16 March 2014
“Our Water situation forms a strategic challenge that cannot be ignored. We have to balance between drinking water needs and industrial and irrigation water requirements. Drinking water remains the most essential and the highest priority issue.” - H.M. King Abdullah II November 7, 1999
From 11 to 16 March 2014, I conducted an official country visit to Jordan, aiming to assess the way in which the country is implementing the human rights to water and sanitation for all.
I would like to begin by thanking the Government of Jordan for the invitation to visit the country and its efforts in facilitating meetings with the authorities and actors that I requested to meet, including His Royal Highness Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal, and numerous representatives of the government. I also met with the National Centre for Human Rights, civil society and the international community. During my mission, I visited several suburbs in Amman, Jordan Valley, Al-Mafraq, and the Za’atari refugee camp. I am grateful to everyone who assisted me in better understanding the situation of the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation in Jordan. I would like to also thank the UN country team and UNICEF in particular for the important role they played and the support they gave me in organizing my visit.
I am encouraged by the dedication, enthusiasm and commitment of all those with whom I met in promoting the rights to water and sanitation, and moved by the longstanding generosity and hospitality of the Jordanian government and its people in accommodating successive waves refugees in their country.
Jordan is considered to be one of the three most water scarce countries in the world. Annual per capita water availability is 145m3/year, which is far below the absolute water scarcity line of 500 m3/year. This severe water scarcity has been exacerbated by drought, depletion of groundwater reserves, population growth, inflow of migrant workers, and climate change, combined with an influx of refugees resulting from several conflicts in the region – the latest one being the Syrian conflict. The country accommodates a great number of migrants and refugees who constitute as much as 45% of the total population, including those who have been naturalized. The situation of water availability in the country is thus devastating.
Despite these difficulties, the country has made considerable progress in the sector. According to Government data, 98% of households are now connected to the water network and 68% of them are connected to the sewerage network, 98% of the collected wastewater being treated. Jordan has hence some of the highest indicators in the water and sanitation sector among countries in the Middle East and North Africa region.
However, some outstanding challenges persist in the country and I will address them from a human rights perspective.
The human rights to water and sanitation
The Government of Jordan has ratified relevant international human rights treaties and has therefore legal obligations to take concrete and deliberate steps to ensure the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation. This means that every individual in the country is entitled to access to drinking water and adequate sanitation that are accessible, available, affordable, acceptable and safe in all spheres of life. The realization of these rights also requires ensuring access to adequate and affordable hygiene practices, including hand washing and menstrual hygiene management with privacy and dignity. Effective measures have to be taken in order to ensure an adequate disposal and treatment of human waste, including of wastewater. Even in cases of delegation of service delivery to third parties – private or public companies, for instance - the government is obligated to regulate the activities of those entities to ensure that all aspects of the human rights are guaranteed.
Due to the high water scarcity in Jordan, the average per capita use is estimated to be 80 litres per person per day (120 litres of water are produced per person per day, but approximately 40 litres are lost). In informal settlements, consumption is estimated between 25 and 50 litres per day. In some areas of the North, water scarcity is an imminent crisis - per capita consumption has dropped from 88 to 66 litres since the influx of Syrian refugees in 2011.
Water supply is intermittent – people in Amman receive water once a week and in remote places water provision happens every 12 days or even less frequently. Hence, many Jordanians are obliged to maintain water storage in order to cope with the lack of regular provision. Most households also supplement the limited water availability with bottled water and water from private tankers.
Non-revenue water is a serious concern in a water scarce country like Jordan. The level of water losses due to illegal connections, leakages and other technical losses reaches 50 % in the majority of the country. Even though the level of non-revenue water has been on the decline, more efforts have to be made to further reduce these losses. Furthermore, the government should increase rainwater harvesting and intensify awareness raising efforts aimed at water preservation in a more continuous manner.
Balancing sustainability and affordability
The price of water and sanitation and the direct and indirect costs and charges associated with securing drinking water and sanitation must not compromise or threaten people’s capacity to satisfy other human needs as food or medicine. According to international recommendations, they should not exceed 3 to 5% of the household income.
The majority of households in Jordan pay less than 2 JD (2.5 US$) for piped water per month and water tariffs for agriculture are even far less (20-30 cents per cubic meter). The revenues only partially cover operation and maintenance costs, especially after taking into account the recent and upcoming increases of the electricity tariffs. This system of underpricing and subsidies has encouraged overuse of water and led to the sector’s unsustainability.
In Jordan, the majority of the State budget for the water and sanitation sector is invested in the expansion of infrastructure, only 20% of the budget being allocated to operation and maintenance, which should be significantly increased as, according to UN Water, 75% of the water and sanitation budgets worldwide should be devoted to operation and maintenance, so as to make sure that existing systems are maintained. Investments that take into account the life-cycle cost of a water or sanitation improvement, or that are specifically directed towards the maintenance and operation of new and existing services, are essential to avoid slippages which might lead to retrogressions and even violation of the rights to water and sanitation. Finally, in terms of efficiency, it is also vastly more cost-effective to invest in operation and maintenance than to rehabilitate a system after it has collapsed.
The Government is considering a revision of water tariffs and should revise both domestic and non-domestic ones, so as to ensure the sector’s sustainability. Furthermore, there should be fair and equitable tariffs throughout the country – independently of who the service provider is. A new tariff system should require the better-off households to pay higher tariffs, while poorer households should be guaranteed – through more transparent and fair safeguards - a lower and subsidized price. I hence call on the Government to adopt a comprehensive water and sanitation tariffs’ policy, which ensures sustainability and takes into account the special needs of the poor.
Marginalized groups of people
Even though water tariffs are affordable to the general population, the reality is that marginalized groups of people including the poor, people living in informal settlements, migrant workers and refugees who are either not connected to the network or have smaller storage capacity, must rely on 20-46 times more expensive bottled or tanked water. Furthermore, for households not connected to the sewer network, the cost for emptying a septic tank is of around 30 JD per load. The prices for emptying septic tanks and those charged by private water tankers are not regulated by the Government, a situation that puts an unjustified burden on lower income families who have no other choice. This situation must urgently change.
Let me give you some examples. I met with 64 year-old Sulaiman Ali who has been living with his wife in his own house in a suburb of Amman for over 20 years and receives a meager monthly allowance from the National Aid Fund. His house is still not connected to the water network despite his repeated applications to WAJ. He is hence forced to devote almost 50 per cent of his monthly income to paying water tankers and sludge collection. I also met three low income families of 15 people in total living together in another suburb of Amman. Because they could not afford to pay the permit and installation fees of additional water meters, they are charged the highest domestic tariff – when each family’s consumption level should entitle them to the lowest tariff. These situations reflect a pattern of exclusion I witnessed repeatedly in several other countries, where people living in poverty end up paying more for water and sanitation than the average population who benefits from subsidized water and sanitation supply.
Access to information and accountability
Jordan is the first Arab country that adopted a Law on Access to Information (2007), stipulating that every Jordanian has the right to obtain information, obligating officials to facilitate access to information and guaranteeing the disclosure thereof. In practice, however, it is very difficult to exercise this right because of many conditions including the need to prove “a lawful interest or a legitimate reason” in order to obtain information. In case the competent department refuses to supply a citizen with the information he/she wants, the citizen is entitled to submit a complaint against the respective official to the Information Council, which is almost exclusively composed of members of the Executive Power. This raises doubts regarding the Council’s independence. In the water and sanitation sector, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation is encouraged to make more information accessible and create a system of public information through various media channels.
Jordan is living a critical moment struggling with severe water stress. The existing emergency measures to the water scarcity problem are not sufficient or sustainable. I urge the Government to take a holistic approach that links emergency needs for water and sanitation with a long term, comprehensive development strategy that will ensure the human rights to water and sanitation of the people of Jordan in a long term. I call on the donor community to increase financial support to such efforts.
The Government should also use the opportunity presented by the current drafting of the new Water Law and of the Water and Sanitation Policy to clearly accord priority to water for human consumption over other uses, to explicitly recognise the human rights to water and sanitation and to use its normative content to guide actions in the sector.
In addition, the situation of refugees I witnessed – both inside and outside refugee camps - was striking. This cannot be addressed by the Government of Jordan or the international community alone. Both the central Government and the international community should further work together and shift from an emergency reaction to a proper medium and long-term response to the refugee inflow. The needs are not going to reduce in the near future. I would also urge strengthened support to the northern Governorates who host more than 70% of Syrian refugees and ensure sustainable provision of water and sanitation to refugees, as well as to the wider Jordanian population. This support is crucial to prevent a possible public health crisis due to lack of water and treatment of wastewater and also to make sure that local population does not have to bear an unfair burden when it comes to their access to water and sanitation.
These are only some preliminary impressions. I will present a full report on this visit to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2014, which will include a more detailed analysis of all that I have learned on this mission, as well as specific recommendations to the Government and other key actors.
I look forward to continuing this dialogue with the Government, towards ensuring the full realisation of the rights to water and sanitation to all people in Jordan.