Jordan plans multi-billion dollar Aqaba to Amman desalination project amid water crisis

Kingdom seeks international aid to fund pipeline

The Al-Wehda Dam, a 360-foot concrete embankment near Harta, Jordan. Getty Images
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

Along a long and dusty motorway, connecting Jordan's capital Amman with the south of the country, is a pipeline that provides much needed water to hundreds of thousands of people.

The controversial $1.1 billion Disi Water Conveyance Project, predominantly financed by the US and European governments, became operational in 2014. It carries 100 million cubic metres of water per year to Amman and other cities from Disi, a non-replenishable aquifer on the border with Saudi Arabia.

While the project has reduced severe shortages in the kingdom, it has not solved them. The volume of water it pumps across the country meets just one sevenths of the nation’s municipal demand.

Authorities are hoping, with more foreign aid, to repeat the Disi project on a larger scale, to end Jordan’s water shortage issues by the early 2030s.

The new plan is for international companies to build a desalination plant near Jordan’s only port of Aqaba and pump 300 mcm of water a year, parallel to the Disi pipeline, to Amman, using renewable energy.

Minister of Water and Irrigation Mohammad Al Najjar said the plan, named he National Conveyance Project, “cannot be postponed”.

He said desalination was “a resource that would not be affected by the environmental and operational issues we are suffering”.

The issues Mr Najjar was referring to include the wide-scale digging of illegal wells across the kingdom that is siphoning off fresh water supplies.

International interest in building pipeline

A tender process began in 2020 and five finalists were chosen to submit bids for a 30-year concession. Among them are the state-owned Saudi utility ACWA Power, as well as consortia that include the Suez Group, a French conglomerate involved in the Disi concession.

But a deadline for submitting bids has been repeatedly pushed forward, as the government sought more foreign aid for the project and the finalists asked for more technical and financial details.

The winning consortium is expected to receive three to four times more money from the government for supplying Amman than the Disi water.

Disi was awarded as a 25-year concession to Turkey’s Gama Holding and GE Energy Financial Services. Under the deal, the government is paying the operators $125 million to $140 million a year for the water.

But water shortages still amount to one-quarter of demand, according to US Aid data.

Disi’s water, which is transported for 320 kilometres to Amman, is mixed with other water to reduce radiation present in the water. Some specialists say the reservoir could run out in 50 to 100 years.

Per capita income in the kingdom is $4,000 a year and Jordan’s public debt is larger than the size of its economy.

But foreign grants and loans in the past decade have helped implement Disi and several other infrastructure projects, mainly in the water and transport sectors.

Barter deals with Israel

The 450-km National Conveyance Project became a government priority after talks with Israel to draw water from a proposed desalination plant on the Mediterranean failed two years ago.

The government said it has secured around $2bn in grants and soft loans and other financing for the Aqaba-Amman project, mostly from the United States, Europe and international financial institutions.

Israel already provides Jordan with 100 mcm per year, more than double its commitments in a 1994 peace treaty.

Two years ago, the two countries also signed a US-brokered deal under which Israel would provide Jordan with 200 mcm of water in return for solar energy from Jordan.

But Jordanian authorities have portrayed the Aqaba project as proof of the kingdom’s ability to make sovereign decisions, and streamline the nation’s water security.

Jordanian households are reliant on a costly system of tanks and pumps, and sometimes wells, to store municipal water they often do not receive, as it comes once every one to two weeks. Tanking water by lorry is common.

Theft and leaks

Mr Najjar said the ministry aims to reduce water lost to theft, illegal use, and leaks in the network from 50 per cent to 25 per cent by 2040.

It is a main condition for the donors and international institutions funding the Aqaba-Amman project.

Andrew McKim, director of water resources at the US Aid office in Amman, said transporting the water would require “huge amount of pumping”, unlike the Disi project, which relies mostly on gravity to pipe the water to Amman.

He pointed out the need to pass over mountains for the water to exit Aqaba and eventually run parallel to the Disi pipeline.

“It is a technically feasible project done many times around the world,” said Mr McKim.

International involvement has helped ensure the project meets high design standards, such as reducing use of fossil fuels and sparing the Red Sea any environmental damage.

He cautioned that Jordan would still need to invest in reservoirs and other infrastructure to take on water from the new source to successfully reduce the shortages across the kingdom.

“The National Conveyance project will be just the backbone,” said Mr McKim.

According to the tender, at least two large plots of land will be made available to the operator to build what is likely to be solar plants to power the project.

In April, the government postponed the deadline for bidding to July.

An executive in one of the international consortia that qualified to bid on the project — who preferred not to be named — said recent global supply disruptions and inflation, as well as the novelty of the project in Jordan, were likely tempering investor appetite.

“I think that if the authorities even receive one bid they will go with it,” he said.

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Updated: May 03, 2023, 9:53 AM