A transboundary groundwater agreement between two adjoining countries in the Middle East could be a first in the MENA region.  Here are some thoughts. 

The above-featured image is for illustration and is of MEED.

Al Disi aquifer is an essential source of fresh water for the area between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, especially for this part of the land’s high temperature and dry climate. It is due to its efficiency in sustainable water development with the environmental and ecological balance. This aquifer lies in a massive area of almost all of Jordan and extends to the size of Tabuk in Saudi Arabia, compromising a confined groundwater aquifer.   At the beginning of 1977, Saudi Arabia and Jordan started to extract water from the aquifer for different purposes. This situation had been changed in the early 80s when most of the water production from Disi was taken to the City of Aqaba, which depended on this water source mainly for municipal and local consumption at that period. The city of Aqaba is assumed to be an area of free trade that depends on many economic activities like tourism and investments, and from that era, the government and many research groups in Jordan knew the economic and ecological value of this source and both governments in 1983 started to use this water excessively in agriculture. For example, a Jordanian farming corporation (Rum Farms) increased its water abstraction from the Disi aquifer from 1.2 MCM (Million Cubic Meters) per year in the 80s to 55 MCM/year in 2001.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia increased its consumption from 50 MCM/per year in the 80s to 91 MCM in 2004 for agricultural use. The Government of Jordan changed its plans from using the aquifer water in irrigation and farming to providing water for domestic and municipal use in Amman in 2013 due to the increased pressure on water resources and the extreme shortage of drinking water. The government of Jordan undertook this project without the consent of its Saudi counterpart across the border. This negligence caused the World Bank not to support this project.

The importance of the Agreement of Al Disi Aquifer

This aquifer agreement represents one of the contemporary approaches to transboundary underground water management that focuses on allocating water abstraction in particular areas and avoiding vulnerable ones, which supports water management. The aquifer agreement is significant on the national, regional, and international levels due to the new perspective of water management that depends on the water allocation management approach, which recommends abstracting water from safe and economic locations.

At the national level, the agreement represents the ultimate solution for the two countries over-abstraction of the ground transboundary water. It can achieve many benefits for both parties and reduce the climate change impacts on water and ecosystems in general significantly, that each country, according to this agreement, has the right to utilize its water for domestic and municipal use; in this case, Jordan may continue to convey the groundwater in Al Disi-Amman Conveyance project also it is one step towards the sustainable water by cooperation in water utilization at the political level, which was violated by individual work of both parties by the private irrigation projects in the 80s causing overdraft for the groundwater in that area  On the other hand, it is an evolution from unsustainable water projects, like the conveyance project of transferring water to Amman, to more transboundary cooperational water projects that use the water sustainably, especially that by the aquifer agreement that has many customary principles like no significant harm and equitable utilization.

At the international level, the aquifer agreement is considered a new international bilateral transboundary water agreement that contributes to the cooperation in underground water management between the two countries. The agreement is regarded as one of the leading transboundary groundwater bilateral agreements in binding the abstraction from a ‘protected area’ while defining the safe areas for pumping water, called’ management area’. The groundwater abstracted should be used for domestic purposes. Also, the agreement is very efficient in coordinating and technically managing the abstraction and use by the two parties of the joint committee, which control the safety, water amounts, and quality should be supervised, maybe in turn, through select experts and technical specialists from both countries to help in coordinating. According to many experts, like Elia M. Tapia-Villaseñor 1,*ORCID and Sharon B. Megda, the agreement between the two countries is considered a form of negotiation between informal parties at the political level and, therefore, could not be regarded as an absolute bilateral transboundary agreement.

At the regional level, the Disi agreement is still the new initiation for developing the regional cooperation agreement that might be a model in that area. Like the Guarani aquifer agreement in Latin America, it is believed to be the first attempt to power the parties to negotiate the critical and cooperative issue. Also, this agreement may be the initiative for the water unified management that relies on the technical problems by binding abstraction from the protected area whilst permitting to utilize from the management area, similar to those technical provisions in the Geneva aquifer. The fossil aquifer Al Disi like many transboundary aquifers between countries, like Northwestern Sahara Aquifer SASS, Tunisian and Nubian Sandstone between Egypt and Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System underneath Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan, the World’s most significant non-renewable aquifer. These aquifers are essential to balance the sustainable development of nature. Furthermore, this aquifer is the only transboundary aquifer to have control over sediments when pumping water.