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Boiling Point: Jordan, Syria in Water War

[Amman, Jordan] Water scarcity is one of the most vexing conundrums that faced Jordan over the past decade and will continue for years to come. The kingdom, one of the ten most water impoverished countries in the world, is faced with internal and external challenges as it strives to meet rising needs of its population.
On the domestic level, illegal well drilling, ageing water networks and an influx of refugees from Iraq and Palestine exerted pressure on precious water resources.
During the past 15 years, more than 1.5 million Palestinians and Iraqis fled to Jordan after Kuwait invasion and the collapse of Saddam Hussein regime. Official figures show at least 45 per cent of water supply is lost to leakage in the degenerating water networks. Over drafting from nearly 2000 wells, half of which are illegally constructed, is a source of major headache to officials, who say the precious reserves are at dwindling due to over exploitation. Jordanhas a limited natural water resources while 92 percent of the land is desert.
Officials here sometimes wish that countries could just travel.
"We are paying the price of our geographical location. Refugees from Iraq and Palestine are pressuring water network, which I am afraid it might collapse soon. I do not remember seeing a refugee arriving with a water bucket under his arm," said Ellias Salameh, a professor at the University of Jordan and one of the country’s most prominent water experts.
True that refugees and ageing network contribute to the predicament, but they do not shoulder the entire blame.
The kingdom was robbed of its share of surface water because neighboring countries "took more than their fair share in the Yarmouk and Jordan Rivers," according to officials from the Water Ministry.
Jordan shares its surface water resources with two powerful neighbors; Syria and Israel.
The Kingdom brokered an agreement on sharing waters of the Jordan River with Israel, according to which it would receive nearly three per cent of the water streaming down the biblical river.
The agreement was reached as part of Wadi ‘Araba peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1994.
Politicians and water experts agree Jordan deserves much more than the allocated amount in the peace treaty with Israel. But a deal is a deal and it is very hard to be renegotiated.
"We got a very bad bargain in the peace agreement as far as water supply was concerned. They are enjoying themselves with abundance of water and gave us almost nothing," said an official from the Water Ministry who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Figures from various international organizations including the World Bank and the United Nations show that average Jordanian consumes about 90 liters a day while every Israeli citizen consumes 900 liters a day —this means ten times more than Jordanians consume.

Salameh says the deal with Israel could have been much better.
"The peace treaty is whole package. It included water, security, economy and other terms, now as far as water was concerned; I think we were given less than what we deserve. But it is too late to change it now," he said.
However, Jordanian officials say Israel has so far honored most of its commitments to the agreement.
Israel also insists it has lived up to its obligations outlined in the peace agreement.
“The peace agreement with the Jordanians is fulfilled and the relationship is open and good,” said Uri Schor, spokesman for Israel’s Water Commission.
Israel agreed to ‘lend’ Jordan water to meet increasing demands in summer, provided the same amount is returned in winter.
On the other hand, Syria is yet to comply with past agreements on sharing resources of Yarmouk River, according to officials in Amman.
Last week a scheduled joint press conference between Jordan Water Minister Muhamad Zafir Al-‘Alim and his Syrian counterpart Nadir Buni was called off at the last minute as the officials were scheduled to announce details of water cooperation between the two sides, but talks reached a deadlock. Water Ministry officials preferred to avoid public escalation, insisting no rift occurred during the meeting. Al-‘Alim was quoted in the local press next day as saying both sides reached an understanding and further talks would follow.
But, insiders say officials from Amman were furious that Syria refused to release water from its dams on the Yarmouk River to the newly built Wehda dam, one of the main arteries that would be feeding the kingdom with much-needed drinking water in the summer. Officials say Syria owes Jordan at least 15 million cubic meters of water.   Syria says it will pump water to the Wehda dam depending on the winter season.
Officials are also accusing Syria of drilling 360 wells on the banks of the Yarmouk River in violation of the 1987 water agreement.
The wells are drying up the volatile underground water resources, which supplies Jordan with most of its needs.
Some officials said the government could go for international arbitration if further talks hit a snag. Other extreme measures are up for discussion including lodging a complaint to the International Court of Justice to settle the issue once and for all.
But Syrian officials point the finger at Israel saying it is who is siphoning off both countries’ resources. It was reported that Buni shared with Al-‘Alim footage showing alleged Israeli tanks pumping water from the Yarmouk River. He also showed aerial pictures for the Yarmouk basin to prove the wells in question were drilled outside the red zone.
Officials here say they must verify the Syrian claims before making the next step.
It is a common belief in Amman that the "stiff Syrian" position on water is inspired by the deteriorating political relations between the two sides.
A few months ago, Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad launched a scathing attack at Jordan for its close relations with the U.S. Officials here were very angry and lodged an official complaint over the touting remarks.
Despite political differences, Amman is adamant to have its water rights returned as soon as possible, but at the same time wants to avoid "unnecessary uproar with the Syrians," said a former minister of water.
"Whether we like it or not, we are the weakest link in the region. Our neighbors are siphoning off our water resources while we are watching, therefore we must know how to play our cards well," he said.  

In the meantime, the kingdom has been pushing forward several projects to end its chronic water shortage, but the unprecedented growth rate in population has sunk the country into a chronic and worsening imbalance between supply and demand.
Water rationing programs have been implemented with households getting water once a week during the hot and dry summer season.
Jordan also wants to link the Dead Sea with the Red Sea by a canal that would end water scarcity once and for all. The project, to be funded by the World Bank, would be shared between Jordan, Israel and Syria.
Another ambitious project is to pull water from the southern basin of A-Disa, said to be able to provide the kingdom with water enough for 100 years. It is to supply the Kingdom with 80 to 150 million cubic meters of drinking water annually from 65 wells around the ancient Disi aquifer in the south for a minimum of 100 years.

But either of the two projects would not be ready before a decade and a half, the meantime Jordan needs to guarantee it gets all its water rights from Israel and Syria.
Observers ruled out the possibility of a political crisis between Jordan and Syria over water resources, but the existing situation could dent any hope of improved relations between the two sides.
"Syria and Egypt have already buried the hatchets despite remarks of Al-Asad against Egypt. We need urgent interference from both leaderships to end this issue," said political commentator Fahed Kheitan.