THE BLOG

When Water Scarcity Becomes Personal

03/22/2014 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2014

"There are so many problems here around water," Sabeen said. Sabeen is Syrian. Last year she and her children fled Damascus, and now they live in northern Jordan in a one-room flat. Mattresses without sheets were tilted up against one wall. "Sometimes I can hardly breathe," she said. "There is no space."

And there is no water.

"Syrians renting apartments from Jordanian landlords don't get access to the building's water supply," Sabeen said. "The taps don't work in our apartment. We have to buy water from private wells. It isn't right. But we're desperate, so what else can we do?"

Like many Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in their country, Sabeen has found another crisis in Jordan: water scarcity.

Already one of the world's driest countries, Jordan's lack of water has been badly exacerbated by the added pressures of 600,000 refugees -- the vast majority of whom are not in camps, but in Jordanian cities and towns. Half of these urban refugees don't have the luxury of running water.

And when there is no water, hygiene standards plummet. Bathing is infrequent and infections are on the rise. According to a UN assessment released in January, a third of refugee households don't have access to soap.

Simultaneously, water quality has dropped, leading to a rise in diarrheal diseases among young children. This is part of a world-wide epidemic: nearly 20 percent of the deaths of children under five results from water-related diseases.

But in Jordan, these problems are not the refugees' alone. As detailed in a new report by Mercy Corps, refugees have put immense pressure on Jordanian resources and infrastructure.

Mafraq City in northern Jordan is emblematic. Once home to 70,000 people, the city is now packed with 160,000, thanks to an additional 90,000 refugees who have moved there since the war began. Old neighborhoods are overrun. Multiple Syrian families squeeze into single-family flats. Shops have been converted to makeshift homes, and some families rent rooftops and chicken coops. Children peek out from windows and doorways covered by cardboard and dirty sheets.

Water deficits in Mafraq City have quadrupled. Hospitals don't have adequate supplies, schools are dry, and mosques cannot perform daily ablutions.

"Water scarcity doesn't know Syrian or Jordanian," said Um Omar, a Jordanian woman. "It affects us all."

A potential health crisis looms. It is evident in the region's schools, where the influx of Syrian children has doubled the number of students using strictly rationed water supplies. Health and sanitation standards are imperiled. Without water, students cannot drink, flush toilets, or wash hands.

To buy more water, some school administrators have responded by raiding their budgets earmarked for critical supplies -- like paper.

"If you think a school without paper is bad," said one, "try a school without water."

International aid organizations such as Mercy Corps have for years sought ways to leverage limited resources through innovative programming; we are also finding opportunities for collaboration with the private sector. Since 2008, we have partnered with leading water technology company, Xylem, to solve the challenges of the water scarcity epidemic. For example, through a recent grant from the Xylem Emergency Response Fund, and with the help of their corporate citizenship and social investment program Xylem Watermark, we have been able to improve water infrastructure in northern Jordan through the construction of two new wells.

These new water access points have increased the water supply in the vicinity of Mafraq City and within the Zaatari refugee camp, itself home to up to 120,000 refugees. At full capacity, the two wells can provide enough water to meet the daily needs of approximately 88,000 Syrian refugees -- about 73 percent of the camp's population. The success of our investment with Xylem has led to the influx of additional support from UNICEF, adding momentum to our work in the region. In Jordan and elsewhere, the fruits of this cross-sector collaboration have resulted in advanced filtration systems, water-saving network improvements, improved sanitation tools, and better outcomes for those in need.

Sadly, those in need are numerous. Half of the world's hospital beds are filled with people suffering from water-related diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes. That is roughly the population of Los Angeles.

Today is World Water Day, and there is cause to celebrate the progress we have made around the world in alleviating thirst and illness. But we should not lose sight of how far we have to go. Water scarcity continues to touch millions of lives and is a daily source of hardship and death. Moving forward, we must creatively leverage partnerships and resources in ways that save and improve lives in the world's toughest places.