Jordan’s Minister of Water & Irrigation Hazim El Nasser talks about the current scarcity of water resources in the country and the attempts of the government to transcend the challenges of boosting water supply into opportunities of investment, regional cooperation, and peace building.What are your insights of the current situation that Jordan is going through in terms of water scarcity? And what is the role water is going to play in the coming years in order to reach regional stability?
Jordan is a very water scarce country this is related mainly to natural reasons like it being an arid country, and manmade reasons like hosting waves of refugees since World War II; when Jordan hosted millions of refugees as a result of the Israeli conflict, the Iraqi conflict, the Syrian conflict, and the general Arab problems. When there is a problem in the region there are people that come to Jordan because they think that Jordan is the root of the “Arab people;” the Hashemite family is for all Arabs; the Great Arab Revolution that took place at the beginning of the last century called for Arab unity and identity. The water situation became more challenging with more people coming to this country because we are already on the edge when it comes to water resources, and we are now number three worldwide in terms of countries with the least water availability per capita. Approximately 3 million refugees came to Jordan from Syria half of them Syrian citizens and half of them refugees from other countries; this movement of people increased our water demand by 21% in general, but in some areas like in the north the demand has been increased by 40%; this makes our life very difficult because first of all we do not have resources, and second we do not have the financial resources. We are talking about a huge investment to secure the need of water supply for this refugees and this people that do not have any means to pay for their water. At the beginning the international community was very helpful, but, lately they have been forgetting sometimes in terms of the assistance; that is despite the bilateral assistance that we get from the US, Germany, Japan, or France, etc. This situation is beyond our capability, affordability, and caring capacity in terms of supply arrangements; in terms of the size of the Jordan and the number of refugees that have come to the country from Syria we can be compare it to all the Canadians moving to the US. We are trying to transcend this challenge into investment opportunities in terms of investment, regional cooperation, and peace building. We are working on a major project that we will work out together with the Israelis and the Palestinians which is rated the Water Conveyance project; the project was agreed upon last December in Washington D.C. with the presence of the US Government and the World Bank it was signed between Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians. Our goal is to pass water from the red sea, through desalination, to the Dead Sea; the Dead Sea is facing environmental problems because of the declination of the water level, and there is a demand for water so we said that we will do this project. When the project is finished we will be able to swap water to Israelis who need water in the south, and to Jordanians and Palestinians who need water in the north; instead of building pipes and wasting money we just have to do the swap. This was the first trilateral project between Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians; we want this project to be successful because if it is successful it will be “the gate way” for regional cooperation among the three partners. It is not easy to get out these three partners together considering all the political problems, but, the urgent need for water makes people keep silent and accept this regional cooperation concept.You stated during an interview that the Arab spring uprisings that have spread across the Middle East since 2010 came about in part because of water scarcity and related issues such as high food prices. How do you see the future of water access in the Middle East?
You see that is what I was saying, water could initiate sensitivity and hostility among boarders, or it can be a real peaceful thing and a cooperating element; Jordan looks to the latter of the two. The Water Conveyance project is working towards making water an element of peacefulness and cooperation, and we think that water can build trust among the countries.Enhancing the sustainability of freshwater resources in Jordan is at the forefront of the government’s agenda. Please give us an overview of the Jordan Water Project and the evolution since its implementation.
Jordan relies on ground water for its supply which comes from the ground water wells that we dug all over the country, and 80% of our drinking water comes from underground water; the underground water aquifers have only a certain amount of water that we can extracted which is equivalent to the amount of infiltration from the rain that goes underground, the moment that we take out more than what comes in from the infiltration the water table will start to go down, and the water quality will become more marginal. We do not have more water after hosting six waves of refugees, digging more wells would throw our resources out of sustainability .In 10 years’ time aquifers will be empty, I am talking to you as a professional, I am a water expert, I am not talking to you just as a Jordanian or a politician in this Ministry. I think that Jordan deserves support because we gave our precious water resources to the people that we do not know just because of humanitarian reasons.How is the ministry of water and irrigation going to face the next 10 years with the threat of becoming one of the first countries in the world with no other resources what so ever?
This is a serious challenge, and the government is doing a lot of work just to keep the status quo which means Jordanian’s will not be better off in terms of water availability in 5 or 10 years’ time; we spend between 4-5% of our GDP on water and sanitation which may be the highest spending of its kind in the world. The development of scarce water resources is a very expensive business because we do not have the resources to develop so we have to go far away piping water through 350 kilometres of land, from Aqaba, just to get drinking water for the people; this is unique worldwide. We have a plan to structurally reform the water sector, to increase efficiency to the maximum, and to reduce cost to a minimum; this plan will take us roughly until the year 2021-23.We also has to work on the national front in terms of more recycling work for water. What is the role for foreign direct investment in the country? And what are potential private public partnerships (PPP) in the water infrastructure for Jordan?
One of the major projects that will be available to foreign investors is the project that I told you about which will be implemented under Built Operate Transfer (BOT) scheme for a total cost of about $1 billion. On top of that we have so many projects for investment in the water sector and sanitation; large fresh water treatment plants, we have major projects on reduction of nonrevenue water within Amman and other cities. As well as investments on the accessories needed for the water sector like pipes, pumps, meters, and so on; those are real investment opportunities for FDI in Jordan. By the way Jordan is a landmark in terms of water management, and all Arab countries want to copy the Jordanian order; we are coming out of challenge, out of experience with scarcity and others want to do so. Whatever is being done in Jordan other neighbours want to copy it because we have the same culture, the same language, and the same challenges.