When the first revolution of the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia almost three years ago, many pundits pointed to Jordan as the next in line. With regimes falling one by one, it seemed likely that Jordan would be engulfed as regional unrest upset the country’s always precarious finances.
Revolution in Egypt and anarchy in Sinai disrupted supplies of natural gas, forcing the government to find more expensive substitutes. Tourism declined and trade collapsed with Syria as that country imploded.
In fact, Jordan has weathered the storm remarkably well. The United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have rushed to lend money. The International Monetary Fund is offering cheap finance after the government managed to push through some unpopular cuts to the country’s lavish fuel subsidies, described by one economist as “burning $2 billion a year at the gates of the oil refinery.”
Perhaps more significantly, the horrific example of Syria, the neighbour to the north, has reduced Jordanians’ appetite for radical change, though the government’s message of austerity offers little hope of escape from poverty in the short term.
While sources of money can be found, there is one commodity that Jordan will always be short of, and that is water. One of the most water-stressed countries in the world, its meagre resources, already diminished by a 10-year drought, are further stretched by the presence of 1.3 million Syrian refugees in a country with a population of 6.7 million.
There are some 8 million people living in the south of Syria close to the Jordanian border. With the regime of President Bashar Al Assad starving rebel-held areas and depriving them of medical care, how would Jordan cope if another million or two crossed the frontier?
The issue is starkly demonstrated at the Zaatari refugee camp, in the northern Jordanian desert close to the Syrian border. Home to 120,000 Syrians (the rest have found shelter in towns or cities or with relatives), this is the world’s second largest refugee camp, only 15 months after it was opened.
The refugees at Zaatari need four million litres of water a day from aquifers that are being depleted faster than they can replenish. Water in northern Jordan is getting scarcer. Villages in the region used to get piped water once a week; now some get it only once in three weeks, and local people have to buy it from tankers at a high price.
Not surprisingly there is growing resentment at the refugees, with their free water and health care, seemingly enjoying the bounty of the global donor community.
The refugees do not see things the same way. Some of them are used to a comfortable lifestyle, but now they have lost everything and find themselves living in tents or prefabricated cabins. For them the final indignity – after cramped quarters and communal bathrooms – is being forced to economise on water. The average Jordanian gets by on 43 litres of water a day; the average Syria uses five times as much and the average American, 10 times as much. Given the water shortage, the camp residents have to get by on 35 litres a day. Getting water is a daily struggle at a dribbling tap.
The camp is unfortunately built on top of an aquifer, meaning that waste water will eventually pollute the underground resource built up over thousands of years. All the sewage is trucked away to prevent seepage, but in a camp of that size it is hard to enforce discipline, particularly with families used to enjoying a high level of privacy and who do not appreciate communal toilet facilities.
All these problems might be solvable if the refugees just needed shelter for a few months before they return home. That indeed is what they imagined when they fled, mostly from the city of Deraa, where the revolt broke out in March 2011. They believed that the Assad regime would be toppled in weeks.
But every passing day only makes return seem less likely. The Geneva peace conference, which was supposed to put an end to the war, is continually put off. The Syrian regime is gaining ground in some regions, but neither side is strong enough to defeat the other, meaning that the war will continue for the foreseeable future. Those who fled will fear that on their return they will fall into the hands of the regime’s intelligence services and their thuggish militias.
Zaatari is now Jordan’s fourth largest city, and reports say some residents are turning their container homes into permanent residences. Good for them, to show some initiative. But such signs of permanence are not welcome among the wider Jordanian public, which has demonstrated admirable hospitality so far, but which feels it cannot cope with a lasting refugee presence.
That is exactly what the Jordanian government will have to cope with. The aid agencies need to raise funds to support the refugees, and this will get harder the longer the war lasts. It is easier to raise money for victims of natural disasters – such as Typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines – than for victims of conflict. Local Jordanian communities in northern Jordan whose life is harsh indeed need to see that they are not being pushed to the end of the queue in the provision of services such as water and health care.
And in the long-term, Jordan needs to find a solution to its water problem. With its population rising by 2.2 per cent a year, Jordan would be water-stressed even without a single refugee. Plans are in hand to pipe aquifer water around the country, but these resources are depleting and the country is far from being able to afford desalination.
And all this has to be achieved while the government of King Abdullah is trying to create a knowledge economy to create jobs and lessen the proportion of low-paid public sector employment. Inevitably, economic revitalisation will require further reductions in fuel subsidies, which will be a hard blow for a population whose resources are stretched already.
On Twitter: @aphilps