Can Jordan’s water market support the Syrian refugee influx?

-By Thomas Wildman and Carol Brady, originally posted on November 2013


As of September 2013, the crisis in Syria had seen over half a million Syrian refugees flee to Jordan, the vast majority of them (some 400,000) living in rented accommodation in host communities. This influx – equivalent to 5% of Jordan’s population – is placing increasing pressure on service provision and infrastructure, including water. An integrated needs assessment carried out by Oxfam GB in March 2013 found that, while the majority of refugees in host communities can access water through the municipal supply system, the cheapest source of water, this is intermittent and unreliable, and many are forced to buy water from private vendors in order to meet their needs. To supplement their access to water households can pay upwards of 80 JD ($110) a month to meet their water needs during the hot summer months, when demand peaks.

To address humanitarian needs identified through the integrated assessment, Oxfam designed a water, sanitation and health (WASH) proposal for working in the urban areas around Amman. As the construction of new water facilities in Jordan is highly regulated and the over-extraction of groundwater aquifers is a major concern, any humanitarian intervention aimed at emergency water provision for refugees will not focus on the development of new water sources, but on ensuring that refugees can access existing water systems in a fair and equitable manner. In this context, where water markets are significant, large-scale and complex, it was essential to understand how the market functions, what constraints people face in accessing water and whether the existing water market systems had the capacity to deliver an adequate quantity to refugee populations.

To develop this understanding a market assessment was undertaken in Oxfam’s operational areas (the urban areas of Balqa and Zarqa Governorates, and in the informal tented settlements around factories and agricultural land) based on the Emergency Market Mapping & Analysis (EMMA) approach. The assessment was carried out in August and September 2013. This article focuses on the findings in urban areas of Balqa and Zarqa Governorates, where Oxfam has been distributing cash grants and vouchers for hygiene items to refugees and vulnerable members of the host community (comprising an estimated 30% of targeted beneficiaries). These are densely populated urban areas where refugees typically live in rented apartments in multistoried buildings.

Key findings: water supplies in Balqa and Zarqa Governorates

The market assessment analysed both the water market system and the factors determining access to water. People obtain water from a variety of sources; water for domestic use is obtained from either the piped system or privately owned wells, directly or via water transporters. However, this water is not seen as suitable for drinking, and drinking water is typically purchased from supermarkets or small shops.

Over 98% of households in Balqa and Zarqa are connected to the municipal water supply system. Although municipal water sources operate at virtually full capacity year-round, they are not sufficient to meet people’s needs. As an uninterrupted water supply is not possible, water is supplied on a rotating basis in 24-hour blocks; during the summer months, different areas receive water anywhere from once every ten days to three times per week. During the winter months, when demand is lower, supply improves to 1–4 times per week. The availability and reliability of the municipal system has recently improved with the construction of a 325-kilometre pipeline to convey water from the ancient Disi aquifer in southern Jordan to Amman. Since the pipeline was commissioned, Zarqa Governorate has received an additional 1,500m3 of water a day, with an additional 500m3 available when additional wells become functional. At current estimates, this should ensure that almost all households receive water a minimum of 1–2 times a week.

Given the deficiencies of the municipal supply, private wells are a critical part of the water market system. These wells, which are privately owned and operated, sell water to the Water Authority, to supplement supplies in the piped network, and to businesses, water transporters (water trucks) and individual households. Demand at private wells fluctuates between the summer and winter months; the majority of wells operate at full capacity during the summer, and then scale down by 50% during the winter. Balqa and Zarqa have a total of 39 private wells; water is sold at 0.7–1 JD per m3 ($1–1.4), and there are no limits on how much can be extracted. This is substantially more expensive than water obtained through the municipal supply, which is charged at a flat rate of 2.1 JD (around $3) for the first 18m3, equivalent to 0.12 JD per m3 if all the water is used.

The private water transportation market consists of an estimated 5,500 water trucks, ranging in capacity from 3–20m3. Truck owners are the largest buyers of water from the private wells, selling it on to households and private businesses. Virtually the entire population uses the water trucking market during the summer, with prices ranging from 4–7 JD per m3 ($5.65–9.9), based on the distance the water is transported and the level of demand. Water trucks also supply small shops, which filter and bottle drinking water into 20-litre containers. Nearly all households (of all socio-economic levels) in the Greater Amman area purchase bottled drinking water, even though it is the most expensive source by volume, ranging from 0.5–1 JD per bottle. Booklets of vouchers are commonly available for sale at these shops, with each voucher redeemable for a bottle of water. Voucher booklets are pre-paid and a small cost saving is earned through this purchase.

The market assessment established that poorer groups pay significantly more for water (per unit volume) than the better-off. Poorer households are only able to access a limited amount of water from the piped network because they tend to live in areas with low water pressure, and (more importantly) also have limited storage capacity. As there is a blanket fee of 2.1 JD for the first 18m3 of water accessed from the piped system, those who extract less water actually end up paying more per cubic metre than those who can store greater quantities. Truck operators tend to have a set of regular customers whom they serve first. Refugees may often not have access to truck operators, and rely on their neighbours and landlords to make contact with them. As clients must purchase the entire volume of water in the truck (typically 3–10m3), households with smaller storage capacity organise themselves into groups to share the water. Refugees with limited contact with their neighbours struggle to set up these types of arrangements. Even if these households manage to access truck operators, they may not have the capacity to store all the water that they have paid for. Finally, in prioritising bottled water, poor households end up purchasing less non-drinking water, and so reduce the frequency with which they bathe, wash and flush toilets in order to set aside money for drinking water. This has an impact, not only on those households directly affected, but also on the city’s infrastructure. According to the Water Directorate in Ayn Al Basha, the reduced flushing of toilets has led to increased blockages in sewer pipes.

In summary, the market assessment established that access to water for poor households (in particular refugees) is primarily determined by purchasing power and the availability of adequate water storage capacity within the household. More fragmented social connections also restrict access to the water trucking market.

A problem of supply and demand

Overall the water problem in Balqa and Zarqa (and in Jordan as a whole) is a supply issue, as water is not sufficient to meet demand. This is perhaps unsurprising in a country ranked the fourth most water-scarce on the planet. However, it is also a demand issue in terms of conditions of access – people do not possess the necessary purchasing power and links to market actors to obtain an equitable share of the water that is available.

The market analysis showed that the market can cover the unmet drinking and domestic water needs of the target population as water can be made available in sufficient quantities from water shops and private wells, and transportation capacity is sufficient to bring domestic water from water points to users. This means that the response can rely on the market, as long as the main limiting factors – purchasing power and access to sufficient water storage – are addressed.

The market analysis enabled a range of response options for immediate implementation.

Increasing access to drinking water through water vouchers linked to local water vendors.

Water vouchers (commodity vouchers) for bottled drinking water are distributed to beneficiaries, to be redeemed from contracted vendors. Vouchers are already an important part of the market system; extending their use should not create a parallel system, and vendors have already designed and printed vouchers with anti-counterfeiting measures in place. Beneficiaries will be given a central role in the choice of the shops.

Increase access to drinking water by providing household water filters.

The distribution of water filters to individual households is a viable solution. Filters are available on the local market, and beneficiaries have requested them.

Increase households’ water storage capacity.

The extra water being supplied by the Disi pipeline allows all users to fill a minimum tank size of 3m3, and so the aim is to increase the storage capacity of households possessing less than this. The type of storage tank distributed will depend on beneficiary choice, the type of dwelling and the space available (roof tanks, smaller tanks that fit inside the home, etc.). Tanks will be portable, so that people can take them with them if they move.

Increase domestic water access through vouchers linked to local water transporters.

In areas of high vulnerability, blanket targeting of refugee and host community households may be used to supply water vouchers to redeem with local water trucks pre-selected by beneficiaries. Blanket targeting will ensure that nearby households can group together and share a truckload of water. It is critical that Oxfam does not distort the existing market or take away business from water trucks normally operating in intervention areas. Payment would be made by Oxfam to contracted trucks upon receipt of the vouchers. This response option would, again, form part of the longer-term exit strategy. The present project includes the facilitation and support of mixed community groups (refugees and host community residents). Priority activities with these groups will include the development of water conservation strategies at the household and community level, and the design of communication and promotional materials.

The market assessment confirmed that, for the urban areas of Balqa and Zarqa, the market system is vital for water access. In water-scarce and densely populated areas such as these there are few viable options for WASH programming. Critically, the market assessment was able to analyse the functionality, capacity and scope for expansion of the market system, making possible a range of short- and longer-term responses to help refugees to access water in an equitable manner and at a fair price, without stretching the market beyond its capacity.

Future outlook and follow-up

Refugees typically experience a shortfall between their income and their expenditure, which they cover by drawing on savings, selling assets and using remittances from abroad; as these resources become depleted, so their ability to purchase water and other essentials is likely to decrease. Electricity tariffs have risen recently, and water tariffs are predicted to rise in the near future. The Disi pipeline has substantially increased the quantity of water available in the piped network in both Balqa and Zarqa, reducing demand for water from private wells and water trucks, and as a result these market actors will have the capacity to expand to meet needs arising out of future refugee influxes. The scope of this expansion is finite, however, and is difficult to measure with precision. It is likely that any additional inflows that match or exceed what Jordan has seen to date would stretch the capacity of the system to its limits once again.

Learn More