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.
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. 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. 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.
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