Water resource decoupling in the Jordan Basin

Dr Michael Gilmont shares insight from a new British Council funded report highlighting opportunities to enhance water security in the Jordan River Basin

In Jordan, water scarcity and food insecurity are increasingly understood as existential threats to human security and the natural environment. Despite its water scarcity, over the past 2 decades, Jordan has demonstrated considerable ability to grow its economy and its agriculture without commensurately increasing water usage, thereby ‘decoupling’ economic and agricultural growth from increased water resource needs. Higher levels of agricultural water productivity (crop per drop) and wastewater reuse have been two crucial measures to decouple national water needs from available natural water supply, along with the import of much water-intensive food production (including 98% of national wheat needs), and economic growth concentrated in non-water intensive sectors of the economy. Jordan is not alone in these trends; others’ in the region have also made considerable progress in circumventing their water limits, with Israel demonstrating long term commitment and measurement of water allocation and productivity.

University of Oxford, in partnership with Jordan’s WANA Institute, and the regional NGO EcoPeace, has been working to deepen our understanding of water resource ‘decoupling’ in Jordan Basin. The research, funded by the British Council, applies the conceptual model below (Fig 1).

Figure 1: Revised water resource decoupling model (developed from Gilmont 2014, 2015), incorporating four mechanisms of decoupling.

In July 2017, the project partners published a report highlighting the potential volumetric gains that could be achieved in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories if they moved towards regional best practice in terms of agricultural water productivity and wastewater reuse. The study also highlights where Israel could learn from its neighbours, particularly in rainfed tree-crop production. The analysis also draws on the role that strategic enhancement of food imports can play in mitigating national water scarcity, and allowing water resources to be targeted at the highest economic and social returns.

The project team used data on agricultural production and water application to assess, as national averages, water needs per unit ton of food production for 14 key crops including banana, dates, olives and tomatoes. The crops were chosen on the basis of their national importance, high total water use, or potential for improved relative water productivity. National average data was ground-truthed through a series of interviews with farmers, with data collected on water application, crop yields, relationships between farmers and government agricultural institutions, and crop market conditions. The interviews focused on areas of direct climatic comparability between the three jurisdictions, and confirmed many of the trends revealed through national average data, as well as highlight areas of uncertainty.

On the basis of national average data, our analysis for Jordan suggests that current production tonnages could be produced with 168 million cubic meters (MCM) per year less water than is presently used. This represents a close to 30% reduction in agricultural water applied at the farm. Our analysis has also shown instances of regional best practice in water productivity by Jordan in date and olive production, effectively supplementing rainfall with irrigation to high economic returns in the North Jordan Valley. An additional 50MCM saving could be achieved through increased imports of already import-dependent crops, subject to further research into economic and social impacts.

Current wastewater recovery is comparable to Israeli volumes in terms of water metered and paid for in the domestic sector, at about 60%. However, 50% losses through water theft and leakage in the domestic sector mean that actual recovery of water supplied is around 30%. Increased wastewater supply to agriculture will therefore be conditional upon reduced non-revenue water in the domestic sector.
For the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, the research was constrained by limited secondary data on agricultural water productivity, and a diversity of responses from farmers on water use. The analysis did however demonstrate that up to 115MCM/yr could be recovered as recycled wastewater on the basis of regional best practice.

For Jordan, achieving highlighted agricultural productivity gains represent a considerable opportunity to improve agricultural knowledge and best practice, and deliver investment in the Jordanian agricultural sector through both technical and management improvements. The investments would enable current production tonnages to be maintained with less water, These investments would both enhance the rural economy and livelihoods, and simultaneously deliver improved water security for Jordan. If combined with other instruments in the 2016 Jordanian National Water Plan, our identified savings, reallocated across the Jordanian water economy, could help eliminate the anticipated remaining deficit between actual and policy-mandated supply by 2025, while allowing for growth in agricultural output and urban water supply. Strategic import substitution could enable the elimination of over-pumping of renewable groundwater resources, and important step towards advancing the restoration of Jordan’s water resources to sustainable levels of use. Proactively enhancing Jordan’s decoupling trends, enabling reallocation of water and enhancement of the agricultural sector, presents the opportunity to become an exemplar of advanced water security in the Arab world.

The research was led by Professor Steve Rayner at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, and coordinated by Dr Michael Gilmont at the Environmental Change Institute, both University of Oxford.

Reference: Gilmont, M., Rayner, S., Harper, E., Nassar, L., Tal,N., Simpson, M., Salem, H. (2017) Decoupling national water needs for national water supplies: insights and potential for countries in the Jordan Basin. WANA Institute, Royal Scientific Society in Amman, Jordan.