Global Engineering Capability Review

Jordan case study:

Water provision for one of the world’s driest countries

Jordan's Engineering Index scores

Knowledge = 51st
Labour force = 47th
Engineering industry = 71st

Infrastructure = 74th
Digital infrastructure = 68th
Safety standards = 61st

With one of the world’s lowest levels of water availability per head, Jordan is verging on a water crisis. In 2015, 94% of the population had access to safely managed water and 80% of the population had access to safely managed sanitation. However, multiple factors threaten the future water supply. [98] The climate is naturally arid, receiving less than 200 mm of rainfall each year (and even less in its desert areas), compared to 818 mm in the United States. [99] The country is also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with summer temperatures predicted to rise by 2.5 to 3.7 °C over the next 50-70 years.[100]

Against this backdrop, the country’s existing water, sanitation and hygiene system has a long way to go to ensure access to sustainably managed water and sanitation resources for all. Only one-third of schools have basic sanitation services, and the country’s waste-management practices are poor. [101] The sewage system connects only 58% of households, and just 6% of households in rural areas. [102] Jordan draws almost two-thirds of its water supply from aquifers (bodies of rock containing groundwater), which are dependent on reserves of underground water being replenished by rain. The rate of extraction already exceeds the speed at which these aquifers are refilled, and lower rainfall in the future will only exacerbate this disparity. Existing water constraints mean that Jordan is able to provide only 150 cubic metres of water per person annually, well below the 500 cubic metres that the UN uses to indicate water scarcity. [103] It is clear that Jordan faces substantial challenges in water provision, sanitation and wastewater management.

Expanding the water network

In 2016 the Ministry of Water and Irrigation announced a new national strategy covering the next decade. It targets five areas for improvement:

1. Integrated water resources management;

2. Water, sewage and sanitation services;

3. Water for irrigation, energy and other uses;

4. Institutional reform; and

5. Sector information management and monitoring.

The strategy seeks to revise existing frameworks, streamline management and administration, and introduce new procedures to measure the sector’s performance.

More specifically, the strategy aims to expand wastewater service coverage to 80% of the country by 2025, up from 63% in 2014; improve hygiene and hygiene awareness in all schools; and increase access to available water resources from 832 cubic meters in 2014 to 1,341 in 2025. It acknowledges that these targets present an urgent need for technical expertise in sector management, including developing engineering capability. However, the strategy does not identify specific measures to help meet this need. [104]

Under stress

Jordan’s water challenge is compounded by the global refugee crisis. In 2019 the number of refugees hosted by Jordan reached 2.9m, making it the tenth-largest refugee-hosting country in the world and the second largest relative to national population, with 72 refugees per 1,000 residents. Although the majority of these refugees (2.2m) originated from Palestine and have lived in Jordan for several decades, displacement triggered by the civil war in Syria has led to the arrival of 676,000 Syrians in the past few years. Most Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas, and over 80% live below the poverty line. [105]

This influx of refugees, coupled with overall population growth, has placed additional stress on Jordan’s water infrastructure, particularly in the northern governorates. [106] The water and sanitation conditions in refugee camps are dire; at the largest camp in the region, Za’atari, water is so scarce that each person is allotted only 0.03 cubic meters per day. [107] This water scarcity results in deteriorating sanitation, with multiple families forced to share bathwater and to avoid washing clothes. The water management in Za’atari and other camps is largely co-ordinated by UNICEF and most of the sanitation infrastructure is communal, which can cause issues for camp residents with cultural preferences for household-level sanitation over communal facilities. This tension has been exacerbated by concerns about the safety and privacy of the communal facilities. Some households have built their own makeshift private bathrooms, leading to uncontrolled and unhygienic wastewater management. Although the Za’atari camp has yet to face a major disease outbreak, waterborne diseases remain a critical risk in refugee camps due to poor sanitation. [108]

The influx of refugees coupled with overall population growth has placed additional stress on the already strained water infrastructure and the water and sanitation conditions in refugee camps are dire

Jordan’s water crisis is compounded by the impact of the global refugee crisis. In 2019, the number of refugees hosted by Jordan topped 2.9 million, making it the tenth largest refugee-hosting country in the world

Syrian child filling drinking water in tanks in Al-Za'tari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Addressing the water problem

Jordan’s water and sanitation challenges are manifold, but robust engineering responses can help. To support these responses, engineering education must better prepare graduates to meet the country’s needs. This starts with developing multidisciplinary skills instead of focusing on technical skills. Experts critique the education system at both the school and university level for its focus on memorisation and conventional scenarios, and for its failure to give sufficient attention to critical thinking.

Improving the national water and sanitation infrastructure requires an understanding of the link between design and operation. The first stage of a project tends to involve an engineering team modelling and constructing a system in accordance with best practices and standards. In the operation stage the same standards may not be implemented, however, due to ad hoc management styles or a misunderstanding of best practices. Experts suggest that operational decisions often lead to problems in sustaining water and sanitation services. Improving the water system’s durability would be a long-term project and would require changes to current delivery methods. Decentralised water and wastewater services could ease the strain on the network, allowing local management of smaller systems. This would also reduce construction costs and water losses.

Water and sanitation systems in refugee camps require a separate approach, as these facilities are not connected to the national network. Although the national water strategy identifies refugee camps as contributing to the country’s water crisis and outlines measures to improve conditions, the camps are managed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and UNICEF rather than by the government, with UNICEF responsible for water and sanitation services. [109] Having previously organised water provision as part of an emergency response, UNICEF, supported by the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation, completed a new water and wastewater network at the Za’atari camp in 2019, improving access and sanitation and reducing operating costs. [110] Now, every house has an in-built toilet as well as direct access to safe drinking water. Questions remain about the long-term management of the camp’s water and sanitation system, as UNICEF is not well suited to carry out the functions of a utility company. However, the government is unwilling to assume responsibility for its management because of the associated political and financial costs.

A 2017 study highlighted the need for a shift away from a humanitarian relief approach and towards a more structured and planned approach to the provision of sanitation facilities in Jordan’s refugee camps, using the Za’atari camp as an example. [111] This could include synchronising the construction of centralised water and sanitation infrastructures (which are vital in densely populated areas), as well as conducting public engagements, social assessments and communications to facilitate goodwill between stakeholders.

Universities could help by teaching engineering students more about camp systems, as these differ from conventional models. Operating a decentralised sanitation system for a small number of shelters requires a degree of maintenance, ideally by a resident with sufficient understanding to monitor the system. Local expectations of water supply should also be taken into consideration, as the successful sharing of limited resources requires community engagement and awareness. Camp systems depend on external funding, and it can be challenging to convince donors of the merits of particular technologies in a field that can be hard to understand.

With all citizens entitled to have household water which is essential to sanitation, the government frequently uses an above-ground system that is less expensive to construct but degrades faster due to exposure, and is therefore more prone to leakage

Reducing the strain

Jordan’s water and sanitation struggles have been exacerbated by inefficient supply within the national network, and by heightened demand owing to the arrival of large numbers of refugees. The country’s arid climate is likely to become even drier in the coming decades as a result of climate change, and its water resources must be carefully managed as a result. The impact of water scarcity is already visible in the challenges the country is facing in providing sanitation facilities in refugee camps, where safety and privacy have become additional concerns. There is the potential to mitigate the water and sanitation crisis by attending to systemic faults and by supporting engineering capability. This includes preventing water leakage, adopting an urban-planning approach to redesign refugee camps, shifting away from a method of emergency response to one grounded in sustainability, and improving sanitation knowledge. Engineering education could also become more multidisciplinary, and management practices could be better synchronised with engineering best practices. The proper operation of water and sanitation systems requires a combination of engineering acumen, local understanding and strong communication.

The importance of combining engineering acumen, local understanding and strong communication cannot be overstated

Reducing the strain