Slowly, surely, and mainly below the radar, an 11-kilometer (nearly seven-mile) stretch of the Jordan River is being transformed into water that is safe for swimming again.
It is not yet rid of pollution — that will need to wait another three years or so.
But its banks are being spruced up, landscaped, and restructured in parts, and a pedestrian and cycling path now runs along much of the western side, from the Rob Roy canoeing attraction just southwest of the Sea of Galilee southward to the village of Menahemia.
Little bridges lead to islands, and a steep embankment has been leveled to allow for the creation of water inlets and land that slopes gently down to the water’s edge.
An initial batch of salt-tolerant trees is being planted for shade, and rocks have been strategically placed in the water to create ripples and vary the speed of the flow to provide different microhabitats for riparian creatures and birds.
There are plans for seating and picnic areas.
The area is open to the public, but on the weekday that this reporter visited, a lone fisherman and a couple of campers were the only signs of humanity to be seen.
The Jordan Valley — part of the great Syrian-African Rift Valley — was a major highway for the migration of early humans between Africa, Europe, and Asia, and is still a key migration route for animals, particularly birds.
The river and its banks form the backdrop for many stories and traditions central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
South of the Sea of Galilee, though, where the river stretches some 128 kilometers or 80 miles (as the crow flies) down to the Dead Sea, most of the water has been diverted for human use by Israel, Syria, and Jordan, leaving just a trickle behind.
The roughly two-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch between the Degania Dam at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee and the Alumot Dam downstream is clean. This is where the Yardenit baptism site is located and currently undergoing expansion.
But to the south of the Alumot Dam — a great barrier of earth — there’s a different story.
For years, the waters between this dam and the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers near Naharayim, just southeast of Menahemia, were inaccessible, stinking, and polluted.
Early last century, the river, stretching from the Degania Dam down to Naharayim, was dug out and narrowed to resemble a canal. The aim was to speed up the water’s flow for Pinchas Rutenberg’s hydroelectric power project at Naharayim, which operated between 1932 and 1948.
The amount of water that once flowed out of the Sea of Galilee dropped to just 10 to 20 million cubic meters (mcm) per year, according to the Water Authority, from a surging 1.2 billion cubic meters before Israel dammed the flow in the 1960s.
South of the Alumot Dam, the river has long been a dumping ground for trash, sewage, and brackish water, compounded by runoff from the application of agricultural chemicals and fish farms.
To prevent saltwater from entering the freshwater Sea of Galilee — Israel’s emergency drinking store — the state built the so-called Salty Carrier in the 1960s. This was a deep channel flanked by high earthen embankment walls that ran 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) just to the west of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.
This open-air carrier was replaced by a pipe around 13 years ago, but some 25 million cubic meters of brackish water still pour into the river south of the Alumot Dam every year.
To further muddy the waters, raw sewage from the cities of Tiberias and Safed and other Galilee communities was directed into the Salty Carrier as well.
The latter stopped in 2015 when a sewage treatment plant was built just across from the Alumot Dam. It was upgraded last year to provide the highest level of treatment.
But some four million cubic meters of treated wastewater still flows into the river each year, according to the Water Authority.
If all goes to plan, a desalination plant to treat the saltwater will be built and start operating in around three years close to where the Jordan River meets the Yavne’el Stream, opposite Kibbutz Degania Bet.
The desalinated water will be supplied to commercial fishponds in the Emek Hamayanot (Valley of Springs) area nearby, with around 10 million cubic meters annually being channeled to a point south of Menahemia.
All the treated wastewater will meanwhile be piped to farmers for the irrigation of crops.
Once these pollutants are no longer entering the river, the amount of clean Sea of Galilee water flowing into the river will increased by at least 50 mcm per year.
Over the past 12 years, the Kinneret Drainage and Streams Authority has worked on the implementation arm of a government project to widen the river in parts and restore the area’s natural look.
The aim is to attract many more visitors and tourists, and to restore ecosystems that have been floundering for decades.
Works have included flattening the eastern embankment of the Salty Carrier to make room for little bays and lawn areas, and removing tens of thousands of tons of accumulated silt from salt and sewage.
According to the authority’s engineer, Oshri Iluz, the restructuring and landscaping have already cost more than NIS 40 million ($11 million), most of it from the Israel Lands Authority’s Fund for the Protection of Open Spaces.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is currently establishing a partnership with the authority and the Jordan Valley Regional Council to share the burden of maintenance — until the INPA completes the bureaucracy needed to declare the stretch between the two dams a national park and turn the remaining section, down to Menahemia, into a nature reserve.
An INPA spokeswoman said the hope was that the park and reserve could be declared this year, but that the decision was not dependent on the organization.
Both would be open to the public, with no plans to charge entrance fees, she added.
Observing empty bottles and other trash that had been left on a rock overlooking the river, Iluz said that the drainage authority was not equipped to collect garbage and that the entry of the INPA would ensure that the area had “a mother and father to look after it properly.”
One of the archaeological sites along the river that will be turned into a visitor attraction is Tel Obaida, an unremarkable-looking mound with an extraordinary history located near Kibbutz Beit Zera. Sifting through some 60 layers of soil, the oldest dating back 1.5 million years, archaeologists have discovered remains there of one of the earliest migrations of Homo erectus out of Africa.
The stretch of river undergoing rehabilitation ends just before the Adama Dam, where the water is directed sharply eastwards by cement walls towards the Rutenberg hydroelectric dam.
Along the imposing cement embankment runs a narrow path that the drainage authority has built for otters.
The works are being coordinated and carried out by the Kinneret Drainage and Streams Authority, with the approval of the Environmental Protection and Tourism Ministries, the Israel Lands Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, and the local authorities.
The rehabilitation — and the additional clean water allocation — only relate to this stretch of river, where both river banks are located in Israel.
South of the point where the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers meet, the watercourse defines the border between Jordan and Israel, with each country controlling one of the banks.
In November, a bilateral declaration of intent was signed between Israel and Jordan to partner in the restoration and sustainable development of this section, which ends when the river enters the partially Palestinian-controlled West Bank on its way down to the Dead Sea.
Agreements of this kind are subject to geopolitical ups and downs so the timing of implementation is impossible to gauge.
And while organizations such as EcoPeace and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies are trying to get the Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis on the same page, nothing is happening formally at present.
Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace, explained that the river was “a story of demise for the legitimate reasons that we’re in the desert, water is scarce, and people need it.”
“Water is always a story of conflict,” he went on. “When the river is the border, then allowing fresh water to flow means you are empowering the enemy.”
But, he continued, there would be little point for Israel to rehabilitate the river’s western bank as it flows through Jordan and the West Bank, while the water continued to receive the effluent from cesspits on the other side serving some 700,000 Jordanians and 52,000 Palestinians who lack access to a sewage network.
Directing additional water to the river, encouraging regional cooperation to clean it up, and managing it through a trilateral river commission of a sort that exists elsewhere in the world would strengthen regional resilience in the face of growing water shortages brought about by rapidly growing populations and accentuated by climate change, Bromberg said.
He noted that lack of water was one of the crises that sparked the Syrian civil war.
Said Bromberg, “Geopolitics, ecology, tourism, climate – all these advantages need to align.”
Explaining that India and Pakistan jointly managed part of the Indus River despite hostile relations, he went on, “The border issue should not prevent us from reallocating water. Jordan already gets water from the Sea of Galilee — you can agree on the water allocation without defining the borders.”
EcoPeace is one of 10 organizations that last month announced a joint campaign for the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
“You don’t need to be Einstein to understand that if you invest in the areas and provide water, and enable tourism and pilgrimage to flourish, you can bring prosperity, which brings stability,” said Oded Rahav, founder of environmental preservationist group the Dead Sea Guardians and a key figure behind the creation of the coalition.
“With stability, you don’t need weapons. You just produce more tomatoes.”