The dirty River Jordan

The holy waterway of Biblical times has become a polluted, foul-smelling stream. Can it be saved?

Darren Whiteside/Reuters

One of the world’s most sacred rivers has become an unholy mess, and could cease to exist by 2011, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental NGO. The lower Jordan River, immortalized in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was once a rapid, swelling waterway filled with fish and flanked by willow and poplar trees, flowing south from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea.

Today, a brownish, foul-smelling stream trickles along where 1.3 billion cubic metres used to annually gush. “No one can say this is holy water,” Gidon Brom­berg, FoEME’s Israeli co-director, recently told a group of reporters visiting the site. The Jordan River, along with the Dead Sea and Mountain Aquifer, are at the top of FoEME’s political agenda. Speaking quite literally, Bromberg added, “The Jordan River has become holy s–t.”

The lower Jordan River is filled with raw sewage and contaminated agricultural runoff from neighbouring communities in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Israeli settlements channel the sewage from around 30,000 toilets; roughly 60,000 Palestinians—who lack a sewage treatment network altogether—dump raw sewage in landfills, which eventually leaks out into the Jordan; and sewage wells utilized by some 250,000 Jordanians also leak into the river. On top of this, the river’s salinity levels are dangerously high.

These serious pollutants have eroded the Jordan’s biodiversity, while its flow has been dramatically reduced by water infrastructure projects. Over time, Israel and Jordan have diverted and blocked almost all water flowing from the Yarmouk River and the Galilee Sea, reducing the Jordan to just two per cent of its natural flow. It is now little more than a slowly moving sewage canal. New waste-water treatment plants are being built by Israel and Jordan that will treat incoming sewage and saline water and repurpose it for agricultural use. Ironically, once these plants are operating, little to no water will flow into the river at all, putting the once-mighty Jordan at risk of drying up entirely.

A study FoEME released in May 2010 recommends that 400 million cubic metres (m3) of fresh water—approximately a third of the historic flow—be returned to the river annually via donations from the governments that the Jordan River and its tributaries affect. That proposed 400 million m3 breaks down to 220 million m3 from Israel, 100 million m3 by Syria and 90 million m3 by Jordan. Brom­berg states that the Palestinians, who are denied access to the river, have no obligation to donate.

At this point, all sides have given verbal support for the rehabilitation of the river, and the Israeli Water Authority has pledged 20 million m3, falling short of FoEME’s recommendations but still going further than any other government. The Israeli environment ministry has also launched a study on the rehabilitation of the river, but only where it flows between the Galilee Sea and the Green Line dividing Israel and the West Bank. Jordan and Syria have not committed. But, Bromberg notes, international development groups are starting to help with the cleanup process. The Japan International Co-operation Agency is currently mulling the feasibility of a plan for an agro-industrial park in Jericho, which would treat sewage and waste water from the Jordan.

Aaron Wolf, professor of geography at Oregon State University and author of Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River, credits FoEME with helping to put water on the regional agenda, but raises the question of water scarcity: “Technically, it’s feasible. The question is simply priorities. In Amman, they get drinking water once a week. You could see somebody arguing that drinking water in Amman is more of a priority than in-stream flow in the Jordan, recognizing that anything that’s in the Jordan ends up in the Dead Sea so it’s not usable for human use.”

But while FoEME’s recommendations trickle onto the desks of the necessary decision-makers (Jordan’s Queen Rania recently requested to see the report for herself), its grassroots engagement has taken hold. Thousands of residents have participated in FoEME environmental awareness projects in Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian communities in the Jordan River valley. Mayors and citizens have even shown their support by (inadvisably) jumping into the river together. “We remain optimistic as we see real progress on the ground as per sewage removal,” says Bromberg. “And more and more international interest helps to create the political will locally to return fresh water to the river.”

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