AMMAN, Jordan --In the arid Middle East, there is always talk of a future water shortage. In Jordan, it's already happening. Streams are drying up, and water levels across the desert Arab kingdom are falling. A rationing system means citizens get water from public supplies just two days a week.
For the government, the water shortage means constantly seeking loans and grants to find ways to stretch the water there is. For the public, the shortage is the source of daily conversation, arguments and schemes to get more.
The reason for the severity of the shortage is simple: Jordan lacks the rivers of nearby Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt -- and it doesn't have the money oil- rich Persian Gulf countries use to pay for desalination of sea water. Not that other Middle Eastern states are not without water problems. For example, Lebanon's broken down system means it can't deliver water regularly even though it has plenty. But Jordan is the only country rationing year round because of shortages, meaning each household gets just 22 gallons a day.
It's not much since the average Jordanian household is nine people, and the water must be used for showers, toilet-flushing, cooking, house-cleaning, and drinking. It compares to the 65 gallons available per household in Saudi Arabia and 78 gallons in Israel.
With rain being Jordan's only assured renewable water source, the government began pumping water from a handful of underground aquifers across the country in 1989. Now Jordan is using 35 billion cubic feet of water yearly, even though its renewable water resources amount to only 23 billion cubic feet.
Water scarcity is most evident during the long summer when it is common to see neighbors arguing over accusations of water thefts from rooftop tanks on houses.
During heat waves, there also are fights with private suppliers who triple the usual price for 1,300 gallons of water to 20 Jordanian dinars, or about $30 -- in a country where the per capita annual income is $1,100.
Water looting is not confined to homes. Herdsmen are known to have used submachine guns to pierce water pipes to quench the thirst of their cattle. And some Jordanians hook up their homes to the state's network without obtaining a permit.
"It is difficult to pinpoint the source of the loss,'' said Munther Haddadin, the water and irrigation minister, showing charts that say 50 percent of pumped water is stolen or leaks from eroded pipelines dating to the 1940s.
Elias Salameh, a water expert at the University of Jordan, points to "soft management'' as a contributing factor to water scarcity.
Licenses for wells have been carelessly handed out to farmers. For example, the number of wells near the shrinking oasis of Azraq, where Lawrence of Arabia once lived in southeastern Jordan, have risen from 50 in the 1970s to 800. Farmers are resisting suggestions to change to crops that require less water and can be planted in winter.
Consumption is soaring, and water is never cut off in wealthy districts housing government officials. Much is wasted on swimming pools and irrigating public parks.
Lewis Lucke, director of Jordan programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the problem can be eased "not by using less water, but by using water more efficiently.''
Germany, Japan, and the United States have spent $500 million on Jordanian water projects since 1990, but Haddadin, the water minister, said it was barely enough to "keep our nose above the water.''
The 1994 peace treaty with Israel was touted as one solution to the problem because it promised Jordan additional water, but that will come from future projects. One such proposal calls for construction of a $5 billion canal linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, where desalination plants would be linked with pipelines to Amman and Israel. But Israel prefers a cheaper project linking its Mediterranean shore with the Dead Sea.
Salameh, the water expert at the University of Jordan, is a pessimist. He thinks the water shortage is incurable.
"We will always be vulnerable and a series of drought years will expose our water crisis,'' he said.
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