Jun 11,2016

Mohammad Najjar

The Jordanian economy has been, and will continue to be in the foreseeable future, dependent on foreign aid, particularly from Gulf countries and the United States.

Recent signs that grants from Gulf countries will diminish constitute a major concern for policymakers in the Kingdom and raise doubts as to whether the Jordanian economy can be able to sustain high levels of growth in the future.

Another important challenge is dealing with the serious shortage of water resources in Jordan.

Providing water sufficient to meet demand is today far more challenging than ever before, particularly in light of the increasing number of refugees in the last three years.

The pressure on water resources is a critical issue and could potentially threaten the stability of the country in the foreseeable future.

The US has been supporting the water sector in Jordan since the 1950s with hundreds of millions of dollars mainly directed through USAID, whose financial support has for long time been politically and socio-economically driven.

USAID’s grants to Jordan’s water sector were increased significantly (by $60 million annually) after the signing of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. At that point, US policy towards Jordan changed course. Financial support increased, with the primary aim of encouraging integration with Israelis and Palestinians through joint projects.

Worth mentioning in this context is the “Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 19 – Political Instability in Jordan”, issued by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2013. The memorandum recommended that actions be taken by the US government to support Jordan in order to ensure its safety and stability.

The memorandum further recommended that the US provide additional financial support to offset the costs of sheltering Syrian refugees and, by doing so, prevent the rise of instability resulting from competition for limited public funds.

This would fall in line with efforts to effect reforms and take anti-corruption measures.

Corruption is perceived by many Jordanians as endemic and widespread, and the government is seen as being lenient in fighting it.

The government, through its Ministry of Water and Irrigation, launched the first stage of the famous Red Sea-Dead Sea Desalination Project for pre-qualification.

The Water Ministry and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation held a donors’ conference in Aqaba on May 8, 2016, attended by many donors and financial agencies, including USAID.

The outcome of the conference has been disappointing and raised questions about the feasibility of this project.

Without substantial grants, it will be almost impossible to implement the project.

At the conference, USAID representatives repeated what they had already announced earlier, pledging $100 million.

Compared to its support to other mega-water projects, where USAID granted more than 50 per cent of the capital cost, this relatively small number triggered questions as to whether the USAID is supportive of this project.

And if it is not, then why?

What are the real reasons for this modest amount which reflects a hesitation on the part of USAID towards this project?

This project is a bilateral project whereby there will be an exchange of water between Jordan and Israel. This is in line with the US policy stated above, especially given Jordan’s strategic orientation, commitment to peace with Israel, and cooperation on counterterrorism and security matters.

The US has a strong interest in helping Jordan manage the potential sources of possible destabilisation of the country.

While the US is putting pressure on Jordan to keep its borders open and accommodate more refugees, and demanding that Jordan strengthen and reinforce its peace treaty with Israel, it seems to not realise the importance of this bilateral project when contributing so modestly to it.

The US ambassador to Jordan recently stated that “The US Congress committed, in 2015, $100 million in support of Jordan’s water sector”, recognising the pressure on water resources by stating that “the pressure on Jordan’s water resources had grown with the influx of Syrian refugees”.

There is no doubt that this kind of support is highly appreciated. However, this recent support has not come in the same spirit as the earlier cooperation between USAID and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, where the former took a more active role in managing certain mega-projects.

The level of support, both financial and political, by the US does not reflect its eagerness to see this project realised. This raises questions that need to be answered by USAID or the US government.

Is the reason for the modest support political?

Is it because the project is not trilateral, where Palestine should have been a party to the agreement signed in early 2015 between Jordan and Israel?

Or is it because parties to said parties to the agreement did not communicate with the US before signing?

Or is the reason not political, but rather related to the details of the project itself?

Is the US not convinced that the volume of water is adequate to meet the current needs, including those of Syrian refugees?

Is the US concerned by the measures Jordan has to take as stipulated in the memorandum?

I strongly believe that Jordan’s water sector is in need of a deep US involvement, especially in this project, and not only financially but also in terms of management.

I also hope that the support for this project will be considered for all parties, and not only for Jordan, since all stakeholders are going to benefit from the decreased water prices.

The writer is former minister of water and irrigation. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.