Culture of water-sharing

I did my thesis research for my master’s in water management in Jordan. Many thought it was odd that a Canadian west (wet) coaster was going to focus on the topic of water-scarcity in tandem with development aid and rainwater collection. Much to my pleasant surprise, I learned a thing or two outside of my original scope – one being that water sharing is a strong cultural value in Jordan.

I interviewed 17 households in rural villages outside of Amman, Jordan in 2005 about their water use and access. Real anthropology. I was drooling. With a translator and (male) driver, off I went to speak to people who had been at the receiving end of a rainwater collection restoration project ten years prior. In a nutshell, I was tasked with evaluating the usefulness of the development project that attempted to support a return to rainwater collection and help alleviate water-scarcity for village households.

Much to my pleasure, I discovered some ‘new knowledge’: that the concept of water scarcity was rejected by households. What, I thought, how was this possible? Everyone knew Jordan suffered greatly from water-scarcity….except for the people themselves? I didn’t understand. Water-scarcity is based on the physical reality of there not being enough water to provide for the demand OR the means to access water. What was happening in Jordan was a division of the perceptions of water-scarcity – bureaucratic institutions, including non-profits, firmly espoused the hardship of water-scarcity while from a village perspective, water was plentiful. Most homes, if legally constructed, had a connection to a municipal water main. A supply was provided one day per week, advertised in local newspapers or through word-of-mouth when the water was scheduled to arrive to their tap. Each household stored their week’s supply for future use in a rooftop or underground cistern. If water was not available from the government, then privately-run water trucks were at the ready to supply households, at an inflated cost. I found it difficult to wrap my head around that a supply of once a week was perceived as adequate.

But how else did people survive in the desert with water-scarcity nipping at their heels from my western viewpoint? Water sharing. It was considered ‘polite’ and demonstrated kindness to share water. Every household claimed that they would share water from their cistern and it was common knowledge that water in a cistern was available. Usually a cistern was placed in the courtyard of a house and provided water to two to twelve families. There was a distinction between access to the water in the cistern and ownership of the cistern. Ownership of the cistern did not mean exclusive rights to the water (water is a public good) but ownership of the land did result in the ownership of the cistern.

Water-sharing exemplified the spirit of hospitality that Jordanians take pride in as a part of their cultural identity developed from the semi-nomadic Bedouins. Islamic teachings also influenced the culture of water sharing. The Prophet Mohammad decreed that one must not be denied water if it is necessary for their survival or livelihood and it is considered an act of religious charity to share water. Islam encourages the faithful to give away water free of charge with the belief that Allah will reward those who do so.

As I undertook my field research, I heard every household claim that they would share water. While initially puzzling, I came to interpret water sharing as a strong cultural value, and one that served to rejected our (my) notion of water-scarcity. What to know more? Read my fieldnotes at

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