Israel spearheads efforts to save Jordan River

American guitarist Brian Welch being baptized in the Jordan River on Saturday – pollution and water diversion are shrinking the river, and Israel is determined to do something about it. The mighty, fabled Jordan River is not exactly what you …

American guitarist Brian Welch being baptized in the Jordan River on Saturday – pollution and water diversion are shrinking the river, and Israel is determined to do something about it. The mighty, fabled Jordan River is not exactly what you think it is. The once-proud Jordan at many points is now little more than a sewage channel. Reduced to a meager flow in winter, it may soon dry up altogether during the hot summer months.

Thousands of pilgrims are baptized annually in the river where, according to Biblical tradition, John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

Indeed, over the weekend, Amercian guitarist Brian “Head” Welch was baptized there just weeks after quitting his mega-successful heavy metal band Korn, and trading in his drug habits and rock-and-roll lifestyle for religion.

Welch, a founding member of the multi-platinum band, and about 20 other white-robed Christian pilgrims from a Bakersfield, Calif., church were immersed by their pastor, Ron Vietti. Likewise, singers Whitney Houston and husband Bobby Brown underwent a high-profile baptism during their 2003 visit to Israel.

But scenes like that are in danger of being a thing of the past if the Jordan continues to be neglected at its current rate.

Luckily, voices of reason are finally being heard, and thanks to an Israeli-led initiative, action is about to be taken. Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and international experts are to discuss ways to save the Jordan River at an unprecedented conference this week on the ‘Peace Island’, in the middle of the historic river.

The 130 mile long river drains an area of 750 square miles, but much of the water is diverted by Israel’s National Water Carrier, Jordan’s King Abdullah Canal and dams across tributaries into the river in Israel, Syria and Jordan.

In the past 50 years, the river’s annual flow has dropped from over 1.3 billion cubic meters to less than 100 million cubic meters, of which some 20 percent is untreated sewage. The polluted water flows into the Dead Sea – itself under threat having shrunk by 30 percent in that time.

“The Jordan River is at a critical juncture. It is in danger of disappearing altogether if governments in the region do not take action immediately,” says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), organizers of the conference.

Bromberg says that the river has become a “backyard dumping site” for fishpond effluents, polluted sewage water and saline water from diverted springs.

With financial backing from the Finnish and US governments, European Commission, UNESCO and the University of Miami, FoEME hired a three person team of experts 18 months ago: professor of architecture at Bezalel and head of Israel’s world heritage committee Michael Turner, Palestinian hydrologist Nader Khateeb from Bethlehem and biodiversity specialist Khaled Nassar from Jordan’s Society for Sustainable Development.

Working out of FoEME’s Tel Aviv, Amman and Bethlehem offices, a team of young Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian researchers backed up this core team.

“We wanted to hear the opinions of all the various stakeholders and met as broad a spectrum as possible – including from the tourism industry, local authorities, nature preservation organizations, the military and leading archeologists from both sides of the river. The team met all the key people in Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian sides during a three-day tour of the Jordan valley. Each told them how they envisage development along the valley – what they think should happen,” Bromberg told ISRAEL21c.

These lengthy consultations formed the basis of ‘Crossing the Jordan,’ a 32-page concept document that identifies the causes of the river’s downfall and highlights the Jordan valley’s natural and cultural significance. The final page of the document outlines what Bromberg calls “a rough outline of an action plan.”

His Royal Highness Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, Israeli Environment Minister Shalom Simchon as well as a Palestinian minister will join the conference podium to map out a joint strategy.

UNESCO Assistant Director General for Culture Mounir Bouchenaki is to present a multilateral position paper. Other presentations will be by chairman of the UN Environment Agency Post-Conflict Assessment Unit Pekka Haavisto and MK Omri Sharon who heads the Knesset’s environmental lobby.

The day following the conference, FoEME will bring together on the island the mayors of all the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian localities along the valley to discuss a common strategy to influence their respective governments.

“They’re all losing out and they know it. They now realize the tourism potential of a healthy river and the opportunities they have missed. Sustainable tourism is their natural ally,” says Bromberg.

“We present a vision of how things can be different. The demise of the river is typical of many environmental tragedies in that it is the result of a conflict of interests where one or more interests override all the others. The agricultural industry and military considerations have dominated the Jordan valley’s development.

“Water that should flow through the Jordan is detracted for mostly agricultural purposes, while border tensions mean no civilian access on the Israeli side and only restricted access to farmers on the Jordanian side. These interests have worked together to keep the issue out of the public eye,” Bromberg adds.

FoEME has called on national governments to place the River Jordan on UNESCO?s World Heritage List. Bordered by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority and lying at the crossroads of three continents, the ‘lowest’ river in the world is of tremendous ecological and cultural significance. The river is considered holy by all three major monotheistic religions, and is famous as a bird migration area.

Numerous archeological sites on both sides of the river attest to a rich history dating back to the early movement of humankind out of Africa up the Rift Valley and on to Asia and Europe, including the first evidence of farming settlements and wheat cultivation.

Unlike Israel or the PA, Jordan has a comprehensive governmental body known as ‘The Jordan Valley Authority’, but the FoEME claims that the Authority’s primary task has been to capture as much of the river water as possible.

“Annex four of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty specifically states that the two governments agree to cooperate on ecological rehabilitation of the river but sadly, nothing has been done since the treaty was signed. On the contrary – the situation has worsened,” says Bromberg.

He envisages a joint body with representatives from all three parties to manage the river’s future, modeled after regimes such as the Rhine and the Rhone in Europe or the North American International Joint Committee that oversees the trans-boundary Great Lakes region between the U.S. and Canada.

“We are calling on our governments to work together to rehabilitate the Jordan, clean up the sewage and bring peace and prosperity to the region through developing new tourism opportunities,” he says.

Over recent decades, Israel, Jordan and Syria have embarked on massive water diversion programs notes Bromberg, adding that the ‘Unity’ dam being built across the Yarmuk river between Syria and Jordan to catch floodwaters will also have a negative effect.

“One day we hope to bring Syria into this process,” he says.