Dead seas: How a water crisis in Jordan could threaten Middle East peace

Bel Trew
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Dead seas: How a water crisis in Jordan could threaten Middle East peace

Clad in identical polyester robes printed with pixelated pictures of Christ, the pilgrims on either side of the Jordan River gingerly nose their toes into its pea-green waters.

Separated by just three metres of swamp, this border has to be the strangest and shortest in the world.

Opposite us is the West Bank, in the occupied Palestinian Territories, where a large group sings hymns on manicured decking that trips up to an enormous Israeli flag.

On our side, under the shade of unkempt bougainvillaea, Jordanian policemen eye the floundering devout with bemusement.

The agreed site of Jesus’s baptism by Saint John, two millennia ago, is, however, located about 200 metres behind us on the Jordanian side.

After several years of plunging rivers levels and rainfall, the Unesco-listed pilgrimage al-Maghtas site had not been properly filled with water since 2012. And so pilgrims dunk themselves in these waters which many fear are also disappearing too.

“Historical texts talk of the waters at the baptism site being so high it would cover a tall man’s head during rainy seasons,” says Ayman, a tour guide, pointing to well-worn marble steps of the baptismal site which once led to a pool but now stretches to a sad-looking patch of cracked earth.

“But we haven’t had proper water here since 2012, with the dams up north, and temperatures rising the river is disappearing. We fear we are losing something sacred,” he adds.

The future of Jordan’s baptismal site is hardly of urgent international concern, but it is a pertinent sign of a very real simmering crisis in Jordan, which could threaten the country’s and, arguably, the region’s stability.

The rapidly shrinking waters of the world-famous Jordan River are fast bringing Israel and Jordan to ahead both physically and diplomatically. The two countries, whose relationship is arguably one of the most important for stability in the region, has become strained over the last year. And water – although not the most obvious segment of that relationship – experts warn is at the heart of it.

Israel and Jordan are bound together by powerful water-sharing agreements. They were signed as part of a sprawling 1994 peace deal, which settled land and border disputes, established trade and security relations and set the parameters of shared use of the Jordan River and its main tributary Yarmouk, also located in both countries.

But experts in Jordan now say, given the dwindling levels of the rivers and also an explosion of wells upstream in Syria, these deals are no longer fair.

Other areas of cooperation are also not going well. There have several failed attempts to get a $900m water-sharing project, nicknamed “Red Sea Dead Sea”, off the ground.

Under the deal a desalination plant would be built in the southern Jordanian port of Aqaba producing at least 80 million cubic meters annually, of which up to half could be purchased at cost by Israel and the rest go to Aqaba. The brine that is a by-product of the process will be sent north in a 180 km pipeline to save the dying Dead Sea. In exchange, Israel would release 50 million cubic metres more water from the Sea of Galilee, its largest reservoir, to the north of Jordan near Amman.

But negotiations collapsed last summer in the aftermath of a July shooting at the Israeli embassy in Amman which saw two Jordanians killed and the mission’s doors shuttered. A Jordanian teenager delivering furniture to the Israeli embassy had stabbed a guard who opened fire killing the attacker and an innocent bystander.

There had been hopes the project could be restarted after the Israeli embassy was tentatively reopened earlier this year. But while Jordan has expressed an interest in going ahead it spluttered to a halt. Tensions have now soared between the two countries, on Monday when King Abdullah II said he planned land to pull out of annexes to the same 1994 peace agreement which allowed Israel to lease Ghamr and the northern enclave of Baqura, both in Jordan, for 25 years.

The loss of the two tracts of territory prompted panic among Israeli farmers who use the land under the peace treaty. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to reassure Israelis on Monday afternoon, saying he would try to negotiate an extension to the existing agreement.

But Jordan’s King is under mounting public pressure to end all the 1994 agreements with Israel, which are unpopular back home. He has to listen to his increasingly disgruntled subjects after the country was rocked by the largest economic protests in years earlier this year.

Rallies erupted in June over tax hikes and the abolition of bread subsidies, forcing the king to change the prime minister.

There are now fears the growing water shortages could trigger another wave of unrest, as Jordan struggles to deal with a massive refugee population and instability on its Syrian and Iraq borders.

Jordan is one of the driest in the world and could be the first globally to run out of water.

According to a study published by Stanford University last August temperatures in Jordan could rise by as much as 4.5C over the next 50 years. This would mean droughts could become twice as frequent while rainfall could decrease by a third.

It’s unthinkable what impact that would have given the current situation in the country. Right now the Jordan river, Jordan’s main water resource, is delivering just 10 per cent of what it used to. While the famed Dead Sea is shrinking about a metre every year and has lost one third of its surface area.

In its place apocalyptic sinkholes are swallowing up large chunks of land, including in one place, an entire car park.

The Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area and is shrinking by a metre every year (Bel Trew)

Exacerbating the woes are other factors like over-pumped underground aquifers, an abysmally leaky pipe system and the booming refugee population.

Jordan has absorbed 1.3 million Syrians since the start of the 2011 civil war which has overloaded the water system in the country that was already home to two million Palestinian refugees.

Right now residents only have access to water once a week. In the rural areas it can be as little as once every three weeks. Every building is topped with water storage containers, so that families can store and eek out the resources they do receive.

“On average Jordanians receive 45 cubic metres of water per year, half of what they were before the Syrian crisis

Yana Abu Taleb, EcoPeace Middle East

“On average Jordanians receive 45 cubic metres of water per year, half of what they were before the Syrian crisis,“ said Yana Abu Taleb, of Eco Peace in Jordan that that works on environmental peacemaking in the Middle East region.

To put that in context that is only about 2 per cent of what Americans on average consume each year.

“Even before the Syrian crisis the government was struggling to meet demand,” Abu Taleb adds.

Samer Talozi, a professor of Science and technology and director of Mirra thinktank on irrigation and agriculture, said that 10 of the country’s 12 main aquifers were now massively depleted.

“The Azraq aquifer, for example, is currently being pumped double its safe capacity,” meaning the water is turning salty, he says.

In the same area, people are now digging wells that are 10 times as deep as they were in the past to try to access the water.

Khaled, 50, a farmer overlooks the dried out pond which once fed his fields (Bel Trew)

In other parts of the country people are digging as far down as a kilometre in the desperate hunt for a fresh supply.

In Jerash, 50 miles north of Amman and one of Jordan’s most thirsty regions, farmers said they were going bankrupt and being forced to sell off their lands because of the water crisis.

The ancient city, which is littered with Unesco-listed Greco-Roman ruins, once boasted lavish springs and even baths.

But standing next to a fetid 30ft deep crater, which once was an irrigation pond, Khaled, 50, said that he was on verge of giving up his business.

Because he only gets water once every 20 days he has to purchase water from private firms for sometimes as much as £10 per cubic metre.

“We get water every three weeks, which is in no way sufficient. And whereas five years ago that water was fresh, it is now salty which destroys the land,” the father-of-three said.

He used to grow vegetables, olives and cherries but had to give most of it up because they consumed too much water.

This was once a full pond that fed irrigation canals on nearby farms (Bel Trew)

“We can’t save or earn a profit the best we can do is cover our expenses. The government keeps coming and inspecting the areas and promising to dig wells for us, but nothing has happened,” he adds.

Across the road at another farm, the Jordanian owner was about to declare bankruptcy.

One of the farmhands Mohamed Hussein, 31, from Upper Egypt, said half the staff were already let go over the last year because of the dwindling business.

‘Only God knows what will happen if we become even more short on water,” he says holding his head in his hands.

“Five years ago, there used to be rain even in June and July. Now we have to wait until October if we are lucky,” he added.

A nearby resident, who has five children, said he is forced to beg water off his neighbours each month when they routinely ran out. “They say we get water ever 14 days but it never comes back before 20 days, and I can’t afford to buy any to fill in the gap,” he adds.

Mohammed, from Egypt, says half the farm hands had to be let go as business was struggling (Bel Trew)

All around Jerash the subject of Jordan’s water agreements with Israel and Syria are hotly debated, with most angry at the little water Jordan appears to receive. Talozi, at Mirra, who calls the deals with Israel and Syria “really bad ones” because they are based on a fixed amount of water.

Jordan has agreed to allocate 25 million cubic metres from the Yarmouk river to Israel every year, and take the rest. But due to climate change and the proliferation of wells in Syria, some years what’s left of the Yarmouk river, which has sunk by 60 per cent in volume, can just be a dribble. The deals with Syria control the number of dams but not the water well construction.

Abu Taleb from EcoPeace agrees. She argues that the water economy of the region has changed since Israel has become the global leader in desalination technology producing and selling fresh water at the cheapest rates in the world.

“Things need to be amended. We need to address water security issues as national security issues,” she says.

“Israel went from being a water scarce country to producing excess water. The reality says they are not only able to meet their demands but also to meet the demands of their neighbouring countries,” she adds.

EcoPeace has been trying to push a program of “healthy interdependency and cooperation” between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan, including agreements that could see the three areas swap water for renewable energy supplies.

“The only way to achieve water security is cooperation,” she adds.

The Red Sea Dead Sea, although controversial, is one way to do this.

But Talozi also fears that Jordan will still face water woes if internal issues are not fixed. Even if Jordan got its hands on more water, agricultural practices were massively wasteful.

He estimates that 20 per cent of the country’s 900 million cubic metre water budget is essentially “exported” out of the country due to the export of thirsty produce like strawberries and bananas. This might make sense if the economic return was huge but at the moment it accounts for just 4 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Talozi also suspects that there is rampant theft of water, which is heavily subsided.

The Jordanian authorities estimate that at least 15 per cent of the annual water budget disappears due to illegal pumping. Talozi believes it might be more. He points to a news report from 2016 where the authorities uncovered a 5 km water tunnel which water thieves brazenly built under the airport highway.

“The Red Dead project is needed for Jordan but it will be a bad investment if there is inefficient water use and mismanagement,” he adds.

Back in the farms in Jerash, Mohamed Bani Mustafa, who used to work for the water ministry and whose family are farmers, says he fears the area is at breaking point.

“In some places you might not get water for weeks, how does that work?“ he says, kicking dust into an empty irrigation channel.

“It’s not just my opinion. All the water experts all over the world think the next war will be over water resources. If my neighbour controls all the resources and I do not have water to drink, where do you think we will be?”

Read the first two parts of the Water Wars series, Boiling Basra and Iraq’s disappearing Eden