Jordan water crisis worsens as Mideast tensions slow action

SHARHABIL, Jordan (AP) — From a hillside in northern Jordan, the Yarmouk River is barely visible in the steep valley below, reduced from a once important water source to a sluggish trickle overgrown with vegetation. Jordan’s reservoirs are only one-fifth full, a record low, and vital winter rains are becoming more erratic.

Jordanians don’t need scientists to tell them that they live in one of the world’s driest countries in the center of the planet’s most water-poor region.

But recent studies suggest the kingdom, a Western ally and refugee host nation with a growing population, is being hit particularly hard by climate change, getting hotter and drier than previously anticipated. One forecast predicts as much as 30 percent less rain by 2100.

“We are really in trouble if we don’t take action in time,” said Ali Subah, a senior Water Ministry official.

But addressing the problem would require cross-border cooperation, a commodity as scarce as water in the Jordan River basin shared by Jordan, Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.

Jordan’s flagship Red Sea desalination project, which includes a water trade with Israel, has faced repeated delays, most recently because of a diplomatic crisis that led to a scaling back of cross-border contacts since the summer.

A master plan by the regional advocacy group EcoPeace that seeks to transform the Jordan River valley into an economically vibrant green oasis by 2050 is based, in part, on a state of Palestine being established on Israeli-occupied lands. Palestinian independence remains distant, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently asserted that Israel will never leave the stretch of the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

Warning signs abound of what a failure to act looks like.

The Dead Sea and Jordan River, global treasures with religious significance as the cradle of Christianity, have been devastated by dropping water levels due to decades of water diversion to urban areas. Some experts suggest civil war in neighboring Syria, which led to a large influx of refugees to Jordan and other neighboring countries, may have been triggered in part and indirectly by a mismanaged drought.

Munqeth Mehyar, the president of EcoPeace, said the growing water scarcity urgently requires cooperation.

“People need to be aware of their water situation, and try to compromise between their water reality and their nationalistic politics,” he said at his group’s lush, formerly arid 270-hectare (675-acre) reserve in the Jordan Valley, a witness to nature’s power to bounce back.

Stanford University researchers say that in the absence of international climate policy action, the kingdom would have 30 percent less rainfall by 2100. Annual average temperatures would increase by 4.5 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) and the number and duration of droughts would double, compared to the 1981-2010 period.

Water flows to Jordan from the Yarmouk River, which originates in Syria, would remain low due to droughts and diversion, regardless of when the civil war ends.

The results, published in the journal Science Advances and based on improved data analysis tools, suggest the impact of climate change is likely to be more severe than anticipated, said Steven Gorelick, head of the university’s internationally supported Jordan Water Project.

Another study found that man-made climate change was a major force behind an extreme drought in the area in early 2014, said co-author Rachael McDonnell of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai.