water supply facing parts of Canada and the Middle East. Read more stories in the series.

Inside a high-tech control room that looks ripped from the pages of a spy thriller, specialists train their eyes on a wall of monitors, tracking one of the scarcest resources in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan: water.

The Ministry of Water and Irrigation regularly flies drones to monitor pipelines. The control centre staff are looking for signs of what has become a serious problem: water theft. 

Jordan, one of the driest countries on the planet, sits in the middle of a region where rivers often run dry and water doesn't always flow when taps are opened.

To prevent a water crisis, the kingdom is looking to move past decades of regional animosity as it works to provide water security to its 10 million residents.

Jordanian water specialists monitor current reservoir conditions and track water theft at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation's control centre in Amman. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"It's something that's always at the back of our minds, something that we need to pay attention to. We can't overuse water," said 15-year-old Michael Sabbagh, who lives in the capital Amman.

Jordan's schools teach water conservation, alongside arithmetic and Arabic. Sabbagh's Grade 10 class recently visited an environmental preserve where guides spoke about water levels in Jordan.

Refugees add to concerns

The country's reservoirs are currently only 60 per cent full, and the reserves will fall as the summer temperatures soar — to highs of 35 degrees Celsius — in a nation where much of the land is desert.

The influx of more than a million refugees from the war in neighbouring Syria has also increased demand by about 20 per cent. 

The Jordanian government is working to improve water security by replacing leaky pipes, promoting conservation and cutting down on theft. There have been several high-profile cases where water pipes have been diverted from reservoirs by thieves who then sell the water.
A Syrian refugee living at the Za'atari camp in northern Jordan, collects water. The arrival of more than one million Syrians has taxed Jordan's water supply. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

While the government's actions have improved supply, they have not been sufficient to solve the larger problem.

That's why the country's Water Authority restricts the flow of water to communities and towns. Neighbourhoods in Amman, for example, will have water delivered through the pipes for about 12 to 24 hours a week.

Water tanks can be found atop most homes and apartment buildings across Jordan. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

That means residents have to scramble to make sure underground cisterns and the ubiquitous rooftop tanks are filled, so there is supply for the rest of the week.

If people or businesses run out, some turn to Rakan Bisharat, who runs a water supply business on the outskirts of Amman. Trucks are loaded at Bisharat's facility, and water is delivered to top up tanks.

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"In the summertime, the lineup for trucks is about three hours here," he says, pointing to an area where three tankers were being filled. "The demand is so high."

A worker fills a truck with water to be delivered to a farm outside Amman. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Climate change prediction

Research published last year by Stanford University's Jordan Water Project predicted a 30 per cent drop in rainfall by 2100, along with an increase in temperatures of 6 C. The study forecasts that the number of droughts will double.

Jordan, a resource-poor nation with a weak economy, will need new water sources to keep the taps flowing, so the government has backed an ambitious plan that will see the kingdom partner with Israel, which is well down the road of providing water security for its residents and businesses. 

The Red Sea-Dead Sea project would see a plant built in southern Jordan, near the city of Aqaba, where water from the Red Sea would be desalinated and piped to southern Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian communities.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea project would see water that cannot be desalinated pumped into the Dead Sea, where water levels are falling at an alarming rate. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The brine would be pumped into the Dead Sea, where the water level is dropping at more than a metre every year.

"Part of the problem in the Middle East is that we don't trust each other, because of the conflict of so many years," said Hazim el-Naser, who served recently as Jordan's minister of water and irrigation.

"This is a real project to promote peace and regional co-operation among parties in the most troubled area in the world." 

Hazim el-Naser, Jordan's former minster of water and irrigation, on the roof of his house where tanks store water. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

But the initiative was halted when diplomatic ties between the two neighbouring countries were suspended last summer after two Jordanians were killed by an Israeli embassy guard who said one of the men stabbed him. Israel has since apologized.

Some experts have said the projected price tag of $10 billion US could triple and worry the project will sink before any water is produced.

Israel's water solution

Jordan would rely on Israel's desalination expertise. Close to 80 per cent of water that flows through Israeli taps comes from desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast.

Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank face water restrictions similar to those in most Jordanian communities. Palestinian officials say Israel blocks access to aquifers and springs while the Israeli government blames the Palestinians for failing to show up to meetings to discuss the issue.

A woman in Gaza City washes clothes outside her home. Like many Gazans, the family cannot afford to pay to have water pumped into her house. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

In the Gaza Strip, a lack of clean water has contributed to what the United Nations has called a "humanitarian catastrophe." Many homes lack stable power to pump water, leaving residents using pails to clean dishes and clothes. Water that comes through the pipes usually comes from the Mediterranean Sea, which is also where most of the enclave's sewage is pumped.

"The water situation is very difficult here," said Gaza resident Rami Larouki. "It's not fit for human consumption."

Swapping sun for water

Turning sea water into potable water takes vast amounts of power. Israel's desalination plants usually only run overnight to take advantage of lower electricity costs.

EcoPeace, an environmental NGO made up of Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian activists, is floating a new idea to harness the sun-soaked deserts of Jordan, and sell the solar power to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, who would use it to run desalination plants.

A spring outside of Amman flows. As summer temperatures soar, most springs will dry up. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"By advancing a water-energy exchange we're creating some stability, we're creating an atmosphere of co-operation," said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace.

Bromberg said all three governments "have expressed support" for the Water & Energy Nexus, which is projected to cost $30 billion. Despite the price tag, "not only is it realistic but it's absolutely essential," given the region's water woes.

Bromberg said the idea could bring wider benefits: "it's certainly stability, it's certainly security, and those are two essential ingredients for peace."

Much of Jordan's land is desert. A study has predicted that rainfall across the country will drop by about a third by the beginning of the next century. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Water at Risk: Read more stories in the series


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.