Examining the historic roots of Jordan’s water management policy
By Skylar Benedict
“As you know, the country suffers from a shortage of water. Suddenly, millions and millions of refugees came to Jordan… we have approximately 42 nationalities in Jordan. The real Jordanian people have now decreased, ya’ani; they’ve become a percentage of the total. Imagine with me a country that suffers from a huge water shortage problem, when suddenly, [an additional] ten percent of the population comes and sits down inside the towns.”
This quote is from a conversation I had with a spokesperson at Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation during the summer of 2016. His remark highlights some of the key aspects of the official narrative around Jordan’s current water challenges. First, Jordan deals with natural water scarcity arising from the country’s arid semi-desert climate and seasonally fluctuating surface water sources. Second, Jordan currently depends on costly water projects such as the Disi Water Conveyance Project and the King Abdullah Canal to meet its municipal, agricultural, and industrial water needs. Third, the sudden influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war has led to an increased strain on water resources. While realistic, this narrative’s exclusive focus on the present hardships obscures a much longer history of water management in Jordan—one characterized by successive political conflicts and increasingly centralized and unsustainable water extraction policies—that has equally contributed to the country’s current scarcity challenges.
In striking contrast to the priorities of present-day policy makers, developing Jordan’s lands and waters did not figure prominently in the decisions of either the British mandate authorities or the young Hashemite monarchy at the time of Transjordan’s independence in 1923. Historian Tariq Tell suggests that it was in fact the Peel Commission—dispatched in 1936 to investigate the a six-month Arab general strike in Mandatory Palestine—and its call for partition (and the partition’s subsequent likelihood of displacing Palestinians) that turned British and Hashemite attention to the necessity of developing Transjordan’s waters resources. This initiative gained broader international support when the 1948 Nakba forced hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians to leave their homes and seek sanctuary in the surrounding countries, intensifying the need for investment in water resource development.
In the aftermath of 1948, the United States began to devote major resources to transforming the Jordan Valley, identifying water-resource development as an essential method to stabilize the refugee population. The 1955 Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan, which would later bear the name of its diplomatic broker, American Special Ambassador Eric Johnston, established water allocations between the riparian states of the Jordan River Valley: Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Johnston’s plan was intentionally modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority’s strategy of harnessing natural water resources to drive economic development and proposed expanding irrigation capabilities in the Jordan Valley as a way to stabilize and support the region’s expanding population. Thus, from a very early moment in its national history, Jordan’s security policies revolved around intertwined concerns with the economic development of the Jordan Valley and the settlement of Palestinian refugees within it. As the support of such a sudden population increase would require the valley to yield a much higher amount of water than it did naturally, these security concerns also compelled Jordan to push for increased water extraction and economic development.
The Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza drove a second influx of Palestinian refugees into this shifting context of land use and resource development. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank cut Jordan’s access to substantial water resources. In response to PLO raids conducted from Jordan, Israel launched air strikes in December 1969 that destroyed the intake valve of the East Ghor Canal (now the King Abdullah Canal), crippling Jordan’s agricultural economy for more than six weeks. The occupation also displaced an additional 200,000 Palestinians into the Jordan Valley, further exacerbating concerns over water and food scarcity that had been growing in Jordan since 1948. Israel’s attacks on Jordan’s water infrastructure damaged the Jordan Valley’s capacity to provide agriculture and water to the rest of the country. It ultimately drove Jordanian farmers and Palestinian communities alike out of the valley and into urban areas where tensions between the groups were building; it also emptied the Valley of much of the population responsible for cultivating it. Together, these factors crippled water-intensive crops like bananas, oranges, and tomatoes, and badly hurt the country’s economy.
In the early 1970s, Jordan dealt with the demographic upheaval and devastated water infrastructure of 1967 by revisiting a familiar strategy of exploiting water resources to fuel the extension of agriculture and provide water to growing urban areas. In May 1977, the Jordanian government established the Jordan Valley Commission, which later became the Jordan Valley Authority (JVA), to centralize and coordinate this resource development program and to steer economic and social development in the Valley through the implementation of massive water projects. These projects often took the form of large-scale irrigation schemes and piped water infrastructure, which the Jordanian government depended upon to stave off mass unemployment and starvation by revitalizing the Jordan Valley’s agricultural and hydrological infrastructure. Paradoxically, even though the conflict of the late 1960s had demonstrated the dangerous extent to which Jordan’s security depended on the continuity of its water infrastructure, the following decades saw an expansion of this dependence and its existential importance to Jordan.
Regional conflicts from 1948 to 1970 and the resulting influxes of Palestinian refugees into Jordan forged together three key elements that continue to shape Jordan’s water policies. First, refugee populations created pressure on the country’s finite resources, resulting in tensions between refugees and host communities. Second, because of Jordan’s historically sparse water resources, refugee influxes fueled both governmental and public concerns over the sufficiency of Jordan’s water resources and the potential for any scarcity to spark political unrest. Finally, the Jordanian government called for and relied upon international aid to support Jordan’s water resource development and to stabilize the country against the potential of these two interrelated factors to threaten the state’s security. This relationship between water development and refugee stabilization has grown over the past decades into a set of compounding imperatives to increase the extraction of Jordan’s groundwater resources. And the relationship is still visible today in the Jordanian state’s reliance on vast water conveyance schemes and calls for international aid to support these projects as a means of countering the increased pressures placed on the system by refugees.
Jordan no longer relies so heavily upon agriculture for its economic growth, but water resources remain essential to the health of its population and political stability. At present, numerous governmental and non-governmental entities fund projects to support and manage Jordan’s water resources, echoing the political and environmental history of the past century. These environmental circumstances are neither new nor apolitical. They rest on a long history of relying on unsustainable water resource policies to counter regional conflict and population displacement. Providing a stable future for Jordan depends on acknowledging the environmentally detrimental legacy of past regional conflicts and politics and integrating strategic and environmental thinking moving forward.
Skylar Benedict is a graduate of the MAAS program (’17). He works in the fields of conservation and international development with a focus on watershed protection and coastal resilience across the MENA region. This article is informed by field research that he conducted in Jordan in 2016 as part of his master’s thesis. This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of the CCAS Newsmagazine.