By any standard, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are two of the most water-scarce countries on the globe (see here and here). Hence, it is no surprise that the neighbors have long looked to the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer on their shared border as a partial source for relief. Until recently, though, competing water needs and a lack of knowledge about the aquifer complicated efforts at compromise. That complexity appears to have been surmounted. On 30 April 2015, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia entered into an agreement for the Management and Utilization of the Ground Waters in the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Layer (Arabic original / unofficial English translation).
The Aquifer, known as Al Sag in Saudi Arabia and Al-Disi in Jordan, is a fossil transboundary aquifer containing water that accumulated 10,000-30,000 years ago. It is part of the western section of the Saq-Ram Aquifer System, a Paleozoic carbonate aquifer that spans nearly 308,000 km2 and is estimated to hold as much as 10 km3 of water in Jordan and 65 km3 in Saudi Arabia (see here).
Use of the Aquifer’s Water
Both countries began exploiting the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer in the late 1970s and 1980s soon after its discovery. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia dramatically increased its extractions to support its wheat production. As a result, groundwater, which typically flowed toward Jordan, reversed to flow toward the Saudi well field. While Saudi Arabia greatly reduced its extractions in the 1990s, Saudi withdrawals in 2008 were estimated at over 1,000 MCM (see here).
In Jordan, the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer was initially only used as a local water supply. In the late 1980s, Jordan began developing agricultural activities along its southern border and now withdraws some 60 MCM. To overcome water scarcity in other regions of the country, in the 1990s Jordan conceived the Disi Water Conveyance Project (DWCP) to extract an additional 100-150 MCM of water that would flow through a 325 km pipeline from Disi to Amman. While the project failed to obtain World Bank support, Jordan pursued the DWCP on a build-operate-transfer basis with a Turkish contractor and water began flowing to Amman in 2013 (see here and here). The project became especially controversial in 2009 when an independent study revealed that water in the aquifer contained naturally-occurring radiation (20 times international levels regarded safe for drinking) and posed a potential health hazard (see here). Subsequent Jordanian tests claimed the water met all safety standards when diluted with clean water (see here).
The Agreement over the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer is concise with four main articles. Article One contains terms and definitions; Article Two describes the main norms for managing the aquifer; Article Three discusses the creation and responsibilities of a Joint Saudi/Jordanian Technical Committee; and Article Four contains administrative provisions related to the implementation of the Agreement.
Notwithstanding its minimalist approach, the Agreement is noteworthy in a number of important ways. As a general matter, its very nature as an agreement over a transboundary aquifer is unique since today there is only one transboundary aquifer globally with a comprehensive management regime and two with more rudimentary consultative and data sharing arrangements (see here). This is in sharp contrast to the over 3,600 treaties relating to the use of transboundary surface waters that have been catalogued since 800 CE (see here).
More specifically, the Agreement imposes no numerical limitations on extractions. Rather, Article 2(1) creates a “Protected Area” of approximately 400 km2 within each country along the border where “all activities … which depend on the extraction of groundwater therefrom” must be discontinued within five years. In addition, Article 2(2) requires the Parties to maintain the Protected Area free from all activities that require groundwater. In effect, it creates a forbidden zone between the well fields of the two nations. When looking at the map accompanying the Agreement and the straight lines demarcating the Protected Area, it is unclear whether this zone is the result of unique hydrogeological conditions, or simply based on a desire to maintain a geographical buffer zone between the two parties.
In addition, the Agreement creates a broader “Management Area” that encompasses the Protected Area and spans approximately 1,000 km2 in each country. Although water extractions are permitted from within the Management Area, but outside of the Protected Area, they are limited solely for municipal purposes. While the aquifer extends beyond the Management Area on both sides of the border, these regions are not subject to the Agreement. Whether this is intentional is unclear, however, some studies indicate that some sections of the aquifer are less productive while others are at depths where extraction is not economical (see here).
Read together, these provisions effectively protect ongoing water projects supplying villages and cities in both nations, including the DWCP. They also ensure both nations’ extractions for agricultural and other purposes in areas outside of each country’s Management Area. This is especially important for Saudi Arabia, since a large portion of the aquifer lies in that country. The absence of more detailed pumping restrictions, however, could be worrisome in the long run as projections indicate that current pumping rates will deplete the aquifer in Jordan by mid-century and in Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter (see here).
Also noteworthy is the near absolute prohibition in the Agreement on groundwater pollution. Article 2(4) prohibits horizontal or slant wells explicitly to avoid aquifer pollution, while Article 2(5) creates an affirmative obligation to both protect groundwater against “any pollution” as well as prevent the injection of “any pollutant” into the aquifer. The only caveat is the fact that these obligations are limited to the Management Area; there are no pollution-related or other provisions pertaining to areas outside of the Management Area.
A further unique development found in the Agreement is the creation of a Joint Technical Committee (JTC). It is unique because relatively few agreements over transboundary surface water, and only one for a shared aquifer, have created such mechanisms. In the case of the Al-Sag/Al-Disi Aquifer, while the JTC is entrusted with “the supervision of the implementation of the terms of this Agreement,” it does not have any decision-making authority. Rather, under Article 3(4), it is primarily responsible for monitoring both the quantity and quality of extractions, collecting and exchanging information, analyzing collected data, and submitting their findings to the competent authorities in both nations. Accordingly, it may be argued that derivative to the creation of the JTC is the Agreement’s recognition of the international water law principles of exchange of information and ongoing monitoring, as well as the more progressive notion that such endeavors should be pursued jointly (see Art. 2(3)).
While the Agreement is notable for what it includes, it is also significant for what is conspicuously absent from the text. Under contemporary international water law, including trends identified in the emerging international law of transboundary aquifers (see here), two cornerstone principles require: equitable and reasonable utilization, and no significant harm. Neither norm appears explicitly in the Agreement. Possibly, the prohibitions on extraction and types of uses within, as well as the de facto permissible uses outside of, the Management Area could be interpreted as a form of equitable and reasonable utilization. Similarly, the prohibitions on the pollution of the aquifer could be deemed a variation on the rule of no significant harm, at least for purposes of ensuring water quality. Such analyses could be investigated further through access to the negotiators and any documentation that underpinned the Agreement.
One additional well-accepted norm of international water law that is missing from the Agreement: prior notice of planned measures that may have a transboundary effect. However, since all activities requiring groundwater are prohibited in the Protected Area, and limited to municipal purposes in the remaining section of the Management Area, such notice obligations may be superfluous. Of course, it is unclear whether activities in other sections of the aquifer that traverse the Jordanian-Saudi border could have transboundary consequences.
Of the more than 600 transboundary aquifers and ground water systems that have been identified globally (see here), only a miniscule number have any cooperative arrangement among these critical subsurface water resources. Accordingly, the Agreement over the Al-Sag /Al-Disi Aquifer is a significant milestone. It suggests that states may be beginning to recognize the importance of their transboundary aquifers and the need to cooperate with their neighbors. Hopefully others will soon follow suit.