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By Julia Virnelli, Communications Intern

Fresh, clean drinking water — directly or indirectly — impacts every aspect of our lives. It’s undeniably fundamental to our health and wellness and is critical to sustaining all life on Earth, which is why World Water Day serves as a reminder of its importance. 

The day, founded in 1993 by the United Nations and celebrated every March 22, focuses this year on “accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis.”

After all, more than two billion people today are without access to clean drinking water. While water insecurity impacts every region of the world, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is of particular concern, containing 11 of the 17 most water-insecure countries in the world; the annual average water availability per person is six times less than the global average. Forty-one million people in the region lack access to clean drinking water, and 66 million lack access to basic sanitation. The water crisis especially impacts women and children, leaving nearly 90% of children under extreme water stress.

For a broader context, 555 million people in the Middle East and North Africa live under a fully authoritarian regime. Nearly 11 million of those alone live in Jordan. While seriously impacting the health of the people in this region, the water crisis also sheds light on the consequences of authoritarianism.  

Under King Abdullah II’s authoritarian regime, Jordan’s population has grown dramatically in recent years. The population surge in Jordan can be attributed to a multitude of factors, including an influx of Syrian refugees. Currently, Jordan hosts around 675,000 Syrian refugees who have been fleeing their country since 2011 as a result of the ongoing war. Agriculture and food production has expanded in response to population growth, leading to an increased demand for agricultural water use. Consequently, this limits even more the availability of clean drinking water. Conditions are only worsened by the country’s high levels of water loss through non-revenue sources, such as leakages.

When it comes to solving the water crisis, the country’s policymakers are making poor decisions.

In 2021, hundreds of people gathered in Amman to protest a proposed water-energy deal that would have Israel provide Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water. But many view the deal instead as harmful and unsustainable. While the deal would provide Jordan with a temporary water supply, it would also strengthen ties with Israel, which many strongly oppose

Despite public efforts to curb the agreement, the Jordanian regime followed through with the project and is working on implementation plans for the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) this November.

In 2021, as people first gathered in Jordan’s capital to protest the deal, the police fought back, and 16 university students were arrested for “violation of public order.” A year later, thousands gathered in Amman once again, this time to protest the government signing onto the water-for-electricity deal

To suppress dissent such as this, the Jordanian regime uses vague laws criminalizing free speech. When calling attention to the urgent water crisis within Jordan, journalists and activists are continuously silenced, harassed, and jailed for their calls to action. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the government has become even more oppressive with legislation, further limiting freedom of expression. 

Jordan’s constitution recognizes that free speech is allowed if it does not surpass the “limits of the law.” However, the regime uses provisions under various laws, including the Cybercrime Law of 2015 and the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2006, to repress and limit people’s freedom of speech, assembly, and association. These limits of the law are extensive and intensely regulated.

The problems in Jordan aren’t isolated issues, as other countries in the MENA region face similar challenges. The water crisis and many other systematic issues stem from the authoritarian regimes in place. They prevent and deny criticism of government policies, open discussions, and the reform required to address these issues.

The policies implemented by authoritarian regimes undeniably contribute to the ongoing water crisis. 

On this World Water Day, HRF recognizes and stands in solidarity with journalists and activists in Jordan who have dedicated themselves to exposing injustice and establishing a free and water-secure country.