Vanishing Jordan River needs global rescue effort

Posted: 27 May 2006

Author: J.R. Pegg

The Jordan River is dying and the Jordanian and Israeli governments are failing to come to its aid, according to local officials and environmentalists from both sides of the revered river, scene of many events of Biblical history.

The Jordan River
The Jordan River
The River Jordan, a narrow strip of green in a dry landscape. (Photo courtesy FOEME)

The international community needs to make saving the river a priority, the delegation told a Washington, DC audience, and should encourage Jordan, Israel, Syria and the Palestinian Authority to develop a regional environmental and economic rehabilitation effort.

"We cannot say our governments are doing nothing, but they are not doing enough," said Dov Litvinoff, mayor of the Tamar Dead Sea Region Council in Israel.

The river and the ecosystem it supports, including the Dead Sea, face "ecological catastrophe," said Litvinoff, who was joined at the forum by two Jordanian mayors, a fellow Israeli mayor, the mayor of Jericho, and three directors of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME).

Dead sea

The delegation spoke last week to an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan institute for advanced study.

"We are here to tell the world that we need help to preserve this wonder, to preserve one of the most unique places in the world," Litvinoff said. "We came here to shout loudly - all the mayors - for the world to help us."

Although there is growing international concern about the state of the Dead Sea, the delegation said, most of the world is unaware of the sorry state of the Jordan River because much of the river flows through a closed military zone.

"The fates of the two are clearly connected," said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FOEME. "We must create an integrated rehabilitation plan."

Three sources flow together to form the Jordan River - the Banias, or Hermon, river; the Dan, or Leddan, river; and the Hasbani, or Senir, river - all from the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon, on the Syrian-Lebanese border. The Jordan flows down into Lake Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee, 212 metres below sea level. It then drains into the Dead Sea which, at 407 metres below sea level, is the lowest point on Earth.

Bromberg cited ample evidence that the river is in dire straits, plagued by pollution and starved of water. In the past half century, the annual flow of the lower Jordan has sunk some 95 per cent - from more than 1.3 billion cubic metres per year to less than 100 million cubic metres. Some 20 per cent of its dwindling flow is untreated sewage.

New dam

The river's plight is the direct result of conflicts and suspicion that permeate the region, said Nader al-Khateeb, Palestinian director of FOEME.

"All the parties have competed unilaterally to use as much of these resources as possible without paying any attention to their neighbours," al-Khateeb said. "If we continue this policy of unilateral utilization, we will just create more problems."

Jordan, Israel and Syria have all diverted upstream waters for domestic and agricultural uses.

In the late 1950s, Israel began drawing massive quantities of water from the Sea of Galilee and "not a drop" from the sea now makes it to the lower Jordan, Bromberg said.

The latest threat to the river's water supply is a new Syrian dam on the Yarmuk River.

The dam should be operational this year, Bromberg said, and then the two major sources of the lower Jordan - the Yarmuk and the Sea of Galilee - will no longer provide any water to the river.

FOEME is calling on the national governments to take a series of steps to revise their water management plans in order to restore the river.

"The irony is that the Jordanian and Israeli governments subsidise water so much that is it is given virtually for free to the farmers," said Munqeth Mehyar, Jordanian chair of FOEME. "We are subsidizing fruits for rich nations and the economic return is so lousy."

Water canal

Beyond policy changes, there are other options to boost the region's water supply - namely the proposed 200 kilometre (125 mile) long canal to bring water to the region from the Red Sea.

The Jordan River is an indispensible source of water for the entire region. (Photo courtesy Greater Amman Municipality)
The Jordan River is an indispensible source of water for the entire region. (Photo courtesy Greater Amman Municipality)
The Jordan River is an indispensible source of water for the entire region. (Photo courtesy Greater Amman Municipality)

The Jordan River is an indispensible source of water for the entire region. (Photo courtesy Greater Amman Municipality)Combined with desalination projects, the canal could bring fresh water not only to the Dead Sea but also to the lower Jordan. Officials from Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are working with the World Bank to study the feasibility of the canal.

Litvinoff said the canal must be considered as a possible solution despite concerns about cost and environmental impacts - a view echoed by Wajdy Abdelhammed Masaadeh, mayor of Jordan's Tabket Fahel Municipality.

"It may have some disadvantages but we have to think seriously about it," he said.

Mehyar said his organization is not prepared to endorse the project and is keen to see how it compares economically and environmentally to restoring more natural flows into the river and the Dead Sea.

"We don't have enough information to say if it is a good project or a bad one," said Mehyar. "The problem lies in our governments - they are treating this project with great secrecy. There is hardly any transparency here."

Any rehabilitation effort for the river must consider the economic problems of the people of Jordan River Valley, not just the environmental concerns, according to Mohamed Ahmed Abujaber, Mayor of Jordan's Mua'z Bin Jabal Municipality.

For a resident to feel the benefits of preserving the Jordan River, "he must feel that his livelihood is improved as well," Abujaber said.

Sustainable tourism

FOEME outlined their support for tourism as the future economic engine for the Jordan River Valley, especially given the area's remarkable history and its unique environment.

"We are not against farmers," Bromberg said, "but it is an issue of not putting all your eggs in one basket. The poorest people in the region are in the valley and agriculture is clearly not paying."

In addition the region's remarkable history, the valley is at the crossroads of biodiversity, Bromberg said, bringing together species from Africa, Asia and Europe.

Rather than large resorts, the organization is promoting small-scale bed and breakfasts and hotels along with sustainable ecotourism for the region.

"We see tourism as the economic engine that will justify bringing water back to the river and to the Dead Sea," Bromberg said. "The economic returns would far outweigh the current returns from farming."

Yael Shaltieli, mayor of Israel's Beit She'an Regional Council, endorsed the concept and added that allowing closer collaboration and easier travel between the communities on either side of the river is key to boosting tourism and promoting preservation of the river.

Fences and mines keep the public in the area from the river, Shaltieli said, and "we cannot even approach it."

Peace parks are one solution, she said, both to safeguard the river and to encourage closer relations between communities on both banks.

Old Roman Bridge at Gesher spanning the Jordan River (Photo courtesy FOEME)
Old Roman Bridge at Gesher spanning the Jordan River (Photo courtesy FOEME)
Old Roman Bridge at Gesher spanning the Jordan River (Photo courtesy FOEME)

"The civilians need to gain back the Jordan River for themselves," she said. "We need to rehabilitate the physical part of the river, but we have to make an atmosphere a place where the people can build the bridges among themselves."

A peace park at Old Gesher has been proposed by FOEME and the organization is lobbying both governments for support.

The organization is also keen to see the Jordan River Valley declared a World Heritage Site.

Mehyar said Israeli and Palestinian officials have expressed support for the move, but Jordanian officials remain wary of the plan.

They mistakenly think that declaring the area a World Heritage site "will prevent them from having a free hand" to move forward with the "Red-Dead canal," said Mehyar.

"We are trying to lobby UNESCO to bring a delegation to Amman to explain how the whole system works," he added.

Jericho Mayor Hassan Saleh told the Washington, DC audience that any effort to save the Jordan River Valley must be part of a broader effort to bring peace to the region and pleaded for continued international financial support for the Palestinian people.

"We definitely have hope for peace and prosperity," Saleh said. "The Palestinian people are for peace, they want peace. I am personally here with my colleagues from Israel and Jordan to ask you to not to let the Palestinian people drown in darkness and hunger."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2006. All Rights Reserved.