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Water Management in Jordan in Response to the Syrian Crisis: Between Neoliberal Pressures and Social Tensions

Since 1948, the Kingdom of Jordan has taken in a considerable number of refugee populations fleeing conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and now Syria. While this brings the country significant international aid, it also raises the question of the capacity of urban public services to handle this new demographic pressure. These public services, heavily subsidised for reasons of social stability, are in a state of chronic crisis, and are unable to meet user demand. This has led to sharp socio-spatial inequalities, growing popular discontent, worrying tensions between “native” Jordanians and Jordano-Palestinians, and growing stigmatisation of Syrian refugees. This article looks at the impacts of the “Syrian crisis” on water management in North Jordan, which is host to seventy percent of the refugees.

An understanding of these issues requires an historical perspective on water distribution and the formation of state-controlled, centralized water distribution network. The chronic problems of the water system impact powerfully on the way the authorities handle the “Syrian crisis,” in particular in their relations with western funding agencies, which are heavily involved in the issue of water, providing both funds and technical assistance. In fact, the response to the refugees' burning issue conjures several “rationalities of government:” a recurrent conflict between neoliberal ideas (privatization, cuts in government subsidies for basic goods, new public management) conveyed by the international aid agencies, and the more ambiguous position of the Jordanian government, increasingly constrained as it is, to meet the requirements of its funders, while trying to spare the population and manage their strong expectations of accessing services cheaply.

Controversies over Water Distribution in Jordan

Since its foundation, the Hashemite monarchy has maintained its legitimacy by heavily subsidising the provision of public goods and services. Since Jordan's independence, water distribution, which enjoys substantial state subsidies, depends very extensively on technical and financial support from big international funding agencies, in particular the US via USAID, Germany via the KfW development bank and the cooperation agency GIZ, Japan via JICA, and France through AFD.

However, because of the economic crisis that struck the Kingdom in the late 1980s, cooperation agencies became more demanding regarding public services management which they consider inefficient, and called for neoliberal reforms. Thus, under IMF's pressure, Jordan embarked on a course of structural adjustment that included substantial budget cuts. The resulting popular discontent, especially in the south of the country—the monarchy’s traditional support base—shook the kingdom. Protests sent a very clear warning to the government, and the issue of water seemed particularly critical as the resources tapered off, and the austerity policies raised the fear that water prices could increase. After the Arab spring protests, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation was headed by a succession of five different ministers in the space of two years.[1]

Numerous water distribution problems strengthened the case of the funding agencies who called for extensive reforms to improve the system’s efficiency. One factor disrupting the network’s performance was the high level of non-revenue water, reaching forty percent in the north of the country. The age of the networks explained partly the associated severe losses, but at least half of them were due to large-scale theft, which went mostly unpunished, being perpetrated by big farmers in high social positions. In addition, ever-growing demand, combined with the country’s meagre resources, forced the water authorities to ration distribution. The country is now divided into service areas, which receive water by rotation for three to five hours, once or twice a week. The corollary of these poor performances is the presence of sharp socio-spatial inequalities: in summer, some places receive water three times a week, others once every ten days. The urban centres and the wealthiest neighbourhoods are significantly favoured. One consequence of the infrequency of distribution is that apartment buildings have to be fitted with storage tanks. Since a tank costs around 200-250 dinars, the poorer populations, who are unable to store enough water, are obliged to use private sellers, which may cost them up to ten times as much as water from public networks. According to Neda A. Zawahri, only thirty percent of the subsidies provided actually benefit the poorest populations, because of lack of transparency in the allocation of resources.

The “National Water Strategy,” a government plan for the year 2022, focuses on major reforms supposed to “rationalize” water distribution, and appease the funding agencies. A main reform project is the “corporatization” of water distribution by handing it to decentralized autonomous bodies. One of these is the Yarmouk Water Company (YWC), a body responsible for water distribution in the north of the country, set up in 2011 with the support of Germany’s KfW development bank, which signed a five-year operating contract with the multinational firm Véolia. However, this attempt ended in failure: the new structure lacks the financial resources to make the necessary investment to function properly, and is kept on life support by the Water Authority of Jordan (WAJ)—the state body responsible for water management. Also, the existing highly bureaucratic and opaque administrative system is not ready for such a radical transformation: the WAJ retained control over subsidy policy, paying Véolia only a small amount of compensation, calculated as a percentage of revenues (cf. Interview with a Véolia executive). Following major disputes concerning the company’s payments, problems of dialogue with the WAJ, and serious conflicts with the staff of Yarmouk Water Company who strongly objected to the restructuring plan imposed on it, Véolia suspended its contract with the Jordanian government after two years.

The question of the revision of water charges is also key to these debates. Numerous publications have shown that the current subsidy and pricing policy which consists of gradual pricing system depending on consumption, presented as a pro-poor measure, falls far short of meeting its social justice objectives.[2] It nevertheless costs the government a considerable amount, depriving local authorities of their capacity to invest. Tariff reform, which many would like to see implemented, is nevertheless difficult to introduce, since part of the population refuses to give up the privilege of cheap water. The government, already worried by the events of the Arab Spring, is afraid of protest, in particular if coming from the country’s influential southern tribes.[3] Crystallizing a number of tensions around water distribution, the government seems to use the “Syrian crisis” as another argument for putting at bay neoliberal reforms, fearing its disruptive effects on the country’s stability.


[Syrian Children filling drinking water in bottles at Al-Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees,
Jordan (photo by Mustafa Bader, 27 February 2015, Wikipedia)]


Exploiting the “Syrian Crisis?”

Contradictory policy moves prompt the researcher to question the “Syrian crisis,” usually presented by the government as a “burden.” Given the amount of money allocated for refugees by international aid, is it not, instead, an opportunity for the government to fund the operation of its public services, without needing to implement the reform? Indeed, the government postponed the tariff reform, set to begin in 2014, to 2015. At the same time, development aid provided by Western powers tripled in 2012 compared to the five previous years. Such a tactic has historical precedent. Géraldine Chatelard and Mohamed Kamel Doraï’s work on the management of the “Iraqi crisis” in Jordan clearly shows that it led to abuse of international aid. Justified in principle by the purported vulnerability of the refugees, it brought those refugees little benefit and was largely used to finance Jordan’s public services. Should the Syrian question be treated with the same skepticism?

The government and the WAJ produced a series of report that identified the many costs entailed in hosting refugees, and their impact on the water distribution infrastructures. They highlight the costs associated with the water subsidies transferred to the Syrian population, the “operations and maintenance” (O&M) costs arising from the rise in the number of users, and the long-term costs linked with pollution of the water table, and a growing shortage of resources. However, endogenous factors (obsolete networks, high loss rates from unmetered water, etc.) partly cause these costs—a fact that some development body representatives are quick to point out (cf. Interview with an AFD economist). Some analysts, such as the economist Yusuf Mansur, who writes regularly in the Jordan Times, go so far as to accuse the government of taking advantage of the “Syrian crisis” in order to obtain substantial income from international aid.

The production of “resilience” planning documents aiming to cope with the Syrian crisis highlights the blurring of humanitarian emergency and of structural, long term action, and how the government uses it in order to walk the fine line between reform and protests. At the national level, there are two “competing” documents: the Jordanian government’s National Resilience Plan (NRP), and the UNHCR’s Regional Response Plan 6 (RRP6). Both documents seem to be based on the same so-called “recovery” methodology.[4] This approach, implemented by the United Nations for the last ten years or so, seeks to combine the principles of humanitarian action and those of development within a “cluster” process involving all the different stakeholders concerned. However, even if the NRP aims to gathering the humanitarian and development principles as “two tracks [which] will continue to operate in a complementary fashion as they are gradually brought together under one roof” (p.15), a closer analysis shows that it places the emphasis on long-term action, highlighting the interests of Jordan and the Jordanians. The somewhat hasty completion of the latter document in view of the upcoming “second international conference of donors for Syria” in Kuwait in January 2014 raises doubts concerning the Jordanian government’s instrumentalization of international aid (interview with an AFD economist). More so, the lack of clarity between humanitarian and development activities contributes to ambiguities. For example, the Japanese cooperation agency JICA has set up an infrastructure regeneration programme in the north of the country, where seventy percent of the refugees are located, although it was not a sector where the organisation previously operated (cf. Interview with a JICA technician).

Because of low water availability in the kingdom and refugees' worrisome vulnerability in accessing drinking water, humanitarian action broadly invested the field of water distribution. The supply of “municipal pipe water” falls under the government's responsibility, which pushes for international help, conjuring up the role of refugees in stressing the network. However, the discourse about the “costs of refugees” is not confined to government: numerous NGOs’ reports also address these costs in their appeals for donations.

Worrying Tensions

In 2014, the NGO Mercy Corps published a report entitled Trapped Out, which notably refers to sporadic water riots in the town of Mafraq. These riots highlight Jordanian’s anger about the deficiency of the public water network which fails to provide enough water to meet their basic needs, and an important resentment against Syrian refugees.

According to REACH, twenty-four percent of Jordanians have a negative view of the Syrians, and fifteen percent a very negative view. Syrians are accused of monopolizing international aid, taking Jordanian jobs and, with regard to water, consuming excessively with no attempt to conserve Jordanian resources—an accusation that is widespread, though completely unsupported by evidence. NGOs increasingly acknowledge this very worrisome climate of tension.

For, while Jordan requires that thirty percent of the beneficiaries of every refugee aid project should be Jordanian, the NGOs’ focus on the Syrians, and in particular on the Zaatari refugee camp, arouses anger in the population. In fact, according to the same REACH report, seventy-eight percent of Jordanians think that humanitarian aid is not fairly allocated. An article published on IRINnews, entitled “A Tale of Two Za'ataris,” relates not only the neglect of the Jordanian populations of the village of Zaatari adjacent to the camp, but also the perverse effects of humanitarian action. With regard to water, the poorest inhabitants are highly dependent on the private sector, and the prices charged by small operators distributing water from water tankers, as well as farmers selling water from their own wells, have increased sharply because of high demand from NGOs.

The local players have also been caught on the back foot. I spoke to the director of the Mafraq water authority, who painted a picture of an insolvable situation: the water shortage has become four times worse in Mafraq than before the “Syrian crisis,” the period between distributions has lengthened, in some cases to more than a week, and the water authority is increasingly obliged to rent private wells to meet demand. In addition, the population’s mistrust of local institutions is rising: several times, the director of the water authority was booed in public, and people come knocking on his door, demanding water. The Mayor of Mafraq is also very critical of the NGOs, accusing them of being concerned only with the Syrians.

To mitigate these tensions, the NGOs are establishing “community-based organisations” (CBOs) made up of “community leaders,” and other “key informants” around projects that benefit both Syrians and Jordanians. Although I have not done the research needed to assess the relevance of such projects, it should be emphasised that the “community-based” approach is not always the panacea long claimed by supranational bodies. Lexine Tallis Hansen and John Kerr’s study on a water conservation programme in Jordan backed by several NGOs has shown the limitations of this method. Indeed, implementing such a programme without increasing disparities and consolidating current domination forces requires strong familiarity with local conditions and problems on the part of NGOs—a familiarity they do not always possess. 


A historicized approach of the centralized management of water networks in Jordan helps better understand the “Syrian crisis,” and its impact on water access both for Jordanians and Syrian refugees. Continuous donors’ pressure for “rationalizating” water delivery systems rests on the rhetoric of “state failure,” and the critic of monarchy’s clientelistic policy management. The austerity measures the international institutions have long encouraged raise anger among an important part of the population. Nowadays, with the presence of Syrian refugees in the country, this feeling adds to the fear of seeing their own interests marginalized in favor of the refugees’. Organizing “resilience,” identifying needs, and setting priorities are thus important matters of concern. International stakeholders accuse the government of embezzling aid allocated to refugees while the population resents the government’s lack of firmness in front of donors and NGOs, and their neglect of Jordanians’ interests. Significant tensions stem from this complex political game, which inextricably links the state, NGOs and foreign financial institutions, further increasing the distance between citizens and the decision-making process.

[John Crisp translated this essay, originally written in French, thanks to the financial support of UMR Environnement Ville Société, Université de Lyon] 


[1] See Neda Zawahri, “Popular Protests and the Governance of Scarce Fresh Water in Jordan,” The Arab World Geographer 15:4 (2012), 267-301.
[2] See Khadidja Darmame and Robert Potter, “
Gestion de la rareté de l’eau à Amman: rationnement de l’offre et pratiques des usagers,“ Espaces et sociétés 39:4 (2009), 71-89; and Neda Zawahri, op.cit.
[3] See Neda Zawahri, op.cit.
[4] See Riccardo Bocco, Pierre Harrison and Lucas Oesch, “Recovery”, in
Post-Conflict and Peacebuilding: A Lexicon, edited by Vincent Chetail (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2009), 268-278.

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