Updated: April 6, 2013
Now that spring has arrived in the Middle East, Syria’s estimated 1.2 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan can hope for relief from the snow, the rain and the bitterly cold nights of winter. But that relief will be as short-lived as the region’s balmy weather. Summer is fast on its way, and in Jordan in particular, life for Syrian refugees, and the border communities that support them, is about to get a lot worse.
Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, subject to an ongoing drought that has devastated agricultural prospects in the country’s northern areas for nearly a decade. The large and rapid influx of Syrian refugees into the border cities of Ramtha and Mafraq, home to the Za’atari refugee camp, has strained water supplies to the breaking point — for two weeks in February, parts of Mafraq town had no water whatsoever. Summer’s soaring temperatures will put additional demands on a poor region that can hardly support its own population, let alone the surge of new refugees that are expected as the war in Syria grinds on. When the peaceful Syrian uprising evolved into a bloody conflict nearly two years ago, residents of Mafraq welcomed refugees fleeing the violence. That hospitality is starting to wane. Competition between Syrian refugees and local residents over limited resources, from water to electricity, food, schooling, housing and health care could boil over, potentially causing unrest in one of the few stable countries left in the Middle East. “As temperatures rise, so too will tensions,” says Nigel Pont, Middle East Regional Director for Mercy Corps, an international development agency actively involved with the Syrian crisis. Resentment among the Jordanians is palpable, he adds, and could easily escalate into violence if the underlying issues are not addressed.
Some 3,000 Syrians are crossing the Jordanian border every day, and aid agencies working with the 363,000 refugees already in the country anticipate that at this rate they will see another million in Jordan alone by the end of the year. Border towns like Mafraq have seen populations double since the start of the Syrian conflict, driving prices for rent, food and utilities sky-high. At the same time, the Jordanian government is considering reducing its historically generous subsidies on fuel. So costs are rising along with demand—a perfect storm for the Jordanian economy that has many grumbling about unwelcome guests.
International assistance can help with food, housing and even fuel to supply Jordan’s burgeoning refugee population to a certain extent. Water, however, is the one thing that can’t be airlifted in. For decades Jordan has relied on extracting groundwater to supply its own growing population, but those supplies are dwindling. According to antipoverty charity Oxfam, which is also involved with the Syrian conflict, groundwater extraction is nearly three times the recharge rate in some areas, which means that wells are quite literally going dry. To make things worse, Oxfam estimates that 50% of water in Mafraq district is lost through leaks in aging pipes or by people illegally siphoning water from the municipal system.
(PHOTOS: The Swallows of Syria)
“The Syrian refugee emergency is highlighting one of Jordan’s most pressing problems — water,” says Christian Snoad, Oxfam’s water, sanitation and hygiene coordinator in Za’atari, in a recently released statement. “Solutions need to be found to deal with Jordan’s water scarcity, and this will need to be done as a matter of urgency.” As it is, towns that used to have running water one day a week are now only getting it once every two weeks. And with more than half of the Syrian refugees living in towns like Mafraq, it’s all too easy for Jordanians to blame the newcomers for the shortages. To fill in the gaps residents must rely on water delivered by private tanker companies, a costly alternative that is fueling further resentment.
Aid agencies such as Oxfam and Mercy Corps have dug wells in the Za’atari refugee camp to assuage shortages there, but it’s a short-term solution, especially as numbers grow. To help residents and refugees outside the camp, the U.S. Agency for International Development has partnered with Mercy Corps on a $20 million project to refurbish Jordan’s ailing water system where the influx of Syrian refugees has disrupted supplies.
These initiatives will only help if the incoming numbers stay stable, all the more unlikely considering the worsening violence across Syria. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 6,000 Syrians were killed in March, making it the deadliest month since the start of hostilities in 2011. On Tuesday, rebel forces attacked a Damascus suburb in an attempt to reach the heart of President Bashar Assad’s stronghold. The regime retaliated with a barrage of rockets, mortars and air strikes on northern suburbs allied with the opposition. It is impossible to predict where the war will go next: the rebels are determined; so too is the regime. But if Damascus does fall, or any of Syria’s southern cities for that matter, a surge of Syrians heading for the Jordanian border is a given. Instead of 3,000 refugees a day, Jordan might find itself forced to accept hundreds of thousands — a catastrophic burden for any country, not least one already on edge because of its own dwindling resources.
UPDATE: Jordan’s Prime Minister-designate, Abdullah Ensour, warned in parliamentary debate that an increased influx of Syrian refugees would be “catastrophic” for the country. In a subsequent conversation with journalists, he suggested that the government was considering alternatives, including the establishment of buffer zones in southern Syria that would serve the dual purpose of protecting Jordan from spillover from the ongoing conflict, as well as house would-be refugees seeking safety across the border. On 5 April the United Nations warned that it would soon have to start cutting aid to Syrian refugees across the region, due to inadequate funding. “The needs are rising exponentially, and we are broke,” Marixie Mercado, a spokeswoman for Unicef, told reporters in Geneva according to the New York Times. “Across the region, a lot of our operations are going to have to start scaling down unless we get money.” Unicef warned that it had received only a quarter of requested funds, and as a result would be forced to stop deliveries of 3.5 million liters of water to 100,000 Syrian refugees by June – just when demand will peak.