Jordan’s water supply system, already under severe strain, is being stretched to the limit by the large influx of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, warn two of the British aid agencies who are members of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) which is responding to the refugee crisis.
Jordan, one of the most water-poor countries in the world, is currently hosting more than 363,000 Syrians who have fled conflict in their country. Around a third of the refugees are living in Jordan’s sprawling refugee camp, Zaatari, while others are scattered in towns and villages across Jordan.
Over three and a half thousand cubic metres of water each day is delivered into the camp at Zaatari, providing refugees with clean water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. British aid agency, Oxfam, is working in one section of the camp, installing water and sanitation facilities for more than 14,000 people.
Despite growing refugee numbers, agencies working in the camp are now planning to cap the amount of water delivered at the camp to current levels over the summer months. Many water taps will also be turned off to reduce water consumption and costs.
Christian Snoad, Oxfam's water, sanitation and hygiene co-ordinator in Zaatari said: "The Syrian refugee emergency is highlighting one of Jordan's most pressing problems - water. Solutions need to be found to deal with Jordan’s water scarcity and this will need to be done as a matter of urgency.”
“Small-scale efforts to conserve water are critical but they will not be enough to address the bigger and longer-term problem. The Jordanian government will need much longer-term and large-scale help from governments around the world to address this critical issue."
Many Syrian refugees staying urban areas have been unprepared for Jordan’s water shortages.
Penny Sims from the British Red Cross said:
“In areas like Ajloun water tanks are only filled twice a month, but when the system is under pressure from increased demand or hot weather, it can be just once a month. The local Red Crescent are having to provide water for refugee families who have found their tanks are empty.”
Faced with chronic water shortages, the authorities in Jordan, whose own population has been growing at an annual rate of 3.5%, have been forced to extract more water from the ground since the mid 1980's. It's just a matter of time before the main sources run out. In some areas, groundwater extraction is nearly three times the recharge rate.
Jordan’s water system is also old and in urgent need of upgrading. As much as 65% of water in Mafraq governorate, which hosts some of the largest number of refugees, is lost through leaks in the water or by people illegally siphoning water from the system.
In the summer, demands for water surge as temperatures soar and the population increases with tourist visitors and returnee Jordanians coming home to visit their families.
With greater numbers of users and higher water consumption, households are already finding the water pipes are running dry more quickly and have to purchase more water from the tankers, which incurs extra costs. Most families also pay extra for filtered water to drink, complaining that the tap water is not good enough for drinking.
But many Syrian families, who arrived with little more than a pocketful of money and the clothes on their back, can’t afford to do this. They’ve reported an increase in diarrhoeal cases among their young children who have no choice but to drink water straight from the tap, when it flows.
As early as last month, there were signs of bigger problems to come. For two weeks in February, part of Mafraq town didn’t have any water deliveries, due to water shortages. At one meeting, a host community told Oxfam staff that water used to be delivered twice a week; now, they said, in most areas it is only delivered once a week.
The Government of Jordan is actively exploring options for improving water conservation as well as addressing water supply such as large-scale transport of water across the country, and desalination of seawater.
For its programme in Zaatari, Oxfam has adopted water-conservation measures such as taps that run water for short periods of time to prevent water wastage.
Agencies have also called for the need to create better awareness among the refugee arrivals of Jordan’s water problems. In Syria, before the conflict, water availability was far higher than in Jordan.