State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Jordan on the Brink?

By Farah Hegazi

Hundreds of refugees line up to receive food distribution on border transit camp. Credit: United Nations.

Jordan is no stranger to hosting refugee populations. The Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 drove 480,000 Palestinians into Jordan, and the government has been hosting them in refugee camps and taking responsibility for the camps’ infrastructure. These camps were initially temporary but many still remain. The sudden displacement of populations creates numerous stresses on local natural resources, specifically water supplies in already scarce conditions.

With the recent unrest and violence in Syria, agencies estimate that between 120,000 and 140,000 refugees have arrived in Jordan. Can Jordan’s natural resources and social infrastructure handle such an influx?

Jordan is primarily an arid country with a limited quantity of freshwater. Total renewable water resources per capita amount to 151.4 m3 per year, placing Jordan in the absolute water scarcity category (less than 500 m3/person/year). Jordan has also been experiencing below average rainfall, compounding its water stress problems. In a country that is already water-stressed, with an annual population growth rate of 2.2%, an additional 140,000 people will place increased pressure on its water resources. Estimates indicate that one refugee requires a minimum of 80 litres of freshwater per day, which amounts to an additional 11.2 million litres/day that needs to be supplied. This not only places additional stress on Jordan’s already limited water resources, but also increases the costs of supply for the Jordanian government. Additionally, it burdens the country’s waste management systems, energy provision, healthcare, and education. Currently, about 5,500 Syrians have enrolled in Jordan’s public schools, and the country is providing medical care to refugees who have registered with the UN.

Since the first week in July, approximately 1,000 refugees have been entering Jordan daily. To accommodate this flow, the UNHCR has built a refugee camp that can house 5,000 people, and a second camp to accommodate 115,000 individuals is under construction. Additionally, the Ministry of Water & Irrigation has called on Western countries to make donations in order to purchase water for refugees. UNICEF has since provided Jordan with approximately $2.5 million, and KfW, Germany’s development bank, will provide Jordan with additional funds. At a cost of $21,000 per day to provide 140,000 individuals with water, the funds provided by UNICEF will be sufficient for at most four months.

With violence reaching Damascus, the number of refuges entering Jordan and its neighbors, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, will only increase the stress on natural resources and worsen the situation. Most recently, violence erupted at a refugee camp in Turkey because of a shortage of food and water. Given what we know about the difficulties of basic service provision in refugee camps, and the fact that these camps often tend to be more than a temporary arrangement, it is safe to say that the influx of refugees will have an impact on not only Jordan’s water resources, but also its food supply systems, energy provision, health services, education, and employment.

Even though it has not signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Jordan continues to accept asylum seekers. However, with the pressure it is already feeling regarding its water resources, the tipping point is near, possibly creating conflict between Jordanian citizens and the refugee population, and between refugees and the host government, for its inability to provide basic services.

This article is one in a series emerging from the conference, “Identifying Lessons for Natural Resource Management in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding,” held at Columbia University April 25, 2012, and co-hosted by the Earth Institute and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), UNEPELI, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University; in cooperation with the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity and the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. For more information about the conference and the book series, please go to http://environmentalpeacebuilding.org/.

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