Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Jordan is one of the most water-poor countries with an estimated renewable water endowment of about one-third of the “absolute scarcity” threshold of 500 m3 per capita per year.

We were part of the Jordan Water Project, an international research effort aimed at analyzing freshwater resources sustainability in Jordan. The project was led by Prof S. Gorelick at Stanford University and was supported by a consortium of G-8 nation science agencies through the Belmont Forum.

The main objective was to develop a new approach to evaluate policies to enhance sustainability of freshwater resource systems. To achieve this goal, a multi-agent modeling framework was developed to allow for the incorporation of institutional complexity in evaluation of policy instruments aimed at improving water security in Jordan. The model employed a modular approach, integrating biophysical modules that simulate natural and engineered phenomena (e.g., groundwater-surface water flow, reservoir storage, network routing, salt balance, and crop yield) with human modules that represent behavior at multiple scales of decision making.

Within the consortium, our group was responsible for the development of the module representing the Water Authority of Jordan (WAJ), and the module representing transboundary water supplies. WAJ oversees water resources management and planning for municipal uses. The WAJ agent determines water allocations and schedules among the major Jordanian governorates and cities. Regarding transboundary waters, our attention focuses on the Yarmouk River, which used to be the main source of freshwater supplies for Jordan. Since the 1960s, Yarmouk River flows have declined more than 85% despite the signature of bilateral agreements. Syria and Jordan blame each other for the decline and have both developed their own explanatory narratives: Jordan considers that Syria violated their 1987 agreement by building more dams than what was agreed on, while Syria blames climate change.

Yarmouk River basin

Using remote sensing and multiagent simulation (MAS), we carry out an independent, quantitative analysis of Jordanian and Syrian competing narratives and show that a third cause for which there is no provision in the bilateral agreements actually explains much of the changes in the flow regime: groundwater overabstraction by Syrian highland farmers.

The MAS model for the Yarmouk River basin

As the civil war was raging in Syria, we turned to remote sensing for much of the data collection in the Yarmouk River basin. One of the challenges was to retrieve storage levels for the Syrian reservoirs, which was critical to establish the water balance of the river basin. We developed a novel approach using Landsat imagery and digital elevation models (DEMs) to retrieve information on storage variations in inaccessible regions. Unlike existing approaches, the method does not require any in situ measurement and is appropriate for monitoring small, and often undocumented, irrigation reservoirs. It was validated against available in situ measurements in neighbouring Jordanian reservoirs.

Reconstructed reservoir areas


  1. Yoon J.,Klassert C., Selby P., Lachaut T., Knox S., Avisse N., Harou J., Tilmant A., Klauer B., Mustafa D., Sigel K., Talozi S., Gawel E., Medellín-Azuara J., Bataineh B., Zhang H., Gorelick S., 2021. A coupled human–natural system analysis of freshwater security under climate and population change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (14) e2020431118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020431118  
  2. Avisse N., A. Tilmant, D. Rosenberg and S. Talozi, 2020. Quantitative Assessment of Contested Water Uses and Management in the Conflict-Torn Yarmouk River Basin. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 146(7). DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)WR.1943-5452.0001240  
  3. Avisse N., A. Tilmant, M.F. Muller and H Zhuang, 2017. Monitoring small reservoirs’ storage with satellite remote sensing in inaccessible areas. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 21(12). DOI: 10.5194/hess-21-6445-2017  
  4. Muller M., J. Yoon, S. Gorelick, N. Avisse and A. Tilmant. Impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on land use and transboundary freshwater resources. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), doi :10.1073/pnas.1614342113 
  5. Zhang, H., S. M. Gorelick, N. Avisse, A. Tilmant, D. Rajsekhar and J. Yoon, 2016. A New Temperature-Vegetation Triangle Algorithm with Variable Edges (TAVE) for Satellite-Based Actual Evapotranspiration Estimation. Remote Sensing, 8, 735; doi:10.3390/rs8090735