Water arrives to my house in Amman on Tuesday evenings. I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear the sound of it rushing through the outdoor pipe that connects us to the municipal water system. Almost all households in Jordan have piped water, but in this water-scarce country, the supply is not continuous. In Amman, different neighborhoods receive water on different days, just once a week for about 24 hours.
The water supply is not continuous. In Amman, neighborhoods receive their municipal allotments just once a week, for about 24 hours.
Like everyone else here, we store our week’s supply in cisterns on the roof. The skyline of the city is dotted with the outlines of these metal rectangles and white plastic cylinders. By the time the municipal allotment of water tapers off, sometime during the day on Wednesday, our tanks are full again. We are lucky to have three that hold 1,500 liters each — enough to see our family through the week, with a bit extra to cover the occasional water cuts that are a constant worry and headache.
In poorer neighborhoods, where large families live in small, multistory buildings, residents are less likely to have sufficient storage. Scarcity leads people to maximize their use when water is freely available. On a nearby hill, in the neighborhood of Ras al Ain, for instance, “People organize their life around the arrival of water,” says Tareq Faqih, who manages an NGO there. “They clean their houses and do their washing on the day the water arrives.” 1 Water sets the rhythm of city life.
If you were a visitor to Amman, you likely wouldn’t realize how dire the situation is. Aside from the 24-hour ration, there is no limit on water use. In the city’s affluent, far-flung neighborhoods, residents wash their cars and water their gardens; doormen hose down courtyards and sidewalks. But the truth is that Jordan is one of the most water-poor countries in the world, and its capital, where 40 percent of the population lives, is the epicenter of a water crisis. “Water is a nightmare,” says renowned Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash. “We are in trouble.” 2 Climate change will make things worse. In the next 75 years, Jordan’s precipitation is expected to decrease by at least fifteen percent and perhaps as much as 60 percent, and its temperatures to rise between one and four degrees Celsius. 3
Unlike many other Arab capitals, Amman has not been devastated by wars or degraded by decades of institutional failure. But lack of water threatens its ambitions.
I didn’t know much about Amman when I moved here in 2019. Among Arab cities, the Jordanian capital is often overlooked. Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus boast longer histories, greater beauty, and more cultural and political centrality. “Amman is not loved like other Arab cities,” says Myriam Ababsa, a social geographer at the French Institute for the Near East. “You don’t have an imaginary of Amman. But Amman is totally fascinating.” 4 The special character of Amman is the product of its extraordinary and heterogenous growth. Just over a century old, it is a metropolis of nearly four million. The city’s expansion has happened in dramatic bursts and spurts. An island of relative political stability, Amman has absorbed surges of people and capital from each of Jordan’s neighboring states — Iraq, the occupied West Bank, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — and is now home to millions of refugees. Amman’s status as a sanctuary has made it quietly cosmopolitan. The population is young, educated, and entrepreneurial, and the city attracts a significant amount of tourism and international investment. Unlike many other Arab capitals, Amman has not been devastated by wars or degraded by decades of corruption and institutional failure. But the lack of water threatens its ambitions of becoming a cultural and commercial hub.
Jordan’s water crisis is the product of many factors, some of which are admittedly outside authorities’ control: population growth, the policies of Jordan’s neighbors, climate change itself. The crisis has been exacerbated, however, by a shortsighted administration. Reliant on foreign aid and foreign investment, Jordan has channeled money into massive infrastructure projects and real estate development rather than systemic reforms and creative small-scale solutions that might make the city more sustainable. “People are increasing, industry is increasing, investment is increasing, but water is not,” says Iyad Dhayat, the former secretary general of the country’s Water Authority. “You need to make hard decisions.” 5 Yet more often than not, the goal of the government seems to be to avoid them.
About a century ago, Amman was chosen as the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The small, arid, resource-strapped protectorate was created by the British in 1921 as a sop for Abdullah, the second son of the Sharif of Mecca and a member of the Hashemite family, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Abdullah and his brother Faisal had led the British-supported Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire between 1916 and 1918. After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Faisal became king of Iraq and Abdullah was given Jordan.
Amman’s appeal was its location. It was at the center of the country, a stop on the Hejaz Railway that ran from Damascus to Medina. At the time, Amman was little more than a village, home to semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes, a small community of Circassian refugees, and the ruins of an ancient Roman city. Photographs from the early 20th century show a cluster of modest stone buildings — most of them single-story rectangles, divided into a few rooms —huddled in a small curving valley, next to a Roman amphitheater that was once part of the ancient city of Philadelphia. Empty hills surround a small river and one main road.
The geopolitical survival of Jordan — a small, resource-poor country in a volatile region — was not assured. From the beginning, Jordan’s larger and more powerful neighbors had their own claims and designs on the territory. The monarchy has teetered in the face of political assassinations, a civil conflict in 1970 in which Palestinian militias tried to overthrow the king, and waves of unrest and terrorism. Yet Jordan has endured, and Amman has grown beyond all expectations. In 1949, the capital of the newly independent nation had 87,000 residents; today, its population is almost four million. In 1948, the city covered an area of 20 square kilometers; today, the Greater Amman Municipality includes about 293 square kilometers. 6
Amman’s population, like that of all Arab cities, has increased due to internal migration and demographic growth. But the city has also been reshaped by sudden waves of refugees: at least 70,000 Palestinian refugees following the establishment of Israel in 1948; another 300,000 after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (in which Jordan lost control of Jerusalem and the West Bank); 350,000 Palestinian and Jordanian migrants who were expelled from the Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War; and about 200,000 Iraqis who fled the 2003 American invasion. More recently, over one million refugees escaping Syria’s civil war have also settled in Amman. 7 There are smaller numbers of Armenian, Chechen, Somali, and Yemeni refugees as well, in addition to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from countries such as Egypt and the Philippines, who come to work as gardeners, housekeepers, and doormen. In fact, a third of Jordan’s population hails from other countries; in Amman, one in four residents has refugee status. 8
The East/West Divide
As Amman grew, it began climbing the steep surrounding hills. Older neighborhoods are connected by winding narrow roads and staircases that leave you panting; limestone houses with courtyards and verandas are intermingled with cafés and art galleries. My family and I live in one of these older neighborhoods, Jabal Al Lweibdeh, in a house that was built on a terraced slope in 1926. We are among the many foreigners who have been attracted to the area’s walkability and historic charm.
East Amman is the denser, poorer side of the city, abutting the desert. West Amman is different: malls, sports clubs, embassies, international schools.
If I leave my house and head east, a few downward-sloping blocks and two staircases land me right in Al Balad, Amman’s historic downtown, in the narrow valley where the modern city was born. Al Balad is still the commercial heart of the city, home to its central produce market, and to shops that sell spices, embroidery, jewelry, knock-off western sneakers, and tourist knickknacks. In the evenings, people come to eat at restaurants famous for their falafel and kunefeh, and to stroll the thoroughfare that now covers the river that used to flow here and still trickles underneath (the street is nicknamed “top of the stream”).
East Amman rises and spreads in the distance. This is the denser, poorer side of the city, abutting the desert, where tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who first arrived in the late 1940s settled in camps that eventually turned into permanent neighborhoods. The more recent influx of Syrian refugees has also settled largely in East Amman, and most of the city’s workshops, warehouses, and factories are here as well.
The western side of the city is a different story. My visits there are invariably by car. When Amman outgrew its original center, the well-off began moving west, seizing agricultural land to build spacious residential neighborhoods. It is here that one finds almost all of Amman’s malls, supermarkets, private sports clubs, embassies, and international schools. Jordan’s royal family resides in palaces in Amman’s western-most, chicest new neighborhood, Dabouq. Older generations can remember when West Amman was olive groves and centuries-old oaks. Much of this greenery has been cut down to build luxury developments dotted with palm trees.
The city’s expansion was fueled by petrodollars from neighboring states in the 1970s and ’80s, and the oil industry left its imprint.
Amman’s westward expansion was fueled by the flow of petrodollars from neighboring states, where many Jordanians worked, and the oil industry left its imprint. “We live in a city built in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Khammash. “Most of what you see in Amman was built when a barrel of oil cost nine dollars.” 9 The suburban neighborhoods in the west are stitched together by massive highway interchanges, where major thoroughfares are stacked in chaotic roundabouts. These are often jammed and nearly impassable for pedestrians. Most West Amman neighborhoods are unnavigable without a car.
The east-west divide is real, but a bit of a simplification; the city actually spreads in all directions. Amman has done little to contain sprawl. It continues to use zoning ordinances created under the British protectorate, such that a majority of land is zoned for large residential plots of 750 or 1,000 square meters. 10 Local real estate investors channel their money where such large plots can be had, further and further from the city’s center.
The city’s sprawl has taxed its infrastructure, including water provision, and precious green space is given over to roads. Amman only recently inaugurated the first stage of a public transportation system, in which buses travel on traffic-free, segregated lanes. (There was a 23-year interim between announcement and completion.) City authorities say they are working to rein in sprawl, but it’s hard to see the evidence. Every spring, on the hills surrounding Amman, shepherds tend their flocks, and wildflowers bloom following the winter rains. Yet new buildings also seem to sprout overnight, scattered wherever a landowner has the means and inclination to build. Isolated on the crests of hills, surrounded by retaining walls, they look like mini-fortresses.
The cityscape has expanded vertically as well as horizontally. Several West Amman real estate developments are centered on high rises. According to some, these glass and steel behemoths embody the city’s ambitions. According to others, they exemplify Amman’s growing inequality and disregard for sustainability.
Sprawl has taxed the city’s infrastructure, including water provision, and practically mandated the use of cars. Precious green space is given over to roads.
On the western edge of my neighborhood, for instance, rises Abdali, a development launched in 2005. Billed as the city’s new downtown, Abdali is a self-contained high-end commercial, office, and residential complex that includes a mall, private hospital, condos, hotels, and two of the tallest buildings in the city. The area was previously the Za’amta neighborhood, a low-income community that was displaced to make way for the new complex. Like capital-driven urban developments the world over, Abdali aims for a simulacrum of street life, but vigilantly limits access. The central boulevard, a pedestrian promenade lined with shops and restaurants, has entrances monitored by metal detectors and security agents who turn away anyone deemed undesirable. During holidays, entrance requires buying a ticket, despite the fact that a sizable portion of Abdali has no tenants.
Another emblematic project is Jordan Gates, a pair of 38-story skyscrapers built on what was once a public park in West Amman. In the early 2000s, the municipality sold the park to Gulf financiers. The sale caused an outcry, and things got worse after construction started. The towers’ glass cladding reflected heat and light onto the surrounding homes, and the site lacked adequate parking. The project stalled in 2008, reportedly due to litigation between stakeholders. The empty, unfinished towers, each flanked by a giant crane, loom over the skyline and are visible from miles away.
Rami Farouk Daher, an urban planner with a long-standing interest in heritage preservation, sees Abdali and Jordan Gates as emblematic of Amman’s infatuation with private foreign investment. I met Daher in his office, which is packed to the ceiling with books and reports documenting the city’s development. Daher is one of the foremost chroniclers of what he calls Amman’s “neoliberal urban restructuring.” In the late 1990s, he argues, following a financial crisis, the state withdrew from its role as the primary provider of public education, healthcare, and social housing, and instead became increasingly “involved in real estate development as a facilitator, regulator, and provider of indirect subsidies for multinational corporations.” 11 These subsidies include cheap land, infrastructure, and tax breaks. The high-end projects that have ensued, according to Daher, “are extremely exclusive … built at the expense of water resources and green patches … and work to push the poor to the outskirts of the city.” 12
Jordan Gates is emblematic, a pair of skyscrapers built on what was once a public park. Work stalled in 2008, and I have yet to see signs of progress.
The city has maintained its commitment to projects like these, even in the face of citizen opposition and calls to think more sustainably. In 2016, a young architect named Hanna Salameh daringly suggested that Jordan Gates be scrapped and the site repurposed. Salameh grew up in Amman, and studied architecture at McGill University in Montreal. When he returned to his hometown to start a practice, he was struck by the abandoned Jordan Gates construction site. His ambitious proposal, which went viral on YouTube, involved replacing the buildings’ glass cladding with photovoltaic panels, installing wind turbines in elevator shafts, and turning the abandoned skyscrapers into vertical farms. Rainwater would be collected in underground tanks, and the lower levels would be used for a farmers’ market and public park. The discarded glass panels could be repurposed for bus shelters and farmers’ market stalls. 13
The video was energetic and optimistic; in a matter of weeks, it was seen by some ten percent of Jordan’s residents. Investors lined up, ready to contribute capital. 14 The ado apparently unsettled authorities. Soon after Salameh’s YouTube proposal, the mayor held a press conference with Jordan Gates’ Kuwaiti investors. Construction would resume immediately, they announced. That was in 2012, and the site continues to languish. Last year, the city gave an update: it had acquired a 31 percent stake in the project and reached a new deal to bring it to completion. 15 I have yet to see any sign of progress.
Running Out of Water
While government officials have fixated on promoting a gleaming vision of Amman’s growth, the city has been running out of water. Jordan is mostly desert. The exceptions are an elevated green plateau in the central north, on which Amman sits, and the Jordan Valley, where the land sharply drops to the Dead Sea. Jordan shares its two main rivers with upstream neighbors — the Jordan River flows through Israel, and the Yarmouk River through Syria — and these countries’ dams have long siphoned water for agriculture, greatly reducing Jordan’s share. The kingdom has a short winter rainy season, but little of that water is captured; over 90 percent of rainfall is lost to evaporation. 16
As Jordan’s population has grown, the per-capita share of water has fallen to one tenth of the international standard for water scarcity.
For decades, Jordan has been overexploiting its underground aquifers, taking out as much as twice the water that can be naturally replenished. The marshlands and springs of the Azraq Aquifer in the country’s north, which used to supply Amman, dried out in the early ’90s; the aquifer on which Amman sits, the Amman Zarqa Basin, is depleting at a rate of one meter per year. 17 Starting in 2013, Amman began receiving water from Disi, a below-ground reservoir in the South, on the Saudi Arabian border. Disi formed 30,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch and lies at a depth of 500 meters. None of its so-called “fossil water” can be replenished. The Disi Aquifer is projected to either become too saline for use, or to run dry entirely in as little as two decades.
As Jordan’s population has grown, the per-capita share of water has fallen to less than 100 cubic meters per year (a cubic meter is 1,000 liters of water). This is one tenth of the recognized international standard for water scarcity, and a fifth of the threshold for “absolute scarcity.” The math works out to 273 liters a day, but that figure is abstruse, because it includes every citizen’s theoretical share of all the country’s water resources, including those consumed by agriculture, business, and public institutions. In daily domestic life, the average Jordanian uses 80 liters per day or less — in some cases as few as 35. 18 (For perspective, Europeans on average consume about 150 liters per day, and Americans double that. 19 An average seven-minute shower is 55 liters, or more than half a Jordanian’s daily usage, and an average washing-machine cycle is 70 liters. Handwashing a day’s worth of dirty dishes uses around 60 liters.)
Authorities have been aware of the water crisis since at least the 1990s. By way of a solution, in 2005, the government began developing the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, an Israeli-Jordanian desalination venture. The project envisaged construction of a desalination plant at the Red Sea town of Aqaba that would produce drinking water for Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, while pumping the byproduct, a concentrated brine, to the shrinking Dead Sea. The desalination plant was vaunted as an ultimate fix, and the depletion of the aquifers cast as a stop-gap solution. But the Red-Dead Project never came to fruition. Financing difficulties and political disagreements between Israel and Jordan proved too formidable, and it was scrapped in 2021.
By that point, the crisis was worse than ever. In 2017, the Ministry of Environment estimated Jordan’s sustainable water supply at 875 million cubic meters, and demand at 1,412 MCM. 20 If anything, demand has increased since, on pace with the population, suggesting that Jordan is running a water deficit of at least 500 MCM each year. Jordan is now pressing ahead with new plans for an Aqaba desalination plant, the National Carrier Project, which will be a smaller, more local version of the Red-Dead Project. The National Carrier Project will cost over two billion JOD and provide an additional 300 MCM of water annually. 21 Assuming a great number of things — the plant is built; it’s as effective as promised; Jordan’s population and water usage do not dramatically increase — the National Carrier Project will help mitigate the crisis.
The Aqaba desalination plant will decrease Jordan’s water deficit but not eliminate it, and project completion remains far in the future.
The National Carrier Project is not, however, a panacea. The Aqaba desalination plant will decrease Jordan’s water deficit but not eliminate it, and project completion remains far in the future. Best case scenario, says Dhayat, the former secretary general of the Water Authority, is that water from the National Carrier Project will reach Amman in ten years. 22 In the meantime, Jordan continues to search for more immediate fixes. The country is considering a deal with Israel, backed by the United Arab Emirates, that would exchange desalinated water from Israel for solar energy produced in Jordan. 23 The plan is complicated by the tense relations between Israel and Jordan. (Jordan supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, as stipulated in the 1993 Oslo Accords — a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Israeli leaders reject today.) Given the fraught history between the two countries, Jordan is understandably reluctant to give Israel leverage over a strategic necessity like water. But the country may have little choice.
Given how precious Jordan’s water is, it is shocking to learn how much of it goes missing. A staggering 50 percent of piped water is either not paid for, or not received. An investigative series by the independent local media site 7iber demonstrated that, although hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by authorities and foreign donors to reduce Jordan’s percentage of what is termed non-revenue water, the figure has remained stubbornly persistent. 24 After each new effort, there is a marked decrease. But the decrease proves temporary, and in time, water loss creeps back up to the halfway mark.
Much of Jordan’s piped water goes missing. A staggering 50 percent of the supply is not paid for, or not received. Much of it is stolen.
I met with Mobadda Al-Labadi, who works for the Amman governorate’s water utility, Miyahuna, to try to understand how so much water is unaccounted for. The culprits, Al-Labadi explained, are loss and theft. The loss happens mainly through leakage. A certain amount of loss is inevitable, especially given the distance Jordan’s water travels. (Water from the Disi Aquifer, for example, is pumped 300 kilometers to Amman, many of them uphill.) In sections with all new pipes, the leakage rate drops to about 25 percent, which Miyahuna deems acceptable. But, Al-Labadi explained, the pipes are generally not new, and the pumping mechanisms accelerate wear and tear. The intermittent rush of pressurized water creates something called a “hammer effect,” which leads to leaks. The solution is better maintenance; Al-Labadi oversees pipe rehabilitation, leak detection and repair, and upgrades to water meters, which grow inaccurate over time.
The other problem, that of theft, is less straightforward. Theft includes illegal diversions from water pipes, as well as Jordanians who refuse to pay on principle. Residents of Jordan’s eastern regions — home to rural communities and influential tribes — view themselves as the country’s true, indigenous inhabitants, and have traditionally provided the monarchy with political support in exchange for preferential treatment. Many of these communities have historically received water for free, and they resist fees. When Miyahuna inspectors arrive to install meters or collect bills, they’re sometimes met with violence. “Water inspectors have been beaten, had guns pulled on them,” Al-Labadi told me. “They have to get police escorts. It’s a really dangerous job.” 25
Water is also stolen directly from the pipes. Between 2013 and 2020, there were 45,000 such diversions, many of them sizable; entire farms and factories are running on illegally siphoned water. 26 Miyahuna investigates these thefts, shuts them down, and tries to recover the value of the stolen water. But the agency is not always successful, especially as some of the perpetrators are powerful and politically-connected.
Efforts to conserve water could pay off were they accompanied by real investment in staff training, maintenance, and operations.
According to Al-Labadi, reducing the percentage of non-revenue water requires a combination of money, political will, and constancy. “You need funding, staff, technology; you have to be persistent and consistent in your efforts. You need the political will to meet hard and stringent goals.” Theft could be reduced were existing policies enforced and offenders prosecuted. Pipe leakage could be minimized thorough inspections and repairs. The efforts to conserve water could pay off were they accompanied by real investment in maintenance, operations, and training of local staff. Simply put, says Al-Labadi, “You have to follow up.” 27
Dhayat told me something similar: “We don’t need new projects. We should inject money into sustaining what we have rather than building white elephants we cannot maintain.” 28 His comment was fresh in my mind when, on January 10, 2023, the Jordanian government unveiled a plan to build a new administrative city in the desert 40 kilometers east of Amman. 29 The government announced it had allocated 442 million JOD for infrastructure, and that private investors will be given land concessions; the metropolis is projected to be nearly as large as Amman, home to one million people by 2050. (Officials did not explain where the new city will get its water.)
This idea of a new capital city was first suggested, then abandoned, in 2017, and has now been dusted off again. The project seems to imitate Egypt’s huge and costly new capital, located just outside Cairo; it also doubles down on some of the most problematic aspects of Jordan’s past urban planning. Like Abdali and Jordan Gates, the proposal relies on state subsidies for private developers, the specifics of which are not disclosed to the public; it’s a top-down initiative preceded by little consultation or study; and it perpetuates the fantasy that urban dysfunction can be escaped rather than fixed.
The building of a new administrative capital would depend, as so much in Jordan does, on external investment. Jordan is sometimes described by scholars as an “indirect rentier” or “semi-rentier state,” due to its reliance on foreign funds. Money comes from a variety of sources, and is earmarked for a variety of projects. Some is in the form of remittances, from Jordanians working abroad, usually in oil-rich Gulf countries, but most falls under the categories of either foreign aid or foreign investment.
Building a new capital would depend on external investment. It would also double down on problematic aspects of past urban planning.
Foreign investment in Jordan is typically tied to major real estate development, whereas foreign aid and loans are largely used for key infrastructure projects. Jordan is one of the top recipients of foreign aid in the world, receiving 32.4 billion between 2011 and 2020. 30 The figure reflects the fact that international and regional powers have long invested in the country’s stability, rewarding its political alignment, geo-strategic usefulness, reception of refugees, and business-friendly policies.
But Jordan’s heavy reliance on outside funding has produced a catch-22. Authorities focus on mega-projects and quick fixes rather than institutional reforms, maintenance work, or systemic change. Obviously, some mega-projects are a must — the National Carrier Project, for instance — but others are surely distractions. Jordan doesn’t need another big, top-down, capital-intensive real estate development like a new administrative capital. Splashy, poorly-conceived proposals like this encourage wishful thinking and free authorities from the harder work of implementing real, substantive change.
The Cost of Water
Jordan has been in a drought since 2019, and widespread water cuts, especially during the summer months, are common. 31 When Amman residents run out of piped water, they buy it from private companies. Our household ran out of water a few summers ago, and we did what everyone else does: called a number and waited for a truck to arrive.
Such trucks are a common sight across the city, their tanks emblazoned with the words “Potable Water.” In theory, the private water sector is licensed and regulated by the government, but it is common knowledge that some companies sell water of dubious provenance. There is no way for consumers to verify water quality, and no way to ascertain its source. The water we purchased was cloudy and yellow.
The cost of private water fluctuates based on demand, but can reach as much as four or five JOD per cubic meter (1,000 liters). Piped water is about half the price, around two-and-a-half JOD per 1,000 liters. This is not a small amount. I spend on water more than twice what I would spend in New York City, and that bill represents only a fraction of the true cost. All water is subsidized by the state at a hefty rate of 47 percent. The subsidy is consistent, no matter the water’s intended use or the consumer’s ability to pay. 32
Most water experts agree that Jordan’s non-differentiated subsidy is neither fair nor efficient; as Dhayat argues, “The tariff is distorted. … You have to have targeted subsidies; you have to protect the poor. Those who benefit most from the current system are middle- and upper-class residential areas. Fresh water has to be valued differently.” 33 Authorities have been hesitant to remove or restructure the subsidy; coming up with a new policy is a technical and political juggernaut, and they fear sparking anger and unrest.
In Dhayat’s mind, the most egregious misuse of the subsidy is in agriculture, which consumes a disproportionate amount of water to grow crops in an arid land, while contributing only a small amount to the GDP. Most of these crops are for export. The generous water subsidy means that farms have less incentive to irrigate with recycled rather than fresh water, and only about two-thirds of farms have switched over. Obviously, that isn’t enough. According to Dhayat, “Using any fresh water in agriculture is a crime.” 34
I spend on water more than twice what I would in New York City, and that bill represents a fraction of the true cost, which is state-subsidized.
Just as there is no penalty in Jordan for wasting water, there is little incentive for conservation. I spoke about this with the architect Basma Uraiqat, whose firm specializes in building precast concrete homes with sustainable materials and energy-saving features. 35 Despite the need for and benefit of such solutions, she told me, developers aren’t interested, and there aren’t sufficient market incentives or government regulations to goad them. The regulations that do exist are rarely enforced. For instance, the existing building code requires new buildings to collect the brief but abundant seasonal rains in underground cisterns. But most developers, I was told, ignore this rule and simply pay the fine if they are caught. Less than one percent of households in Amman harvest rainwater. 36
Water scarcity disproportionately affects the city’s most vulnerable residents, but they are sometimes blamed for creating the problem. In describing the water crisis, authorities frequently cite the estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees who entered Jordan following the civil war. The government pins many of Jordan’s ills on this influx of refugees. According to the Amman Climate Plan, for instance, “The refugee crisis has contributed to an 83 percent increase in public debt, a 30 percent increase in youth unemployment, a 40 percent increase in the demand for water, and a seventeen percent increase in housing rental costs.” 37
The accuracy of these numbers is difficult to check, but the 40 percent increase in water demand seems suspiciously high. Indeed, even Dhayat, with his experience at the Water Authority, estimated the increase was half that, given that refugees have settled in areas of the city where water consumption is lowest. 38 In any case, the water crisis predated the influx of refugees. It is more accurate, as several people told me, to see refugees and water scarcity as a crisis on top of a crisis.
The water crisis predated the refugees. It is more accurate to see refugees and water scarcity as a crisis on top of a crisis.
Scapegoating Syrian refugees, according to May Abu-Tarboush, chief of the Environmental Division at the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, reveals a double standard. “At the end of the day, how much water do refugees consume? Versus the rich people who live in Abdoun and Dabouq?” she asks. (Abdoun is another affluent neighborhood.) “We shouldn’t blame people for using a few cubic meters of water. We need to target people who have big gardens, pools, fancy farms. We need to put a ceiling on water consumption.” 39
Talk versus Action
What steps could be taken to address Jordan’s water crisis? It’s not a mystery. Incentivize conservation. Direct resources toward minimizing water loss. Raise the price on water usage that exceeds basic needs. Rein in the city’s sprawl, which overtaxes its infrastructure and eliminates green space. And uphold existing legislation. “We have the laws,” said Bilal Shaqareen, Director of the Ministry of Environment’s Climate Change Directorate. “What we need is regulation and enforcement.”
In our interview, Shaqareen talked about the need for real incentives and penalties, coordination across all branches of government, and a “paradigm shift” in public awareness. (People should feel that water “is the responsibility of every individual, of every commercial entity in the country.” 40) He listed steps that could and should be taken: planting gardens in schools, harvesting rainwater and recycling gray water, and using more renewable power in government buildings.
Ventures like these have been piloted in Amman, but not implemented as policy, and Shaqareen didn’t seem sanguine that this will happen anytime soon. His assessment of the water crisis was straightforward, as were his solutions. Still, as more than one person here told me, the problem isn’t that the ideas don’t exist, but that they remain on paper. “My kids will do the right thing,” Shaqareen said at one point. 41 The idea that the next generation will finally tackle the country’s problems struck me as an elision of the government’s responsibility to direct change, urgently, now. The Amman Climate Plan, published by the Greater Amman Municipality, takes a similarly lofty yet vague tone. The plan urges “massive change” and “a transformational shift … across all sectors in Amman,” but doesn’t make clear who is supposed to lead this “transformation.” 42
The gap between what the government says and what it does has eroded trust. “I don’t believe in the state anymore; it’s just propaganda,” says Daher. “The rhetoric is: We care about the environment; we care about climate change. But nobody is taking any actions.” 43 Jordanians complain that the public administration is overstaffed and sluggish, riddled with corruption and nepotism. Confidence in public institutions is low, and complaints about life in the city are common. Many people I spoke with acknowledged that there are some competent, dedicated public officials, but viewed public bureaucracy generally as a hurdle. “What is frustrating for us is that they keep making the same mistakes,” one architect said of municipal planners. Another lamented “a total lack of imagination, lack of drive.” 44
Frustrated citizens lack avenues for expressing their demands. They are shut out of decision-making, and political engagement is viewed as pointless or dangerous.
Frustrated citizens lack avenues for expressing their demands: they are shut out of decision-making and discouraged from public mobilization. Political engagement is viewed as either pointless or dangerous; the turnout in Amman’s last municipal elections was only twelve percent. The media is censored, public protests repressed, and civil society tightly monitored. There are few opportunities for open debate. The most energetic conversations about public space happen on social media.
The truth is that there may be no way to tackle the country’s water crisis without reforming its governance. The real centers of power in Jordan are the monarchy and the security services. The mayor of Amman is appointed by the king. Governments and ministers act as a buffer between citizens and the real decision-makers, and are often sacked at the first sign of popular discontent; they come and go in quick succession. Politicians aren’t in office long enough to implement substantial, long-term, possibly unpopular measures, and they lack true authority. There is no incentive for them to alienate the various political constituencies on which the regime relies, or to challenge entrenched interests. Moreover, they are often part of the elite circles that benefit from the status quo.
A Greener, More Porous City
It’s hard not to feel daunted by the enormity of Amman’s water woes. Yet I found a bit of hope in unexpected, easy-to-miss places. Twenty years ago, the landscape architect Lara Zuraikat led the renovation of the National Gallery of Fine Arts Park, in my own neighborhood of Jabal Al Lweibdeh, turning it into Amman’s first water-conserving public park. Zurakait’s design conserved all the old-growth trees, added drought-resistant plants, and covered the ground in tuff stone, an inorganic local mulch that traps moisture. The renovation included installation of a 160-cubic-meter underwater tank connected to a drip irrigation system. I had visited the park many times without noticing any of this.
There are just two-and-a-half square meters of park space per resident in Amman. The WHO recommends a minimum of nine.
Parks are a rarity in Amman. To look out over the city is to take in a beige expanse of cement and limestone. The few spots of green are usually private gardens or clubs. There are just two-and-a-half square meters of park space per city resident, whereas the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of nine. 45 In the last two decades, Amman has built two new large public parks, Al Hussein Park and King Abdullah II Park, both of which include sports fields, playgrounds, museums, and amphitheaters. These “destination parks” are very popular, but nearly everyone reaches them by car, and it is difficult and expensive for the city to build more. What would be of greater benefit, according to Zuraikat, are “green pockets in each neighborhood that you could walk to.” The city is desperately in need of “small, more humble interventions.” 46
Researching this article, I discovered many examples. For instance, I learned that the Japanese forester and social entrepreneur Nochi Motoharu has been working with the Amman municipality on park design. Motoharu uses a method pioneered by Japanese botanist Akira Miyakawi, in which native trees are densely planted to make tiny forests, usually in urban cities. The forests grow at an accelerated pace, and require no watering after two years. Under Motoharu’s guidance, three of these baby forests have been planted in Amman, where they’ve been called “micro green lungs.” City officials told me they would like to seed more, at dozens of other sites.
For another project, the local architecture firm Praxis upgraded an assortment of small “leftover” spaces owned by the city, for instance by adding plants to the walls of a public staircase, and landscaping a triangle of land formerly used as a dump. All of Praxis’s modest designs focus on enhancing public pedestrian areas with shade and vegetation, which they describe as creating green infrastructure. The designs make use of water-conserving features like drip irrigation, native plants, and water catchment, and Praxis’s process involves community consultation. “It’s not feasible to do large interventions to fix things,” says Praxis architect Rasha Aladhami, “so now we do small interventions. You have to search for opportunities.” 47
Other green-space ideas address the problem of flash floods during the brief rainy season. Amman, after all, is built along a natural water course.
Other green-space ideas address the problem of flash floods. Amman’s City Manager Ahmad Malkawi told me that the rainfall patterns have completely changed in the decades that he’s worked for the city. Weather events that used to happen every 50 years are nowadays “happening every year.” 48 During the brief rainy season, water pours down staircases and alleys, collects in tunnels, and submerges roads that follow valley floors. These temporary rivers make their way into downtown Amman, which is, after all, built along a natural water course, and the existing culverts are inadequate. In 2015, flooding downtown killed four people, and damaged more than 500 shops and warehouses. 49
Absorbent green space could capture some of this water, mitigating floods and also allowing the aquifer under the city to replenish. UN-Habitat piloted one attempt in 2022, at a site prone to flash floods. The Zuhour Green Triangle uses natural terraces to absorb, store, and reuse rainwater. Variations on this design could be replicated across the city; UN-Habitat mapped 120 sites where flash floods are likely to occur. 50 Khammash has been dreaming about another possibility, born of his long-standing interest in the intersection of architecture, geology, and hydrology. Khammash believes that hundreds of micro-dams could catch water and re-inject it into Amman’s dwindling aquifer. Amman could become more like “a sponge,” giving water to the landscape rather than just taking it. 51
One of the most ambitious park proposals comes from Salameh, who a decade ago had hoped to turn the Jordan Gate skyscrapers into vertical farms. Since then, he has established a practice specializing in passive green design; he recently built Amman’s first net-zero-energy house. Salaheh’s firm is now working on a rails-to-trails plan for the old Hejaz Railway. The railway is one of the main reasons Amman was made Jordan’s capital, but aside from a tourist-oriented steam-engine ride, it’s no longer operational. The tracks remain in the landscape as a neglected 30-meter strip that runs through East Amman. A few years back, a conversation with Khammash gave Salameh an idea: couldn’t something be done with that ribbon of land? Salameh and his colleagues visited the railway line and felt “just pure excitement.” The land was next to people’s houses and workplaces, and it connected multiple areas of the city. “It was a no-brainer,” Salameh told me: they envisaged a linear park. 52 The firm began carrying out surveys and workshops with those working and living in the area, and secured an agreement with the property owner, the Hejaz Railway Corporation.
Salameh’s proposal calls for bike and pedestrian paths and, eventually, a tram line. The park he’s imagining will be shaded by native carob trees and lit by solar power, and the design will integrate rainwater-capture and native, drought-resistant plants. The project is made less daunting by incremental phasing — community gardens, sports facilities, and picnic areas can all be added bit by bit — and by a self-sustaining funding plan that involves corporate sponsorship, advertising, and the rental of small commercial spaces. 53
An anonymous Jordanian Facebook commenter summed it up: ‘We need new minds and plans, rather than new buildings and streets.’
Of course, for any of these parks to have a large-scale impact — to contribute to the “transformational shift” evoked by the city’s climate plan — they need to be replicated many times over, and become a matter of national policy. They also need to be understood as just one component of a bigger, broader commitment. Water-conserving measures must be incorporated into city planning, and demanded of private builders and citizens. Existing laws need to be applied and enforced, and new laws created. Resources need be allocated more fairly and transparently, and open and inclusive public debate must become part of city planning. Long-term sustainability must be prioritized over wishful thinking and short-term fixes. The government needs to show more initiative, urgency, determination, and a willingness to do things differently. An anonymous Jordanian Facebook commenter summed it up: “When we talk about our cities, we need new minds and plans, rather than new buildings and streets.”
Salameh’s studio has been actively coordinating with local authorities and potential sponsors and partners, and hopes to break ground soon. One day last spring, I visited a stretch of the abandoned Hejaz railway tracks in East Amman, to try to imagine a park. I was remembering something Motoharu said — that to plant a forest is “to visualize something unseen.” I expected the strip to be abandoned and desolate, but it wasn’t. The land was already being used for everyday community life. Kids walk to school along the tracks, and play soccer in the narrow stretch on either side. On the day I visited, there was an open-air stall selling pottery and small plants, and a boy flying a red-and-yellow kite. Wildflowers sprouted along the rails. Salameh’s proposal will support these uses, and make others possible. If he succeeds, Amman will have an example of how old ways can be turned into new ways.