Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with its population having access to an average of 16 gallons per person a day, compared to 92.5 gallons per person in the U.S. As climate change projections indicate growing water scarcity around the globe, the Middle East and North Africa region expects to be especially hard hit with flash floods and droughts, exacerbating the already dire water crisis. Domestic and international political factors, specifically government mismanagement of water systems and recent rapid population growth due to the influx of refugees, place an additional strain on Jordan’s limited resources. Jordan’s impending water crisis is more than a humanitarian concern; as a historical pillar of regional stability and host to scores of refugees from conflict-ridden neighbors, the water crisis also poses a geopolitical threat to the region. To mitigate the worsening effects of climate change on a particularly vulnerable region, MENA nations must prioritize diplomatic cooperation and set aside political tensions to create mutually beneficial solutions to pressing climate-related issues.
Water scarcity has long been an issue for Jordan’s growing population in the desert region. Largely due to influxes of refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring countries, Jordan’s population has rapidly grown in recent decades: from roughly 2.5 million in 1980 to more than 10 million in 2021. Jordan is one of the largest host countries of refugees per capita of any nation in the world, and most recent data indicates that at least 700,000 registered Syrian refugees currently reside in the country with 19.5 percent in refugee camps. A combination of climate change, government mismanagement, and the drilling of wells and pumping of water away from aquifers reduces available water sources and leaves refugee populations especially vulnerable.
The complexity of Jordan’s water crisis requires expansive projects with cross-regional cooperation. As neighbors with a mutual interest in mitigating the potentially destabilizing impacts of climate change, Israel and Jordan, in particular, can better work together to promote sustainable and preventative solutions to the water crisis despite their historically tense relations. The 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, which formally ended the war between the two countries, began productive yet skeptical diplomatic relations that fall far short of friendship but have laid the foundation for collaboration. The two governments have recently begun working together to address the dire threat of climate change facing the region.
Israel is in a unique position to leverage its abundance of vital resources and advanced technological capabilities (specifically, its desalination capacity) with its tense political relations with neighboring countries. Recent and ongoing attempts at targeting the water crisis include the 2013 Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Project and the trilateral water-for-energy deal involving Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. The strategy of the former, which was just recently canceled due to logistical complications and alleged lack of Israeli interest, aimed to link the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. This would have provided an additional water resource and mitigated the rapid shrinking of the Dead Sea, which has dropped an average of three feet of water per year for the past two decades due primarily to the loss of the Jordan River as a water source. This failure was particularly disappointing due to Israel’s annual diversion of 440 Mm3 /yr from Lake Tiberias, which virtually blocks inflow from the Upper Jordan and is a primary factor in lowering water levels. One of the natural wonders of the world, the Dead Sea is more than a major tourist attraction; its shrinking threatens agriculture in Southern Jordan with the rise of sinkholes threatening crops, and farmers losing an important water source due to the withering of nearby oases which also threatens over 300 species of plants, fish, and birds.
The recent water-for-energy agreement appears more promising because it is an exchange agreement where both Israel and Jordan will receive a necessary resource and the UAE stands to make a profit. The deal would create an exchange between Israel and Jordan, in which Jordan will receive 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water from Israel in exchange for providing solar energy from a farm in eastern Jordan that is slated to be built by a UAE government-owned renewable energy company. Signed in Dubai shortly after the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, the deal displays the importance of regional diplomatic cooperation in efforts to mitigate the complexity of climate issues and indicates the promising nature of mutually beneficial agreements.
Challenges to Implementation
While encouraging, this deal has not yet been put in motion and faces significant political and logistical obstacles. Domestic distractions such as Jordan’s growing economic crisis that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic pose a challenge to the deal’s execution. Furthermore, any form of cooperation between Jordan and Israel is threatened by public disapproval from Jordan’s primarily Palestinian population. Past cooperation with Israel has been condemned by those who view such agreements as betraying the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, to ensure long-term success, the Jordanian government must also reevaluate its water management strategy to reduce losses and misuse of limited supply that has greatly contributed to the dire situation now disrupting the country and forcing internal government reforms. Despite these potential obstacles, the gravity of Jordan’s water crisis warrants the attention and compromise necessary for the deal to come to fruition.
Without comprehensive action that addresses the government’s mismanagement of water systems, the worsening impacts of climate change, and the rising demand corresponding with population increases, Jordan’s impending water crisis could threaten domestic and regional stability. In an effort to mitigate the effects of both climate change and human-caused strains on the water supply, Israel must ensure that the trilateral water-for-energy deal comes to fruition, reduce its diversion of the Jordan River, and provide additional support to the Jordanian effort to conserve resources. If successful, this agreement can be a launching point for future regional agreements that will be necessary for other vulnerable nations to prepare for the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on an already fragile region.