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Syria refugees draining water-poor Jordan dry

AMMAN, Jordan -- Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled from carnage and violence at home to neighboring Jordan are draining the desert kingdom's meager water resources, officials and experts say.

It is a new challenge for Jordan, one of the world's 10 driest countries, where desert covers 92 percent of its territory and the population of 6.7 million is growing by 3.5 percent a year.

The tiny Arab country has given refuge to waves of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees because of regional conflicts over the past decades, and now the kingdom is hosting up to 120,000 Syrians.

“The majority of Syrian refugees are concentrated in the northern cities of Mafraq, Irbid, Ramtha, Jerash and Ajlun. All of these areas already suffer from water shortage,” Fayez Bataineh, secretary-general of the Water Authority, told AFP.

“They add pressure to our limited water resources, and we need to be extra careful and wisely manage these resources.”

Years of below-average rainfall have created a shortfall of 500 million cubic meters (17.5 billion cubic feet) a year, and the country forecasts it will need 1.6 billion cubic meters of water a year by 2015.

“Each Syrian refugee needs at least 80 liters of fresh water a day, so 9,600 cubic meters per day for 120,000 people. The cost of this subsidized water supply is 13,000 dinar (US$18,000) a day, not to mention other related expenses,” said Adnan Zubi, assistant secretary general of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation.

“It is not the first time that Jordan hosted forced migrants, but our water resources and infrastructure are already overburdened.”

Struggling to battle a chronic water shortage, Jordan is mulling controversial plans to extract water. It is tapping into a 300,000-year-old aquifer, despite concerns about high levels of radiation, while studying ways to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

“When my family and I fled to Ramtha from Homs several months ago, we could not find enough drinking water,” said Abu Eid, who has two sons and four daughters.

“Sometimes, I avoided eating in order not to go to the toilet later because there was no water to wash. But we have adapted to the situation.”

Maher, another Syrian refugee living in the border town of Ramtha, said he needs to buy water every day.

“We have water shortages all the time. I shower once every 10 days,” he added.

But Basma, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee woman in Irbid, disagreed.

“I did not face any water problems in Jordan. I think the Jordanians are doing what they can to help us and things are fine thank God,” she told AFP.

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