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New Way to Overcome the Growing Water Crisis in Jordan

A growing population combined with declining water supplies will reduce Jordan’s per capita water use by 50% toward the end of this century.

An aerial view of the Jordan River running through Jordan and the West Bank. Image Credit: Shutterstock.

If interventions are not made, only a few households in the arid country will have access to even 10.5 gallons (40 L) of piped water supply for each person per day. Among these, the biggest impact will be on low income neighborhoods with 91% of households receiving less than 40 L per day for 11 successive months every year by 2100.

These are some of the sobering estimations of a peer-reviewed article penned by a global group of 17 scientists and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 29th, 2021.

According to Steve Gorelick, a hydrologist from Stanford University and the study co-author, the worsening water crisis in Jordan provides a brief picture of the difficulties looming elsewhere caused by population growth, climate change, demographic shocks, intensifying water use and increased competition for water across borders.

Gorelick also guides the Global Freshwater Initiative in the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

According to the World Health Organization, 50% of humans may survive in water-stressed regions by 2025, and the United Nations expects that water scarcity could displace as many as 700 million individuals by 2030.

In Jordan, flows in the Jordan-Yarmouk—the country’s largest river system—have decreased because of upstream diversion in Syria and Israel.

In some regions, groundwater levels areas have decreased by over 1 m every year, and a significant aquifer along Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia is profoundly pumped on either side of the boundary.

Water demand has largely increased because of population growth marked by an influx of refugees, including over 1 million Syrian refugees in the last 10 years.

Wide disparities and extreme water scarcity in public water supplies are powerful ingredients for conflict. The water situation in Jordan has long been considered a crisis and is currently on the edge of 'boiling over' into instability, stated Jim Yoon, a water security and resilience scientist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the lead author of the study.

Jordan’s unique role as a bastion of peace in the region makes these findings all the more cause for concern,” stated Yoon, who initiated the work on the latest study as a PhD student at Stanford University.

As part of its 17 sustainable development goals, the U.N. has pledged to ensure sustainable management of freshwater and universal access to sanitation and clean water.

But to date, analytic frameworks have been insufficient, stated Gorelick, who headed the Jordan Water Project and its continuation—the FUSE Project (Food-water-energy for Urban Sustainable Environments).

The latest predictions are based on the world’s first computer model of Jordan’s freshwater system that replicates interactions among human behaviors and natural processes.

Under a series of socioeconomic and climate situations, the investigators measured the impacts of sustaining the status quo against introducing measures, like raising tariffs for major water users, preventing water theft, fixing leaky pipes and reallocating a quarter of water supply from farms to cities.

The researchers’ computer model indicates that efforts to concurrently reduce demand, boost supply, and reform distribution may potentially lead to 'exponential' enhancements in national water security.

Today, access to public water supply in Jordan is largely unequal, with wealthier companies and households usually supplementing limited municipal supplies with expensive deliveries from private operators of tanker trucks.

Avoiding large disparities in public water supply will be necessary to avoid water stress under growing water scarcity in Jordan and regions around the world.

Christian Klassert, Study Co-Author and German Economist

The various facets of the water crisis in Jordan render it a particularly valuable region to investigate the effects of simultaneous versus individual interventions, added Gorelick. Now since a new model is available for this complex setting, it can be easily adapted to other areas as well.

Increasing water supply via large-scale desalination is the single most effective step that should be taken by Jordan.

To this end, one suggestions among many proposals pursued by Jordan since the 1960s is to desalinate water from the Red Sea in the south region, deliver freshwater north to the capital city Amman, and discard the unwanted extremely saline water in the rapidly declining Dead Sea.

Although water policy debates usually present only the selected supply and demand interventions as conflicting alternatives, a range of interventions in both modes really works best together, wrote the study authors.

You would think that any one of these interventions would have a greater impact. But it turns out you have to do everything.

Steve Gorelick, Study Co-Author and Hydrologist, Stanford University

For a nation whose economic output for every individual is less than one-tenth that of the United States, the cost and scale of near-total reform of its water industry are specifically daunting.

In water-scarce regions where sustainability planning is most needed, it is challenging to think beyond how to distribute scarce freshwater tomorrow, next month, and to some extent, in the next several years. It’s in these places where our long-term policy evaluations are most valuable.

Steve Gorelick, Study Co-Author and Hydrologist, Stanford University

Gorelick is the Cyrus Fisher Tolman Professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) at Stanford University.

Other co-authors on the study titled “A coupled human-natural system analysis of freshwater security under climate and population change,” are affiliated with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ; University of Manchester; Université Laval; King’s College London; Jordan University of Science and Technology; Leipzig University; University of California, Merced; Bechtel Corporation; and Texas A&M University.

The study was financially supported by the National Science Foundation, the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Germany’s Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the Belmont Forum.

Additional funding was provided by the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and USAID.

Journal Reference:

Yoon, J., et al. (2021) A coupled human-natural system analysis of freshwater security under climate and population change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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