By Anna Paolini

Water is life. Yet Jordanians have one of the lowest amounts of water per person in the world. To make matters worse, annual rainfall in Jordan is declining while demand continues to rise.

Even more action needs to be taken to mitigate the increasing water scarcity and if this challenge is to be won, all stakeholders – including the Jordanian government, the private sector, and citizens themselves – need to join together to solve the problem. The price for not doing so would be too high. The responsibility belongs to all of us.

International World Water Day is held annually on March 22 and aims to draw attention to the importance of fresh water, by advocating for sustainable management of freshwater resources. This year, March 22 is an opportunity to reflect upon our individual and collective responsibilities. It is a chance to reaffirm our commitment to supporting the country in combating water scarcity and finding durable solutions to water resource management.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day is “Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge”. Most of the world’s population now lives in cities and urbanisation rates are growing. Jordan is no exception. Increased urbanisation places a high demand on the entire chain of water supply and demand, its regulation and wastewater treatment. In most urban areas of Jordan, wastewater is not adequately treated and is rapidly polluting rivers, wadis and groundwater bodies. This again poses a threat, especially to highly populated areas where polluted water can transmit diseases.

To successfully face the range of challenges, Jordan needs to invest even more in an integrated urban water management approach to take into account diverse water usage and the changing dimensions of urban living. The challenges of domestic and industrial consumption and supply, hygiene and flood risks must no longer be seen as separate issues. Rather, once we recognise their interconnectivity, we will be in a better position to respond to them effectively.

The UN actively assists the Jordanian government through technical support and policy advice. At the centre of this collaboration is a commitment to building the necessary tools and finding sustainable solutions to supply people with water while improving the quality of water management and wastewater treatment.

Among our joint UN programmes is a project named “Adaptation to Climate Change to Sustain Jordan’s Millennium Development Goals Achievements”. Funded by the Spanish MDG Achievement Fund (MDG-F), it aims to enhance Jordan’s capacity to adapt to climate change (particularly as it relates to water) and draws on the expertise of four UN organisations: UNESCO, UNDP, FAO, and WHO.

Each agency helps according to its specialised and global expertise and mandate. UNESCO, for example, develops capacity in the areas of integrated water resources management, research, and the effective management of scarce water resources. Meanwhile, UNDP provides technical and policy support on climate change adaptation in water management while WHO and FAO work on water-related health and agriculture issues respectively.

Besides its involvement in the MDG-F programme, UNESCO is also placing great importance on water and environmental education. This is paramount: research has shown that if sustainable development is to be achieved, younger generations need to learn and adopt new behaviours towards water use. Children need to be taught to see protection of the environment as a necessity as opposed to an option. Increased awareness would be a valuable first step in changing behaviour and perspectives towards water in Jordan.

On World Water Day, the UNESCO Amman Office, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme and IUCN, held an event at the Nayfeh School, a public school in Hashemi Shamali, where students took part in activities and experiments that helped them learn about water and the realities people face due to water scarcity. By the end of the day, the young participants became aware that they too have a responsibility to value and protect the water we still have.

Starting the debate at the grassroots and individual level is an important step forward in changing attitudes about water usage, and we appreciate the work of community volunteers in this regard. The UNV, along with KOICA, Legal Aid and the Princess Basma Youth Resource Centre are contributing further to World Water Day by mobilising young volunteers interested in environmental issues. Modern environmental activism and awareness is largely the result of the dedication of volunteers, and UNV will be supporting a number of community events such as the activities at Nayfeh throughout 2011 which happens to be the 10th anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers.

Indeed, the responsibility in addressing the water scarcity challenge in Jordan rests with all corners of society, from the government to corporations, international organisations and most importantly individual citizens. The Jordanian government, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, national and international partners and donors are already working hard to reverse the water challenge. While their initiatives are exemplary, the challenge is so great that more coordinated and effective efforts are needed by all.

Let us take World Water Day as an opportunity to start by ourselves, one by one. Many of us do not realise the enormous negative impact that even our (seemingly small) individual actions and water consumption have on the environment, from letting the tap run water while we brush our teeth, filling the bath-tub, or by washing our cars regularly with a hose. The more we can collectively change behaviours, the more water we will save for our children and grandchildren tomorrow. Our individual behaviour and attitude change towards the environment, combined with new policies on efficient water use, will ensure improved living conditions and safe and reliable water availability for future generations.

Finally let’s bear in mind that Jordan is not alone in this. We share most of our water resources (basins and aquifers) with other countries, and any attempt to tackle the regional aspect of the water challenge would need to include our neighbours. This is not only necessary to warrant Jordan’s own water demands, but also to take on a long-term perspective on the transboundary sharing of resources.

As UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova indicated in her message on World Water Day 2011, “If we fail to make water an instrument of peace, it may be tomorrow a source of conflict”. Let’s make water something that unites people in the future, not something to fight for.

The writer is UNESCO representative to Jordan and chair of the United Nations Communications Group. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.