The slow, meandering course of the southern part of the Jordan River twists and turns through reeds and tamarisk trees, ambling through 200 kilometers (120 miles) of geopolitical, historical, and religious conflicts. This is the river with the lowest elevation in the world. It’s the river that acts as a border dividing Israel and Jordan, the river that provides thousands of farmers on both sides with irrigation water
Humans have lived continuously on the banks of this river for more than 10,000 years, and it’s where Christians believed St. John the Baptist immersed Jesus Christ when he was baptized.
It’s also a river that’s been diverted and dammed, and filled with raw sewage and fish pond waste, according to an environmental group that released a wide-ranging plan this week which, they say, can lay the foundation for the cleanup of biblical proportions the river desperately needs.
The river isn’t the only problem: the valley around the river has widespread poverty layered on top of a simmering conflict layered on top of an arid climate.
Experts know that to effectively heal a river, you need cooperation from every country that touches its banks. For the Jordan River, this includes Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and even Syria, which has tributaries that feed the Jordan River and dams that block this flow.
Getting all of those players to sit down at a table is next to impossible, not to mention getting them to come up with a plan to address these complicated issues.
On Tuesday, the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental group EcoPeace (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East) released a180-page Regional NGO Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley, which is the first effort to paint with broad strokes what this level of cooperation could possibly look like.
“Over the last 50 years, because of the conflict and the mindset of conflict, each side has tried to stop the water from flowing to the Jordan because it’s the border,” explained Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace. When water is a precious natural resource, he explained, you don’t let it trickle down to your enemies. “Raw sewage from all sides is dumped instead. It is poor management of scarce water resources.”
The purpose of the master plan, which was produced independent of governments but with the support of government agencies and politicians from all three sides, is to provide a comprehensive blueprint for the entire region to heal the river.
The scope of the master plan is ambitious, with 127 projects suggested over a 35-year timeline totaling almost $5 billion. The projects are divided into short, medium, and long-term goals reaching until the year 2050.
Over the past week, more than 200 people gathered in Amman to hear presentations about the master plan, including Israeli Knesset Member Ayoub Kara (Likud), Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister of Agriculture Abdullah Lahlouh, Palestinian Authority deputy Minister of Civil Affairs Mahrouf Maharan, and secretary general of the Jordan Valley Authority in Jordan Abu Hamour Saad. Local mayors from all three countries, the World Bank’s leading water expert, and representatives from donor countries, the European Union, and development agencies also attended. Additionally, there were representatives from India and Pakistan who are also fighting over a border river and hope to replicate some of the cooperation.
Some aspects of the master plan feel unrealistic, like the timeline’s assumption that there will be an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders by 2020. But one of the more unique aspects of the environmental plan is EcoPeace’s holistic focus on sustainable economic development. Brining jobs and money to the region, it argues, will eventually lead to a healthier river ecosystem.
Cleaning the water with dollar bills
The Jordan River Valley is one of the poorest areas in all three entities due to physical isolation from urban hubs and the lack of industry, not to mention the complicated political situation that makes construction or development difficult on the West Bank side.
This poverty contributes to ongoing pollution problems. Lack of infrastructure and planning in Jordan, for example, means there are many illegal trash dumps just meters away from the water.
“The most important intervention [in Jordan] is building a sewage network and water treatment plants,” said Munqeth Mehyar, the Jordanian director of EcoPeace and the president of the organization since 1998. Since homes have no sewage connection, each family maintains a private cesspool, which is often mismanaged. “The cesspits infiltrate to the groundwater and pollute it,” said Mehyar.
“Instead of having this water as a problem and polluting, we can take it, treat it and use it for agriculture and then release water used for agriculture for other uses,” he added.
Mehyar admitted that building a comprehensive sewage network in Jordan would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years, but he said donor countries had expressed interest.
The study estimates that 162,000 tons of municipal waste per year is generated in the Jordan Valley, including 120,000 tons in Jordan, 24,000 tons in Israel and 18,000 tons in Palestine, but less than 10% is transported and disposed outside the valley. In many places in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, garbage is usually just dumped outside of the towns.
“The vision of the master plan is to change tracks, to look at the Jordan River again as the life source of economic activity and nature,” said Bromberg. “An interconnected system produces much more efficient agriculture. The outcome of the study shows that it’s only when we use the interconnectedness of the sectors that we can create the wealth that’s needed for the jobs and to improve the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of residents.”
And it’s not just the residents that need a healthy river. “A clean healthy river becomes the source of tourism,” he added. “The Jordan River is holy to half of humanity.”
More than half a million people come each year to visit the site where Jesus was baptized, called Qasr-al-Yahud on the Israeli side and Bethany Beyond the Jordan on the Jordanian side. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians, also get baptized in the water, an emotional and religious experience. But the water is filled with pollutants and fecal matter, Bromberg said.
“The water at the baptism site is unhealthy,” said Nader Khateeb, the Palestinian director of EcoPeace. “It has so many potential health risks. We believe that the people who want to be baptized in that part of the river should be baptized in fresh healthy water.”
A drop in the bucket
Despite ongoing political difficulties, Bromberg and his Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts praised Israel for taking some of the first steps to clean the river. A year and a half ago, for the first time, Israel began letting water flow through the Sea of Galilee dam into the natural path of the Jordan River.
Historically, about 600 million cubic meters of water used to flow from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan River, enough to fill about 250,000 Olympic swimming pools each year. Additional water came from tributaries that feed into the Jordan, such as the Yarmouk River, for a total of 1.3 billion cubic meters which emptied into the Dead Sea. As the population grew in the valley, more and more water was diverted for agriculture and drinking water. In 1964, after the dam at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee was completed, water flow to the Jordan from the Sea of Galilee came to a complete stop.
This lack of running water, coupled with water-intensive practices used by the mineral factories on its shores, is why the Dead Sea is shrinking.
In late 2013, the Water Authority opened a pipe in the Alumot dam, to allow approximately 10 million cubic meters to flow to the Jordan River each year, with a plan to increase this to 30 million cubic meters by 2016, said Uri Schor, the spokesman for the Israel Water Authority.
“The Water Authority understands the great importance of rehabilitating the southern Jordan River, and to that end has supported the State of Israel by investing millions of shekels in projects to treat the sewage from Tiberias and the surrounding villages in the Jordan Valley council,” Schor said.
Allowing water from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan River dilutes the pollution and helps rehabilitate the habitat by starting to bring back the natural conditions.
The Water Authority opened the Bitanya Sewage Treatment Plant in March of this year, which replaced an aging sewage treatment plant that was dumping effluents into the Jordan. The Bitanya plant will treat all of the sewage from Tiberias, meaning Israel is no longer dumping raw sewage into the Jordan. The Water Authority is also working on programs that will divert fish pond runoff into water for agricultural use, Schor said.
The introduction of desalination plants, which reduce the dependence on fresh water from the Jordan River, is another important step toward freeing up water from the Jordan. Israel currently has four desalination plants, with one under construction and another in the planning stages. Jordan also has plans for desalination plants at the port city of Aqaba. “Today with advancement in desalination technology, this has been a game changer, and we think things can move ahead,” said Khateeb.
EcoPeace estimates that if 400 million cubic liters could flow into the Jordan from three countries, including both tributaries and the Sea of Galilee, it would be the minimum required to start rehabilitating the river. This would still enable farmers to divert some water for irrigation, though part of the master plan includes projects to improve agricultural efficiency to further reduce need. One of the first short-term projects proposed is to increase water conservation in the Palestinian Authority, because that is a step that requires little political cooperation and can be undertaken immediately.
A river runs through it
While some of solutions in the master plan presented this week seem impossible, the important thing is to start taking steps in the right direction, activists said.
“Ten years ago people laughed at us [when we talked about letting water flow into the Jordan]; it was like a joke to the government,” said Mira Edelstein, the spokeswoman for EcoPeace. “Today, not only is it not a joke, they’re pumping in a small amount as we speak. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s a shift in momentum and mindset.”
The shift, however small, reminds the activists of the importance of pushing ahead despite the geopolitical challenges.
“The whole Middle East is challenging to work in,” conceded Mehyar. “The elephant in the room is the relationship between Israel and Palestine. But we need to build trust. Trust, trust, trust. We need those people in both countries to know that when they work together they will benefit together.”
Khateeb, the Palestinian director, said all sides to try keep in mind that cooperation can only bring good things, even if the progress is slow and frustrating and often seems impossible. “We remember the regional organization that managed to bring all three sides, this shows it is a win-win,” he said. “This keeps the momentum in our organization. We do not give up; despite all the political instability we believe in a better future.”
“The plan suggests that all countries must contribute, because Israel alone cannot, Palestine alone cannot, and Jordan alone cannot,” said Meyhar. “But together, it is possible.”