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How the war in Syria is drowning the Middle East

The war in Syria and the recent rise of Islamic State (IS) has forced many Syrians to leave their country. Many of them have found a safe haven in the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. However, in these refugee camps, as in these countries as a whole, water does not flow richly. As more and more refugees continue to cross the border, this will have serious consequences for availability of water in the region.

Ground water, as well as surface water, has always been scarce in Jordan. In many cases, the latter is being shared with neighbouring countries. Like the Jordan River for example, that is shared with Israel and the Dead Sea that is shared with both Israel and Palestine. This leads to both cooperation and conflict. On top of it all, bad maintenance of water infrastructure leads to waste of water in the country. Furthermore, renewable water resources, such as rainwater, can only satisfy the waterneedsof half the population. The other half is provided water extracted from non-renewable sources like aquifers.

And now, because of the high influx of refugees, the pressure on these resources is increasing even more. Lebanonis one of the most water-rich countries in the region. However, the arrival of more than 1 million Syrian refugees together with extreme drought has forced Lebanon into a water crisis as well.  Daniel Gorevan, who leads Oxfam’s Syria Crisis policy, has warned that providing water only to refugees — and thereby excluding Lebanese people who also need enough water— could further complicate the problem.

Images: WikiCommons

In March this year, the prince of Jordan called for action at a Middle East summit on water in Amman. He pointed out that civil war refugees now represent a quarter of Jordan’s population. Many of them ended up in drought-prone, water-scarce areas, thus putting extra pressure on the limited water resources in this region since they also draw on state-subsidized water and electricity. The price people pay for portable drinking water has risen massively. And as the temperatures rise during the summer, tensions between the local population and the refugees will increase as they compete for these limited resources, including water. Beside, not only is the social infrastructure of water provision been affected by the arrival of refugees; it has also disturbed the physical environment. Due to an increasing demand for water, rainwater harvesting pools dry out and more pressure is put on unrenewable aquifers.

There are some new and more sustainable developments that can be of some relief for the Arab country, except these have a high price tag. The Red Sea – Dead Sea project is such a proposal. The plan has been initiated by Jordan, Palestine and Israel. It aims  to desalinate water from the Red Sea in the Jordanian port of Aqaba and revive the Dead Sea by pumping brine into it through a 180 km pipeline.

On the other hand, this problem also needs to be addressed from a local, more bottom-up perspective. NGOs have been trying to raise awareness of the importance of being frugal with water. UNICEF, for example, has various water and hygiene promotors working in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan (see the video on the right side). They talk to as many refugees as they can, including children, trying to change their habits of using water in a more sustainable way. Additionally, UNICEF is boring new holes and digging canals to replace the daily water trucks at the camp and provide water to the nearby villages as well. This is needed to hydrate the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the camp, but since the groundwater level will drop as a result, it is devastating for the farmers in the area. Furthermore, we should not forget that many refugees live in cities, where they are hard to reach by aid workers and might be struggling even more to quench their thirst.  

Altogether, the water scarcity in the Arab region will not be resolved in the near future, even though many initiatives provide some hope and practical short-term solutions.  This problem does, like many others, highlight the complex nature of water issues in the area. They are not solely environmental, political, social or economic, but all are somehow linked to a variety of causes and consequences. 








Water provision in a refugee camp: Ensuring sustainability

UNICEF correspondent Guy Degan reports on how, in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, efforts have turned to conservation of the some million litres of clean water provided every day.

More info: UNICEF 
Language: English
Year: 2012
Region: Jordan, Arab World