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How Jordan’s Climate and Water Crisis Threatens its Fragile Peace


A satellite image showing the Wadi Rum desert and irrigated farmland in Jordan. (Image credit: NASA)

By Peter Schwartzstein

For years, security service recruitment has masked climate instability in rural Jordan. Now that strategy is breaking down and no one knows what will take its place.

In the desert villages of south Jordan, the security services dominate. They run many of the schools. They maintain the roads, water infrastructure, and bridges. Crucially, they also employ most of the men.

Roughly 70% of those in full time employment in rural stretches of the southern governorates are in the army, civil defense, or intelligence corps, according to CCS research conducted in about 20 villages, a figure that rises to around 90% in some of the most distant, isolated communities. Most of the other residents are dependent on soldiers’ spending. Such is the security services’ outsized role that many districts have practically been emptied of young and middle-aged men. “It’s only when the soldiers are back home that this feels anything like a village,” said one farmer in the far southern Aqaba governorate.

As largely Bedouin settlements, this isn’t entirely unusual. Since the foundation of the state in 1946, the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan has stocked its forces with ‘East Bankers,’ the area’s original tribal inhabitants. It’s a means of keeping this key constituency on side, and stymieing their resentment of the Palestinian majority, whose numbers continue to swell and who’ve come to dominate the urban private sector. Despite constituting around 60% of the population, there are few Palestinians in the security services, or even the public sector at large.

But it’s only in relatively recent years that the security services have more or less monopolized the rural economy. A slow collapse of herding and settled agriculture, the cornerstones of village livelihoods, has left a severe dearth of jobs outside urban areas. Fearful of unrest among these all-important segments of society, the state has upped recruitment, incorporating tens of thousands of additional rural Jordanians into its security ranks. Though particularly pronounced in the south, this is true, too, of some densely-populated swathes of the tribal north, especially around Salt and Ajloun. “No one relies on agriculture around here. We’re all in the military or the police, this kind of thing,” said an air force officer near Irbid and within shouting distance of the Syrian border. He was scarcely exaggerating. With insufficient and/or expensive water, most of the surrounding fields sit fallow.

Now, however, that strategy appears to be breaking down – with potentially devastating ramifications for rural Jordan and ultimately perhaps the entire state. The government’s finances are looking uglier than ever after years of neglected reforms, forcing drops in recruitment and possible future cuts to the most bloated parts of the public sector. International finance institutions appear unwilling to release much-needed funds without reform, but the government fears the fallout on the street. At the same time, conditions for crop cultivation and animal grazing are only worsening as severe water scarcity bites, and so more workers are finding their professions untenable. Having seen so many of their peers find jobs in the security services, they expect similar treatment. That calculus is only getting more desperate as many thousands of young people come of age in a countryside unable to employ them. “It’s the army or nothing,” a tribal sheikh in Al-Jafer said of his sons’ future career prospects.

No one’s entirely certain when things got so bad. Like the fable of the frog in boiling water, conditions deteriorated so slowly that it was only when rains repeatedly failed and crop yields tumbled that most people grasped how dire their situation had become. But in retrospect many farmers pinpoint the severe droughts that also roiled Syria, Iraq, and much of the rest of the region from 2006 onwards. With so little water to begin with, Jordan’s margin for error was razor-fine. Reduced rainfall, reduced surface water, and prolific population growth, particularly since the arrival of over a million Syrians since 2011, have brought the country to the brink of disaster. At a little over 100 m3 per person per year, Jordan’s water availability is ten times lower than the globally-accepted mark of water scarcity.

Farmers in the Jordan valley and Dead Sea strip say their cash crop-growing season has shrunk by at least a month because of higher temperatures and reduced water allowances since 2010. That’s a major problem for an agricultural sector which is competing against more generously subsidized farmers from other countries who grow crop staples on much larger plots of land. Alternatives, like leafy greens, simply aren’t as profitable as tomatoes or bananas. Agricultural debt has soared as farmers pull out all the stops to stay afloat, but many have gone under all the same. The outer districts of Amman are jammed with recently arrived rural migrants.

Herders across semi-arid parts of the countryside report scarcer water for their sheep and goats, some of whom are dying from thirst; worse quality water, which is leaving animals with skin and joint problems; and reduced vegetation, because of erratic rains, which is leaving the herds short of fodder. Average flock sizes and hence herder income have shrunk as a consequence. Many herders have also given up and decamped to urban areas. Though this year’s rains were good, many of those who remain were poorly placed to take advantage because they’d sold off much of their livestock at bargain prices during 2018’s horror summer.

Even people who aren’t dependent on the land are suffering. Disposable income has shriveled at a time of high unemployment – and low military salaries, forcing many village stores out of business. Water and electricity bills continue to increase, too. Because Jordan’s population has surged, just as resources, like surface water and rainfall, have decreased, state water delivery is failing more often, which has compelled many households to fall back on water tankers. This is a particularly expensive problem in the countryside because water delivery is especially erratic there and tanker operators pass on the higher fuel costs required to drive longer distances.

Allegations of rampant corruption in the water sector have merely added to public fury. Most, perhaps two-thirds, of Jordan’s boreholes are illegal, according to a government source, but because most of these are operated by well-connected businessmen or tribal sheikhs the state is unwilling to crackdown – despite the dangerously depleted state of many of the country’s aquifers. Tanker operators, the ‘water mafias,’ are widely believed to conspire among themselves to keep prices high for what’s sometimes dodgy water. And, in a frequently repeated though unsubstantiated tale, interviewees across the south accuse water officials of deliberately cutting municipal water delivery so as to keep residents more dependent than ever on tanker operators with which the civil servants themselves have connections.

In the short term, at least, security service jobs have served as something of a brake on the fallout from these slow-moving disasters. But as the public sector has swollen beyond viability, no one’s yet come up with an alternative solution to a crisis that will only worsen as climate stresses bite. Indeed, almost every statistic and future projection makes for grim reading. Rainfall is projected to fall by up to 30% this century, even as population growth rates remain stubbornly high. The Middle East’s already challenging summer temperatures are climbing. For farmers, who often struggle to break even at the best of times, it’s the perfect storm.

Authorities insist they’re wise to the potential chaos. But if they need any reminder, then recent events ought to have driven home the stakes. Already, water-related unrest is beginning to proliferate in the countryside. Some communities in the north have ripped out their water meters in protest at limited water, bad quality water, and for sometimes being charged for water they never receive. Others are refusing to pay their bills. Among the many grievances of the protesters who now congregate near the ministry of interior in Amman every weekend: high water and electricity costs. Or at least try to gather. In heavy displays of force, the state has taken to blocking off roads and corralling protesters in small spaces.

In the villages themselves, the collapse of traditional employment is inflicting a nasty toll. Residents complain of more drug use and more petty crime. Social cohesion is erring in places, as some of the better established and more affluent families migrate to the cities, leaving just the poor and prospect-less behind. There’s every possibility, too, that scarcer water might emerge as a bone of contention between different communities. Though most Jordanians are understanding of Syrian refugees’ plight and have welcomed them, their hospitality is beginning to wane. Local men warn of violence in northern communities where populations have as much as tripled due to the refugee influx and where water shares per capita have shrunk as a consequence.

Most dangerously of all, more and more desert communities are threatening to take on the state if their demands aren’t met. Around tourist-heavy Petra, Bedouin are so furious at their lack of job opportunities that they’re threatening to return to the caves in which they previously lived in the ancient site, a move that would most likely spark a security response. In late August, a resident of Om Saihoun, one of the most impoverished villages around Petra, opened fire on an empty tour bus.

In Ma’an, a small city just off the main north-south highway with a history of jihadist activity, residents anticipate further trouble if job opportunities continue to fall at a time of higher prices. Ma’an activists estimate that 120 residents fought in Syria and perhaps 700 against the U.S army in Iraq. Most recently, in August, a nearby stretch of the Disi pipeline, which supplies over half of Amman’s water, was sabotaged – yet again, shutting off much of the capital’s water flow for several days.

And, in a measure of just how angry and frustrated rural Jordan has become, many tribesmen have taken to insulting the King himself, a previously unthinkable expression of rage for these long-time royal stalwarts.

The situation, residents say, is nearing boiling point. “We have put up with a lot,” said an unemployed farmer south of Amman. “But we can’t and won’t take much more.”


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