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Tensions surge in Jordan as refugees compete for scarce water

Thursday, 15 January 2015 11:32 GMT

Syrian refugees collect water after a heavy snowstorm at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Limited resources – and growing resentment- could threaten Jordan’s stability, researchers warn

As the Syrian conflict approaches its fifth year, the number of refugees seeking refuge in Jordan has surpassed 650,000, a substantive tenth of Jordan’s total population.

This has created strains on the Jordanian budget, government services, and the country’s limited natural resources including water. Combined with the harsh climatic impacts of winter such as rain, slow, hail and floods, broader social tensions are emerging surrounding the provision and distribution of social-welfare support to the Syrian refugees, which could threaten Jordan’s status as an anchor of stability in an otherwise highly unstable region.

Jordan is no stranger to hosting refugee populations. Jordan’s history of refugees has resulted in about 60 percent of Jordanians being of Palestinian origin. Jordan has also experienced two waves of Iraqi refugees: first in the early 1990s, when the Gulf war brought mostly middle-class Iraqis to the Kingdom, and then in the 2000s, with the Iraq war, bringing refugees from across the socio-economic spectrum.

The current Syrian refugee situation in Jordan raises important questions that we should be asking: Is the Jordanian government and the international humanitarian community equipped to manage Jordan’s limited natural resources responsibly while responding to such influxes? Is it able to do so in the face of climate change, which is further eroding availability and access to natural resources such as water? Is the humanitarian response appropriate to the context?


Jordan is one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. Even before the Syrian refugee crisis, demand for water surpassed supply. Below average and variable rainfall, population growth, unsustainable use of groundwater resources, and artificially low water prices encouraging excessive consumption are further threatening the availability of these limited resources.

Jordan’s severe water scarcity is also expected to be worsened by climate change and the associated desertification, reduction in underground water reserves and rising temperatures in the region.

Against this context, tensions are growing between Syrian refugees and Jordanians over issues related to water access and usage.

The Syrian refugee camps, Zaatari and Azraq, have been built on groundwater reserves. Zaatari, the largest of the camps, consumes roughly 5,000 cubic metres of water per day, of which 40 percent is serviced by these groundwater reserves. Unsustainable use of groundwater to meet the camps’ needs is a major concern for water-starved Jordan.

The international humanitarian community provides the remainder of the camp’s water needs by financing and paying higher rates for water than locals, which has the effect of pushing up water prices for locals and leaving Jordanians feeling further alienated from accessing basic resources and experiencing unequal access to water.

Similar problems arise with electricity provision which is covered by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for the camps but is increasingly unaffordable for poor Jordanians.


Tensions between refugees and host populations extend to other issues, including food, employment, healthcare, education, and housing. There are perceptions, whether factually accurate or not, that refugees are making life more expensive for Jordanians.

The government and humanitarian response strategy has failed to manage these grievances. A clear example is the Jordanian government’s zero tolerance policy on humanitarian organisations providing livelihood training/job opportunities to Syrians refugees.

The Jordanian government pursues such a policy out of concern that such employment provision or training could result in Jordanians being displaced from jobs. But the policy has nonetheless contributed to current employment challenges Jordanians face, as some Syrians, taking to black market jobs for low wages, are widely believed to have pushed wages down for Jordanians as well. 

Additional financing is an important component of a more context-driven humanitarian response strategy. Jordanians believe that the country receives only 30 percent of the real cost of hosting the refugees.

A vital point of focus should be to ensure that humanitarian responses address the need of Jordanians as well as Syrian refugees. The perceived asymmetry is already compounding grievances that can erupt into skirmishes.

While recognising that Jordan is a middle-income country, a key priority will be to ensure that the governance systems of the Jordanian state are capable of responding to the growing needs of its most marginalised citizens and of dealing with tensions caused or exacerbated by the growing scarcity of resources.

Against this context, the international community needs to have a better understanding of the potential threats to peace that conflict-insensitive and climate-blind humanitarian responses can pose in Jordan.

Shreya Mitra and Janani Vivekananda visited Jordan as part of their work for International Alert.