The River Jordan’s survival is at stake as pollution peril grows

Standing at Israel’s Alumot Dam, a 30-minute walk south from the Sea of Galilee, it’s a typical midwinter day: deep blue sky, birds everywhere and a brisk breeze that carries a nauseating stench. Reduced to a thin stream by this point, the Jordan River stops. A few feet south of the dam, untreated sewage gushes directly into the riverbed.

In 1948, the lower Jordan carried 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water. Today, it’s less than 10 percent of that — and it’s hardly fresh. About half of what’s left comes from small tributaries, springs and Syria’s Yarmouk River. The other half is runoff from farms, diverted saline water and raw sewage.

The blame lies on all sides. Israel reroutes 60 percent of the Galilee’s water for its farms and kitchens; Jordan maintains a major canal that diverts from the Yarmouk; upstream, Syria has more than 40 dams. Jordanian septic tanks allow untreated sewage to seep into the water basin, while Israel turns a blind eye to local authorities’ direct dumping of waste.

It’s all aggravated by decades of war. Most of the valley is a closed military zone along both banks, its misery effectively concealed, and in spite of the long-standing Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, both countries find it hard to cooperate while conflict remains between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.

Such deterioration would be alarming anywhere, but there’s something particularly disturbing in a place that resonates so profoundly in human culture. As Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) exclaimed: “Half of humanity sees this river as holy!”

The Tanakh and Christian scriptures often reference the valley. In Deuteronomy, Moses is shown the Promised Land from the eastern side before he dies and is buried there; the New Testament describes Jesus’ baptism in the river. Both books are also revered by the world’s billion Muslims.

“The Jordan is one of the few wild rivers left in Israel,” commented Los Angeles-based Rabbi Michael Comins, author of “A Wild Faith” (Jewish Lights Publishing, due out in April). “It’s no coincidence that the Torah was given in the wilderness, that the Prophets heard God in the wilderness and that we do, too.”

Yet, if visitors of any stripe were to enter this wild river’s lower reaches, Bromberg said, “[they’d] be likely to come out with a rash.”

FoEME is fighting to reverse the downward spiral. A tri-national nonprofit, with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian directors, FoEME is a rarity: a joint Arab-Israeli body acting to address vital shared concerns.

Both Nader Khateeb and Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Palestinian and Jordanian directors, say they’re mindful of those who oppose cooperation before a resolution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that they’re equally aware that time is short.

“The ecosystem is so small, any action effects the others,” Mehyar said. “You can’t say that you won’t talk to the other side — you’re hurting yourself.”

“Ironically,” said Mira Edelstein, Israeli coordinator of FoEME’s river rehabilitation project, “the cooperation on polluting the Jordan has been fantastic.”

Meandering about 125 miles south along Earth’s lowest point, the lower Jordan represents the meeting point of all three peoples and the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. Approximately 500,000 birds migrate through the valley annually, and many flora and fauna find their northern and southern limits here. Early humans emerging from Africa moved through the valley, and just outside biblical Jericho, archeologists have found evidence of humanity’s first farms.

In the eyes of FoEME’s activists, the valley’s unique environmental characteristics and central role in history make its survival an issue that reaches beyond the region. “We’re losing it,” Khateeb said. “And it’s not important only for us, it’s very important for the whole world. We want to see it on the world agenda.”

In order to grab international and local attention alike, FoEME has initiated a number of creative projects, but the obstacles these often face demonstrate the expected complications of Middle Eastern life. An ambitious journey down the entire lower river valley was planned for November, for instance, but had to be drastically curtailed when the IDF limited it to the last mile and a half of clean water before Alumot.

Ultimately what FoEME proposes is a limited restoration of the river: controlled access, sustainable management plans, providing farmers with recycled water and returning fresh water to its source. “Nature is a legitimate consumer,” Edelstein said. “It’s not wasting the water to let it run down the river.”

At minimum, Bromberg believes, the Jordan needs at least 300 million cubic meters of clean water. “Without it,” he said, “the river will no longer live.”

Though reclamation can seem prohibitively complex, in California, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles recently witnessed a successful restoration that highlights the possibilities. Sixty-two dry miles of the Owens River — arguably in worse shape than the Jordan — now flow again after nearly a century of its water being diverted to Los Angeles.

“It’s expensive, and it’s hard,” Edelstein conceded, “but we have to do it, if we want to build a sustainable life here.”

Comins agreed, saying, “When I go to Israel, I don’t want to see a plaque that says ‘The Jordan River once flowed here.’ I want to see it as David and Amos did.”

As with all things in this part of the world, much depends on the grinding of diplomatic wheels. Acknowledging this uncertainty, the leaders of FoEME maintain a certain white-knuckle optimism.

“Conflict actually increases our strength,” Mehyar said, “because we can see the foolishness of it.”

“In our area you cannot give up,” Khateeb said. “Because if you give up, you’re finished.”

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer who has been covering the Middle East since the early 1990s.