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Water Insecurity, Climate Change and Governance in the Arab World | Middle East Policy Council

Submitted by on June 3, 2014 – 8:25 pm

The Middle East has been among the most arid regions of the globe for several thousand years. Nevertheless, recent extreme events portend a significant decline in the region's available water resources and a meaningful change in its climate. In 1992, centuries-old underground springs feeding the Azraq wetlands in Jordan stopped flowing entirely. In the years since, similarly age-old springs in other parts of Jordan, including Jerash and Kerak, have also stopped flowing. During the 1990s, the Khabour River in Syria, a major tributary of the Euphrates, completely dried up for several years. And from 2006 to 2010, a ruinous drought severely ravaged areas of Jordan, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, displacing millions of people and devastating livestock and crops.

A strong body of scientific research supports the overall drying trend suggested by these events. Relying on global and regional climate simulations, several recent studies indicate that the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa are likely to experience substantially higher mean annual temperatures, lower annual levels of precipitation and increasing levels of water stress during the twenty-first century.1 In a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists have discovered that a notable trend towards a drier climate in the Mediterranean Basin is already occurring.2 Relying on three separate datasets of monthly precipitation records from 1900 to 2010, the study concludes that the land areas around the Mediterranean Sea are currently experiencing a pattern of increased drought, with a clear trend toward drier conditions emerging in the 1970s. Furthermore, a recent World Bank report on water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa illustrates the growing danger of water insecurity in the Arab World. Describing the Middle East and North Africa as the most water-scarce region of the world, the report classifies nine of the region's 14 countries as "hyper-arid."3 In each of these nine countries, the total renewable water resources per capita are less than 500 cubic meters, below the level of "absolute scarcity," the lowest threshold on the water-availability scale. Even more important, the observed and projected trends toward increased aridity described by the scientific studies above suggest that the number of Arab countries below the level of absolute scarcity will grow in future years.

In an effort to identify and illustrate some of the potential challenges that increasing water scarcity and projected climate changes pose for Arab governments, this article offers a preliminary analysis of water politics in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.4 It is one of the most water-poor countries in the Middle East and the most water-stressed Arab country in the Levant. It possesses no major surface water resources and receives less precipitation than its Levantine neighbors to the west and north. On average, only 7 percent of the kingdom receives more than 200 millimeters (mm) of precipitation per year, versus 45 percent of Syria and nearly 90 percent of Lebanon.5

Second, Jordan is located in an area of the Middle East where some of the most severe effects from projected global and regional climate changes are expected to occur. According to regional climate-hydrology simulations conducted by Suppan et al., the areas of the Upper Jordan River Basin could see "mean annual temperature increases up to 4.5 degrees Celsius and 25 percent decreases in mean annual precipitation" by the end of the twenty-first century.6 Furthermore, there is strong evidence that the climate of the Mediterranean Basin is already becoming drier, making the challenges that Jordan and other countries in the basin face more than hypothetical.7

Third, Jordan is a valuable case for illustrating how government policy can play a greater role than natural events in the creation of water scarcity. The Jordanian government does a poor job managing demand for water, particularly in rural areas. Consequently, an analysis of Jordan will illustrate how government policy can either exacerbate or ameliorate the impact of a changing climate. In addition, Jordan is primarily seeking to solve its water crisis by finding more sources of supply. This is a common strategy among Arab governments, and analyzing the Jordanian case will illustrate some of the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach. Finally, and most important, Jordan is a valuable case for investigating the potential for the mismanagement of water resources and a changing climate to erode the foundations of Middle Eastern political regimes.

In the remainder of the article, the ways in which the Jordanian monarchy has used water and land as tools for generating political support will be explained. In addition, two specific examples of the Jordanian government's failure to adequately manage groundwater will be discussed: the failed 2002 Groundwater Control Bylaw and the destruction of the Azraq wetlands. The article will conclude with a detailed discussion of four critical challenges that climate change and increasing water scarcity pose for Arab states: managing groundwater resources more effectively, satisfying growing urban demand for water, coping with the potential for increased social and political instability, and meeting the challenge of ineffective governance. Overall, the article demonstrates that climate change and growing water insecurity pose significant threats to the patron-client links that Arab leaders have built up over time with key social groups such as tribes, farmers and urban water consumers, particularly those in areas with poorly maintained water infrastructure.

Water and the Politics of Rural Development

The Jordanian political system, like those in many other Arab countries, relies heavily on patron-client links between political elites and key socioeconomic groups for its stability and legitimacy. Since the establishment of the country in 1921, the monarchy has relied extensively on informal pacts and deals with key social groups (i.e., major tribes, business elites and farmers) to encourage sociopolitical stability and generate popular support. A critical aspect of this strategy has been the provision of cheap land and essentially free water to help Jordanians pursue a livelihood in farming. This policy, along with the preferential recruitment of "East Bankers" from major tribes for the armed forces and the government bureaucracy, has created a strong base of support for the monarchy in rural areas.8

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