Jordan: Water Scarcity

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Why is water so important to us? Firstly, it is one of the fundamental requirements for human physical survival along with oxygen, food, shelter and sleep. It is one of the basic human rights guaranteed by the United Nations. According to the UN Human Rights Council, "the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity".[1]

For basic physical survival, a human requires something between 2 and 5 litres of water per day. If we add the water needed for cooking and washing, then a Bedouin tribe from the Middle East can make do on roughly 20-30 litres of water per day, while sedentary populations require an absolute minimum of 100 litres per person a day for safe hygiene and an adequate standard of living[2] Domestic households in developed countries typically require about 250-350 litres a person in Europe and over 500 litres in North America.

But it is not only a basic factor in the maintenance of our lives and the life of every organic life form on the planet, it is also essential to every other aspect of human life from cooking and cleaning, to transport and energy, to climate and food production, to carbon sequestration (the oceans act as a vital carbon sink and hence are becoming more and more acidified), to our religious rituals (think of the Catholic Church's use of holy water or the ablutions required of Islam before prayer), to our physical landscape (our coastlines, lakes, rivers, glacial valleys, etc) and to our mental landscape (our art, poetry and literature is full of water images, e.g. Stauss's The Blue Danube, Smetana's The Moldau, etc).

Earth's water distribution.svg

The human body itself is composed mainly of water: about 75 to 80% of babies, to between 50 and 65% of adults, while our brains are composed of up to 85% water.[3] The planet’s surface is made up of 71% water, but only 0.03% of this is available to us as fresh water. Of the 1.386 km3 of water on the Earth’s surface, 96.5% is made up of the oceans, another 1% is saline ground water, and only 2.5% is fresh water. Of that 2.5%, 68.7% is locked up in the polar ice caps, 30.1% is found in groundwater, and 1.2% is surface water.[4]

Globalisation aspects of access to water

In every corner of the modern globe, water is to a greater or lesser extent a crucial raw material for practically all economic activity. Around the planet, up to 92% of water is used for non-household purposes, mostly in the agricultural sector. Growing a sufficient amount of food for a human adult requires around 300 metric tons of water a year, i.e. nearly a ton a day.[2] If this water does not arrive through natural precipitation, then it has to come via human constructed irrigation conduits – irrigated agriculture is responsible for 69% of global water consumption.

Water Stress Around 2000 A.D. By WaterGAP

Industry also consumes enormous amounts of water for washing, diluting, cooling and production of steam. Highly industrialised economies therefore harness most of their water for such purposes where water often also provides an important source of energy via hydroelectric power generation in large-scale dams, as well as a vital means of transport. As the natural habitat for planetary piscine life all countries that are able heavily exploit their water resources as a source of food, and for the countries with the most highly developed economies, water is a natural draw card for recreational and tourism activities.

All these activities have a great impact on the world’s water reserves and in particular on its limited resources of fresh water. As the world economy becomes more and more globalised and integrated in order to meet the demands of an ever increasing population, water consumption increases accordingly, placing pressure on the drinking water supply. In “water poor” nations, competition increases between people and commercial activity over dwindling supplies of potable water – water is diverted toward irrigation for expanded food production, to upmarket hotels and golf courses to cater to rising numbers of wealthy tourists, and to new industries to provide the consumer products demanded by the global market. But the impact is not only on the increased volume of water used. Expanded agricultural activity not only consumes more water but also pollutes remaining water supplies with the run-off of chemical fertilisers, while large scale irrigation schemes can destroy natural water ecosystems; greater industrial consumption of water creates greater amounts of waste water that can overwhelm sewage and water purification plants; rapidly expanding populations in water stressed countries place overwhelming pressure on water delivery systems; and overpumping of groundwater supplies can dramatically increase salinity levels and render water unfit for human consumption.

In terms of water stress levels, it is generally considered that countries with annual supplies of 1,000-2,000 m3 per person are water-stressed, with 1,000 m3 thought to be the minimum per capita requirement of a moderately developed country.[2] Societies with less than 500 m3 per capita are said to suffer from absolute scarcity, so this "lack of water then requires application of expensive technologies and becomes a constraint on food production, social and economic development, and protection of natural systems.”[2]

It is generally accepted that we face a global water crisis, elements of which can be summed up as follow:[5]

  • More than 2.4 billion people have no access to sanitation and more than 1.2 billion lack potable water.
  • Even under the best circumstances, the sanitation deficit could be reduced to only 1.9 billion people by 2015.
  • Conservation or efficient water management is not encouraged by the low price of water
  • Climate change will have a dramatic impact on water supplies in future, although there is huge uncertainty as to the effects it will have on individual regions, making it extremely difficult to plan adequately for the future

Water in the Middle East

The climate in the Middle East is classified as ‘arid’, with low precipitation and high evapotranspiration, i.e. a large swathe of the region receives less than 200mm of rainfall per annum and potential evaporation of surface water of over 2000mm. [6]

Map of Middle East

It has very few rivers: the Euphrates and the Tigris are very important sources of water for the whole region, while the shrinking levels of the Jordan and its tributaries are of use to the west of the region only.

Relative decline of water supplies due to more frequent droughts and the burgeoning population has increased political conflict. It is expected that the population of countries in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, will double over the next 50 years to 600 million. Some of these countries are already extracting over 75% of their total renewable water resources. [5] Israel has about 300 m3 of fresh water per person per year and Kuwait a mere 1 m3, while in the Gaza Strip in Palestine it is estimated that 90% of the local water supply is undrinkable as a result of pollution and increased salinity. [6] This problem is aggravated by the continuing historical tensions between the Arabs and the Israelis. Tensions over water even played a part in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 due to a dispute over the diversion of the River Jordan and the sabotage of water pipelines[7]; the post-war gains of Israel provided it with control over the headwaters of the Jordan and the aquifers of the West Bank and hence strengthened its overall geostrategic position in the region. [6] But despite such conflicts, water can also serve as a point of agreement; the Israeli-Palestine water commission, for example, is the only joint committee created by the Oslo Agreement that still exists today, while Israel and Jordan have worked together for years on managing the Sea of Galilee located in Israel but near the Yarmuk River, which demarcates the border between the two countries. [7]

Water in Jordan

Water availability

Jordan is classified as a water scarce or water poor nation and is ranked number ten in the world in relation to its water shortage.[8] It has been facing water deficits since the 1960s. In 1996, Jordan had 175 m3/y per person, which was 20% of the world’s water poverty level (anything below 1,000 m3/y classifies a country as water-poor). If current trends continue, by 2025 the water supply per capita will fall to 91 m3.[2]

Jordan 2004 CIA map.jpg

Overall, about 80% of the country receives annual rainfall of less than 100mm, 12.5% receives between 100 and 200mm, 3.8% between 200 and 300mm, 1.8% between 300 and 500mm, and only 1.3% of Jordan receives more than 500mm per year. [8] Total rainfall in 2004/2005 was roughly 9,304million m3 of which between 85%[2] and 93.9%[8] evaporates, and only 3.9% of rain filters through to recharge groundwater.


The amount of rain that falls in Jordan in the north is mainly influenced by orography (the topographic relief of mountains), with rainfall in Galilee and Jerusalem (which are about 800m above sea level) exceeding 600mm per year, while rainfall in the Jordan Valley (in the range of -400 to 0m) is less than 200mm per year[7] (as a measure of how little water this is, a viable level of rain-fed agriculture is 400mm per year, i.e. it’s impossible to farm below that level).[5] By way of contrast, the south is exceedingly dry and rainfall is not influenced by mountain topography. Ma’an, for example, is 1,069m above sea level but receives less than 100mm of rain per year. [7] This north-south contrast is the result of the differences in trajectories of depressions that bring most of the winter rainfall to the Middle East: in the north they bring moist Mediterranean air and therefore cause it to rain, while in the south the same depressions bring dry desert air from the Sinai and hence almost no rain. [7]

Climate change will probably bring a reduction in rainfall at the peak of the rainy season by the end of the century.

Surface water resources

Jordan has three large rivers, the Jordan, the Zarqa and the Yarmouk, but all have become highly undependable. The River Jordan is the main water source for both Jordan and Israel, but as it is saline (salty), it is not suitable for drinking or irrigation without undergoing filtration first. It is also small in comparison to other major rivers – the natural

Jordan River, Jordan

discharge of the Jordan river basin of approximately 1,500 million m3 is 65 times less than the Nile’s and 400 times less than the Mississippi’s.[7] There is also huge variability in discharge year on year from the River Jordan, with reductions of up to 40% in drought periods. It has also been reduced to “nothing more than a creek” [8] as a result of upstream

King Talal Dam

diversions and over-pumping by Syria and Israel.[2] The River Zarqa meanwhile receives large amounts of municipal, industrial and agricultural effluent, making it close to unusable for domestic and irrigation purposes during the dry season, while the River Yarmouk, while less stressed, is also a receptacle for municipal wastewater. [8]

With relatively few surface water resources available, there are not surprisingly few dams and reservoirs in Jordan. The largest reservoir is the King Talal Dam, but it faces the dual problems of erratic river flows that reduce the trapped water level below the dam's capacity of 86 MCM, while pollution from factories dumping wastewater into tributaries leading to the dam raises it salinity and chemical and metal levels.[2]

Groundwater resources

It is groundwater stored in aquifers rather than surface water that provides Jordan with most of its domestic water supply. It is the only source of water in some areas of the country. The depth of groundwater is highly variable, ranging from 2 to 1,000m, and the main reserves are found in the south with a long-term safe yield estimate of about 90 MCM per year for 100 years.[6] The total long-term safe yield of all renewable groundwater resources in Jordan from 12 groundwater basins comprising several groundwater aquifer systems has been estimated at 275 MCM.[2] However, exploitation of this water resource is not without its problems, as salt levels vary between aquifers from 170 to 3,000 parts per million as a result of surrounding geological formations (calcium, magnesium and sodium leech into the water to various degrees, making the water “brackish”).[6] “Each source of groundwater needs to be considered independently in order to achieve effective management of the risk of salinity associated with each formation’s chemistry.”[6] There are also non-renewable fossil water supplies (i.e. resources that are not recharged through rainfall) that are being extracted at a rate of 77 MCM.[9]

Relative ground water travel times

Waste water resources

As of 2006, there were 16 wastewater treatment plants in Jordan, which provide an additional water resource for the country’s use. Because of Jordan’s topography and the location of the vast majority of its urban population above the Jordan Valley, most treated wastewater flows downstream into the Valley, where it is used for irrigation purposes.[2]. Currently, around 80 MCM is used for irrigation[9], but the Jordanian government envisages 232 MCM of wastewater used for irrigation by 2020. [2]

Supply and demand

Current water use exceeds the renewable supply, so Jordan faces a constant and growing water deficit. In other words, the present rate of water extraction from all sources is unsustainable, and prospects for increased availability in the future are not good. In 2010, the total water demand was 1,383 MCM, while the total supply from all sources, was 1,054 MCM, creating a total deficit of 329 MCM. By 2040, it is estimated that due to population and economic growth demand will increase to 2,236 MCM, but supply will expand to only 1,549 MCM, leaving a huge deficit of 689 MCM.[8]

There are three main uses for water in Jordan: municipal, industrial and agricultural. Agriculture is the single largest user of water, both from surface and aquifer resources. Irrigation water consumes 77.5% of the total water demand, while municipal and industry requirements make up the rest.[8] This is despite the fact that agriculture represents only 3% of Jordanian GDP.[9]

Impact of current water use practices

Rationing and deficient water infrastructure

Domestic water rationing was introduced as early as 1987, and many households in Ammam are without mains-water for six days a week. Such an obviously inadequate supply of water led to illegal tapping of water mains, resulting in 30,000 prosecutions for water violations in 2004 alone.[6] Water systems in Ammam are in a calamitous state with up to 54% of the 105 m3 entering the system lost or unaccounted for in 2004, while the majority of the city’s population thought the water supply polluted with chlorine, dirt, sediments and algae.[6]


An exaggerated focus by the government on regulating the domestic water supply has diverted attention from the damage incurred to the water system through agricultural use where pollution from fertilisers and other agricultural outputs has had a large negative impact.

Between 1953 and 1986, the government promoted agriculture production that it thought would align with the soil and water available. However, farmers preferred to grow crops with greater commercial potential, and this led to depleted water resources and soil quality. There was an over-reliance on thirsty tree crops irrigated by flooding with open canals highly susceptible to evaporation in such an arid climate; most the land was used to grow vegetables (54% of land area, 99.8% irrigated) or permanent fruit tree crops (33% of land area, 99.2% irrigated) (average numbers between 1994 and 2008).[9] As one would expect from these figures, much of the

Looking over the shoulder of a Peruvian farmer in Huarmey delta at waterlogged and salinised irrigated land with poor crop stand. This illustrates an environmental impact of upstream irrigation developments causing an increased flow of groundwater to this lower lying area leading to the adverse conditions.

estimated cultivatable land in Jordan is located outside the zone of sufficient rainfall for rain-fed agriculture. Moreover, the land area that does receive sufficient rainfall for growing food crops is decreasing as climate change renders rain patterns more unreliable and urban expansion increases (Ammam, for example, covers some of the best rain-led land in the country). And as noted already, irrigation methods tend to be highly inefficient and wasteful due to the continued use of traditional flood irrigation systems rather than modern drip and sprinkler systems.

Over-pumping of groundwater

It is estimated that current use of groundwater is 161% above the safe yield limit,[6] meaning that some of the non-renewable aquifers not recharged through rainwater will eventually run out altogether. Furthermore, the greater the drawdown on underwater systems, the more saline the water becomes as the concentration of natural minerals resulting from the natural rock formation of the aquifer increases, and hence requiring expensive desalination technology to remedy.

Overloaded wastewater systems

As noted above, treated wastewater is another source of water utilised in Jordan. However, as with urban water supply systems, wastewater treatment plants have received low priority investment and current performance is insufficient to cope with the amount of wastewater that requires purification and so ends up discharging low quality effluent. This effluent then has a negative effect on public health because of contamination of crops or the build-up of toxins in irrigated soils. “Surface and ground are also adversely impacted due to runoff and seepage of polluted water, limiting their use for drinking water purposes. Furthermore, septic water is not regulated and untreated water discharged into the watershed has become a health and environmental issue.”[9]

Water scarcity as a barrier to sustainable development

Environment and population pressure

Over drawing on aquifers has led to the drying up of a large percentage of aquatic ecosystems in Jordan. The Azraq Oasis – a wetland of international renown – dried up in 1985 as a result of its over exploitation for domestic and agricultural purposes.[2] Growth in human settlements has adversely affected natural streams and springs and often led to their extinction through overuse. To make up for the loss, wells were dug to extract renewable and non-renewable groundwater, but which has led to a reduction in the water table and increased salinity, while wastewater from human activity has resulted in contamination of groundwater resources.

Palestinian refugees making their way from Galilee in October–November 1948

At the same time we should be careful to remember, however, that it is not only Jordan’s natural birth rate that is producing high population growth, but rather the state’s generosity as a host to the many refugees fleeing the numerous conflicts in the region. According to planning figures published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Jordan will be host to nearly 900,000 refugees by the end of 2013.[10] Nearly three million Palestinian refugees made Jordan their home after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, half a million Jordanian ex-patriates returned home after the First Gulf War of 1991, and a further half million Iraqis arrived after the Second Gulf War of 2003.[9] The Jordanian population currently stands at 6.3 million and is predicted to rise to 9.2 million by 2020.


Water shortages obviously have marked effect on the living conditions of average Jordanians. Jordan has the lowest domestic water consumption in the Arab world, and moreover municipal demand has exceeded available supply since the mid-1980s. During the peak of summer, 85% of Jordanians live at the “hygienic brink”.[2]

As a developing nation, Jordan has few options to improve its overall water management infrastructure or diversify its economy, leading to a situation that has been compared to the ‘food politics’ of the United States, i.e. using shortages of a vital element in basic human survival to leverage a pro-American stance.[2]


Industrial output is also highly reliant on large amounts of fresh water. Generally speaking, three litres of water are required to produce a tin of vegetables, 100 L for 1 kg of paper, 4,500 L to produce one ton of cement, 50,000 L to manufacture a ton of leather, and about 280,000 L to make one ton of steel.[2] Water is also needed for energy production and cooling systems.

Due to the chronic shortages of water, Jordanian industrial companies often rely on water delivered by tankers at huge cost. Others rely on their own private wells that they have to keep drilling deeper and deeper at great cost as the water table falls, in addition to having to filter extracted water that is high in salt content. As there is a widespread ban on drilling new wells, companies are frequently forced to relocate to localities where there are existing wells, but where the price of land is understandably far higher than normal.

Economic development is therefore being held back in Jordan by the high cost of industrial production requiring large amounts of quality fresh water. It would hence seem more logical from a purely economic point of view to reallocate water resources from agriculture to industry where “productivity per unit of consumed water is 40 times higher…and the employment effect is 13 times higher”.[2]


Documentary Films

Web sites

There are many websites dedicated to water shortage issues. Here is a small sample:

Academic Articles

The following academic papers can be found by using academic search engines or databases like, or, etc.

  • Abdulla, Fayez A., and A. W. Al-Shareef. "Roof rainwater harvesting systems for household water supply in Jordan." Desalination 243.1 (2009): 195-207.
  • Al-Adamat, Rida, Abdullah Diabat, and Ghada Shatnawi. "Combining GIS with multicriteria decision making for siting water harvesting ponds in Northern Jordan." Journal of Arid Environments 74.11 (2010): 1471-1477.
  • Alqadi, Khaled A., and Lalit Kumar. "Water issues in the Kingdom of Jordan: A brief review with reasons for declining quality." Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment 9.3&4 (2011): 1019-1023.
  • Assayed, Almoayied, et al. "On-site rainwater harvesting to achieve household water security among rural and peri-urban communities in Jordan." Resources, Conservation and Recycling 73 (2013): 72-77.
  • Barham, Nasim. "Is Good Water Governance Possible in a Rentier State? The Case of Jordan." ANALYSIS (2012).
  • Black, Emily. "Water and society in Jordan and Israel today: an introductory overview." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 368.1931 (2010): 5111-5116.
  • Hadadin, Nidal, et al. "Water shortage in Jordan—Sustainable solutions." Desalination 250.1 (2010): 197-202.
  • Hadadin, Nidal A., and Zeyad S. Tarawneh. "Environmental issues in Jordan, solutions and recommendations." American Journal of Environmental Sciences 3.1 (2007): 30.
  • Kubursi, Atif, et al. "Water scarcity in Jordan: Economic instruments, issues and options." Economic Research Forum Working Paper Series. No. 599. 2011.
  • Libiszewski, Stephan. Water disputes in the Jordan basin region and their role in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, 2009.
  • Medina Jr, Miguel A. "Global water crisis and climate change." Journal of Hydrologic Engineering 15.3 (2010): 167-170.
  • Mohsen, Mousa S. "Water strategies and potential of desalination in Jordan." Desalination 203.1 (2007): 27-46.
  • Mourad, Khaldoon A., Ronny Berndtsson, and Karin Aggestam. "Can Integrated Water Resources Management Contribute to Sustainable Peace in the Middle East?." Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection 1.1 (2013): 1-8.
  • Mourad, Khaldoon Abdalah, Hartmut Gaese, and Amer S. Jabarin. "Economic value of tree fruit production in Jordan Valley from a virtual water perspective." Water resources management 24.10 (2010): 2021-2034.
  • Potter, Robert B., Khadija Darmame, and Stephen Nortcliff. "Issues of water supply and contemporary urban society: the case of Greater Amman, Jordan." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 368.1931 (2010): 5299-5313.
  • Ray, P. A., P. H. Kirshen, and D. W. Watkins Jr. "Staged climate change adaptation planning for water supply in Amman, Jordan." Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 138.5 (2011): 403-411.
  • Samuels, Rana, et al. "Climate change impacts on Jordan River flow: downscaling application from a regional climate model." Journal of Hydrometeorology 11.4 (2010): 860-879.
  • Scott, Christopher A., et al. "Facing water scarcity in Jordan: reuse, demand reduction, energy, and transboundary approaches to assure future water supplies." Water International 28.2 (2003): 209-216.
  • Sowers, Jeannie, Avner Vengosh, and Erika Weinthal. "Climate change, water resources, and the politics of adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa." Climatic Change 104.3-4 (2011): 599-627.
  • Srinivasan, V., et al. "The nature and causes of the global water crisis: Syndromes from a meta‐analysis of coupled human‐water studies." Water Resources Research 48.10 (2012).
  • Zeitoun, Mark, et al. "Water demand management in Yemen and Jordan: addressing power and interests." The Geographical Journal 178.1 (2012): 54-66.


  1. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: The Right to Water and Sanitation Toolkit [online] [cit 1.11.2013]
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 Mohsen, Mousa S. "Water strategies and potential of desalination in Jordan." Desalination 203.1 (2007)
  3. Chemcraft, “Water in the Body” [online] [cit 1.11.2013]
  4., Amount and composition of global water [online] [cit 1.11.2013]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Medina Jr, Miguel A. "Global water crisis and climate change." Journal of Hydrologic Engineering 15.3 (2010): 167-170.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Alqadi, Khaled A., and Lalit Kumar. "Water issues in the Kingdom of Jordan: A brief review with reasons for declining quality." Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment 9.3&4 (2011): 1019-1023.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Black, Emily. "Water and society in Jordan and Israel today: an introductory overview." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 368.1931 (2010): 5111-5116. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Black" defined multiple times with different content
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Hadadin, Nidal, et al. "Water shortage in Jordan—Sustainable solutions." Desalination 250.1 (2010): 197-202.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Kubursi, Atif, et al. "Water scarcity in Jordan: Economic instruments, issues and options." Economic Research Forum Working Paper Series. No. 599. 2011.
  10. UNHCR, 2013 UNHCR country operations profile – Jordan [online] [cit 5.11.2013] available from
Creative Commons Author: Andrew Barton. This article was published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. How to cite the article: Andrew Barton. (11. 08. 2022). Jordan: Water Scarcity. VCSEWiki. Retrieved 17:21 11. 08. 2022) from: <>.

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