Water Security and the U.S.-Jordanian Partnership

Thank you very much.  Your Excellency Minister Al-Nasser, distinguished guests, it gives me great pleasure to be here today at this closeout ceremony – a moment to reflect on the significance of our 60-year partnership in Jordan’s water sector and look ahead to the future.

As I begin, I would like to ask all of you to look around the room. What appears most valuable or useful in this space around us?  The lights? The sound system or screen behind me?  What about the bottles of water sitting in front of you?  Is there anything more essential or valuable than that?  Maybe the air we breathe.  Yet we often sit at meetings or conferences, talk about water challenges and open a bottle, take a few sips, and leave the remainder to be thrown away.  We take for granted that there will always be more water there in front of us – in bottles, flowing from our taps, and available for our farms and industry.  Unfortunately, the mounting demands on our limited water resources are challenging that assumption more and more every day.

California, the United States’ largest agriculture producer, is in its fourth year of devastating drought.  Some have even started to question whether it could be the first state to run out of water.  Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water, and California farms will lose a third of their surface water supply in 2015, and will have to make up losses by pumping more groundwater.  This has serious economic impacts.  Farms will employ about 20,000 fewer workers and will fallow 545,000 acres, or nearly 7 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland.  The drought’s impact goes well beyond agriculture, affecting households and industries, ranging from tourism to semi-conductors.  The state has instituted public conservation measures, and even paid residents to tear up their lawns.

California’s challenges echo around the world in places like: Yemen, perhaps the first country at risk of running out of water; Brazil, where Sao Paolo residents recently faced regular, days-long water cuts; Botswana where reservoirs behind dams have run dry; and of course, here in Jordan.  The stark reality is that whether you have been water-rich or water-poor, no country or economy can continue business-as-usual.  Humanity’s most precious resource – for which there are no alternatives – is at risk from overuse, pollution, and our changing climate.

This is an issue Jordanians know well.  Jordan is among the most water-poor countries on earth, and the majority of your water resources, such as the Disi aquifer and major rivers, are shared, originating outside the Kingdom.  Jordan has approximately 145 cubic meters (CM) of renewable water resources per person, well below the internationally-recognized 1,000 CM water-poverty line.  The influx of refugees sharply raised water demand by 20 percent across the country and 40 percent in northern governorates, and taxed water and wastewater-treatment infrastructure.  Amman residents receive water once a week, and those outside the capital even less often.  I have been impressed by how some resourceful Jordanians conserve water; even simple steps like using bath water to water plants can have an impact.  But conservation, especially in rural communities, can mean making hard choices between drinking water, washing clothes, or bathing.  Are these the kinds of choices we expect in the 21st century?  Thriving, rather than merely surviving, will require new appreciation of the cost of water, improved technologies, and effective local and regional governance to enforce sustainable water use.

There are no two issues more important to human health, economic development, and peace and security than water and sanitation.  By 2025, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be living under water-stressed conditions, including roughly two billion people who will face absolute water scarcity.  The Middle East is one of the most water-stressed and least water-secure regions, and its population is expected to double by 2050.  Bahrain, Kuwait, the Palestinian Territories, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon – like Jordan – all face scarcity and are over-using groundwater or relying heavily on desalinated sea water to meet demand.  Climate change will create greater variability in rainfall, increasing the number and severity of floods and droughts, as well as the likelihood of greater saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers.

The water we need to live and work is no longer plentiful or free and we cannot ignore what it really costs to provide water.  In California, experts debate that artificially low water pricing encouraged the too rapid expansion of certain farms and crops and contributed to the drought.  A study in Bahrain showed that through 2012, municipal water costs averaged around 80 cents for a cubic meter of water, while the price to a municipal consumer was just 15 cents.  Jordan has similarly high subsidies of around 72 percent, so the Water Authority of Jordan (WAJ) takes out loans to cover the difference.  Water production and distribution are also extremely energy intensive.  The WAJ is Jordan’s single largest electricity consumer and power comprises around 40 percent of WAJ’s budget.

Knowing the real cost of extracting, treating, and transporting water, consumers and service providers, governments and citizens, must join at a local level to avoid waste and ensure our communities can pay for the infrastructure required to provide water long-term.  That will need to take many forms, from effective water metering and bill payment to being more thoughtful about the cost of water going into the crops we grow.  Does it always make sense to grow almonds in California, wheat in the Gulf, or bananas in Jordan, or could trade and economic interdependence go farther to meet our collective food needs?

Whether you are harvesting rainwater in cisterns, installing low-flow toilets, or deploying drip irrigation, you are contributing to something great.  I have personally witnessed excellent achievements in water savings through sensible farming approaches in Jordan.  The USAID Hydroponic Green Farming Initiative has shown that water-efficient and cost-saving water practices lead to improved farming production.  Farmer Basel Al-Wirr has a hydroponic lettuce greenhouse farm near Zarqa where he uses one-third of the land, 90 percent less water and significantly less fertilizers and pesticides, while producing higher-quality crops.  Each lettuce plant produced hydroponically needs around 7.5 liters of water compared to 40 liters per plant in conventional farming.  Mr. Al-Wirr can sell his lettuce at high-end supermarkets in Amman for ten times the asking price of traditional soil-grown lettuce.

In July, I visited Madaba and met Dr. Hussam Al Nimer who has used water harvesting and efficient hydroponic systems to recycle water and nutrients through the greenhouses on his farm and reduce water use by as much as 70 percent.  Later this month, I will visit another farmer, Um Ali in Bani Kenanah, to sample some of her hydroponic thyme.  Um Ali has been using hydroponic greenhouses for more than a year, reducing water and fertilizer use by 30-40 percent while increasing production by a third.


Better practices and new technologies are essential tools in resolving this water challenge.  Technological advancements provide new economic opportunities and higher-value jobs in science and technology fields.  We are funding researchers in Jordan at institutions like the National Center for Agriculture Research and Extension.  Some are working in laboratories to find breakthroughs in the durability and energy-efficiency of desalination membranes and water-purification systems.  Others are developing entrepreneurial grey-water recycling systems for farms and urban households, or testing new crop strains for drought resistance.

Conserving water makes sense – or more accurately generates dollars in savings.  We see that in the actions of multinational firms.  Coca-Cola helped found the Water Footprint Network to assess the water content in its products, packaging and ingredients to reduce negative impacts on water resources and the environment.  The company has also set targets to reduce the water required to produce one liter of Coke from around two liters to 1.7 liters in 2020.  McDonalds has mapped water use and assessed risks for water scarcity at over 25,000 restaurant locations and used data to develop water efficiency measures, such as design, construction and remodel standards in its buildings.

This is a global effort and the United States is leading in initiatives to address the diverse challenges we face from climate change and mounting water demands.  We remain one of the world’s largest donors in the water sector – investing in capacity building, infrastructure, technology, and innovative financial instruments to mobilize local capital.  Our goal is to increase water security sustainably and ensure that we have the water we need, where we need it, when we need it.  Globally, just in 2013, USAID invested $523 million for drinking water and sanitation, water resources management, water productivity, and water-related risk reduction activities in 63 countries.  More than 20 other U.S. government agencies and departments contribute.  Even our space agency, NASA, is using its satellites to assess groundwater depletion in the world’s aquifers.

Here in Jordan water sector support has been a centerpiece of our close partnership for more than 60 years.  In the early 1950s, USAID completed studies that helped Jordan develop its first master plan for water resource development in the Jordan River basin.  Together we built the King Abdullah main canal in 1969, allowing the Jordan Valley to develop and bloom.  We improved or constructed wastewater facilities in Amman, Aqaba, Irbid, Zarqa, and eleven other cities and towns in the 1980s.  In 2006, we commissioned the Zara Ma’in water treatment project, which turns brackish water from local wadis into clean drinking water.  The project provided Amman with 30 percent of its water before the addition of Disi aquifer water in 2013.

In the early 2000’s USAID spearheaded a public private partnership with the Ministry of Water and Irrigation to create As-Samra, the country’s largest and most modern wastewater treatment facility.  The facility replaced an overloaded, foul-smelling pond treatment system that was despised by the local community down wind.  It now processes 70 percent of the nation’s sewage and produces much needed clear water for irrigation, virtually odor-free.  As-Samra is being further expanded with support from the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $275 million compact with Jordan, and I look forward to marking the completion of that project next week.  In the coming five years, we expect USAID to invest another $125 million in Jordan’s water sector.

U.S. water cooperation advances the Jordan Vision 2025 good governance agenda that will assure Jordan’s long-term prosperity.  Our programs have helped the Ministry address operational and policy constraints.  It has forged better groundwater management through data collection, metering, and new licensing procedures for private wells.  And, legal reform work to strengthen the Ministry’s enforcement capacity has supported Minister Al-Nasser and his team in their courageous efforts to crack down on water theft.

I would like to commend Minister Al-Nasser, who has been such a good partner and ally in our programs and a champion for Jordan.  It is not easy being water minister at a time when Jordan contends with energy-supply challenges and graciously hosts so many refugees.  We see how hard he works every day for Jordan and its people.  Jordan has developed all of the natural water resources within its borders and must look for every opportunity to assure its water future.  I am especially supportive of his efforts to find innovative regional solutions to shared water challenges.  If most of your water is shared, it is sensible to work with your neighbors, through initiatives like the Red Sea-Dead Sea desalination and brine conveyance project.  I can think of no other water project that is as cooperative and creative with the potential to solve multiple issues long-term, including supplying Jordanians and Palestinians with much needed water.

Water security is a global issue and we are all in this together – from California to Botswana to Jordan.  As you enjoy the rest of today’s program, and sip from the bottles of water in front of you, remember the power we all have to contribute so that future generations enjoy the same or better access to water that we enjoy today.  Also, please take some time to visit the stations surrounding us, which highlight the partnership and successful work between the U.S. and Jordan, of which I am so proud.  Thank you.


[1] Fortune, April 2015

[1] UC Davis Report 2015

[1] PM’s water speech

[1] Infocentral – water talking points

[1] NASA news, June 2015