Once Pristine, Now Polluted, There's Hope Yet for Jordan River

Article Summary
Many years ago the Jordan was massive, clean and full of fish. Now it is a small, polluted river that is known mostly as a baptism site for Christian tourists, writes Amir Ben David. But after a long struggle, environmental groups have finally broken through and are working with Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to reinvigorate the river.

It has been more than 60 years since Israeli eyes witnessed this engineering marvel. The massive metal block makes any man standing next to it seem small. The instrument is so large that one must stand next to it to appreciate how wild and rich with water the Jordan and Yarmuch rivers must have been, in order to surround and create electricity in the power station build by the “Old Man from Naharayim” [as Pinhas Rutenberg, who built the power station, was nicknamed]. And how small and pathetic those rivers are today.

A massive river is required to set in motion an electric power station to make it create electricity. The Jordan River was once that massive. Each year, 1.3 billion cubes of water flowed through it — a quantity almost identical to all of the drinking water Israel uses for household, agricultural, and industrial purposes, together. But it hasn’t been that way for almost 60 years. Israel, Jordan and Syria built dams at the outlet of the Sea of Galilee, and dams were erected at the Yarmuch and the Jordan, stopping water from the streams that once flowed into the river from the mountains from the east. Almost all of the water that once flowed from the lower part of the Jordan to the Dead Sea has disappeared.

As if that weren’t enough, instead of freshwater, Israel poured into the Jordan huge amounts of raw sewage and partially treated sewage, along with saline wastewater from fish farms. From the villages along the river on the Jordanian side, along with the Palestinian villages on the Israeli side, wastewater is also poured into what is left of the river. The results can be seen along the way, and of course in the Dead Sea, where the shortage of water, along with industrial activity of the Dead Sea factories in both Israel and Jordan, result in an ongoing decrease in its water level.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization operating in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, along with his Jordanian counterpart Munqeth Mehyar, believe that the Jordan can be rehabilitated. They believe it is possible to bring together the governments of Israel and Jordan to cooperate, transfer large amounts of water into the river, and turn it, with the help of residents, into a tourist marvel that will bring economic growth.

Five years ago, photographer Amit Shabi and I set off on a long journey along the banks of the Jordan on the Israeli side and the dying Dead Sea shores. It was a sad journey, the conclusions of which were depressing. Five years later, we wanted to see how it looks from the other side — how Jordan treats this river, across which only two paces through shallow water suffice to reach the neighboring country. Along with Bromberg, Meyhar, and the contacts they and organization representatives established, we managed to secure permits to reach the areas to which the Jordanian Army, like its counterpart on the Israeli side, generally forbids access, at the river itself.

Anyone passing by Degania Dam, on the road between Tsemach and Tiberias [in the northern district of Israel], will see the Jordan flowing from the lake southward. Not many people know that the pure and clean water continues to flow just a few more kilometers. After the baptism site that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims per year, and the popular canoe site where that clean water can be enjoyed, an earth dam and pumps are set up to transfer water to the kibbutzim of the Jordan Valley. Beyond the dam — called the Alumot Dam — a different type of flow begins. Millions of cubes of raw sewage are transferred from there southward, joined by the contents of a pipe carrying water from different saltwater springs, whose flow into the Sea of Galilee is prevented.

A string of dams

Not far from there, barely 7.5 million kilometers, below the road that leads from Tsemach to al-Hama, is a closed Jordanian site under military guard. There, the Yarmuch waters reach a massive dam, and are diverted to a canal that goes into a mountain shaft. This dam, Adassiya Dam, is the last in a string of dams that were set up by the Syrians and the Jordanians on the Yarmuch. Almost all of the water that reaches it is diverted to the Abdullah Canal, the Jordanians’ national water carrier. As we stand there, under the watch of a Jordanian officer, and see the Yarmuch waters from the northeast flowing into the mountain shaft, and the wide and dry channel of the Yarmuch where 450 million cubes of water once flowed southward each year, Bromberg says glumly to his colleague: “That’s your Alumot Dam, Munqeth.”

Five years ago, we spoke with Amizur Boldo from the Jordan Valley, who was considered for years a mythical Nature and Parks Authority inspector. He and Abu Riad from the village of Karmiyeh in Jordan have never met. They don’t even know of one another. But they tell the same story.

“Until before they closed the water, the river was big and strong,” Abu Riad recalls. “It was wide and deep. It had clean water and we could drink. We would swim in the river, fish. Boy do I miss the taste of those fish. It was a place where couples in love would come and sit. We did everything in the river. But now the river is very sad. We once couldn’t cross it because of the strong current; the river was some 50 meters wide. And today? It’s barely five. Small children sometimes accidentally cross it over to the Israeli side. Sometimes my children say, ‘Are you sure there was once water in the river?’”

Boldo is almost 70 years old, and only recently retired from the Authority. Abu Riad has land on the banks of the river. He is 71, has been a farmer for 55 years , and mostly he cannot understand why he can’t use water from the river to irrigate his fields, like before. “We could once use the water for irrigation, we would take out the water and transfer it to the fields. There were orchards here. We would grow oranges and lemons along the river. Bananas. Today there isn’t enough water for these kinds of crops, and we grow other things. We can’t use the river’s water; it’s too salty and polluted,” he says. When the Jordan was a healthy river, many types of plants were grown along its banks on both sides. Researchers like Lunz Weig, who were on research delegations that took challenging rafting trips down the Jordan River at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries saw — just like in the song “Elad Yarad El Hayarden” [Elad Went Down to the Jordan] — steppes, poplar trees and tamarisk trees that provided shade along the banks. Reeds, papyrus, and cane adorned the river, along with nerium oleander and other types of plants. The Jordan was a source of life. Many fish swamp along it, as did water snakes, turtles and frogs. Most of the species living in the river didn’t survive the pollution and water shortage. Along the river, on both sides, many animals that once thrived are endangered. There were even once tigers and cheetahs here. Throughout the years, people spotted wolves, coyotes, hyenas, swamp cats, wild boars, lutras, rabbits, hedgehogs and porcupines. As the years when on, their numbers dwindled, and some of them are no longer found near the river.

After Naharayim, access to the river on both sides is limited for military reasons, and only farmers and special permit holders are allowed access. This is also one of the reasons the neglect didn’t seem to bother anyone for years. That’s how it goes when you can’t see and you can’t smell [what is taking place]. Most of the plants that grew along the Jordan also disappeared, except for the cane, which manages to thrive even in polluted waters, and the tamarisk, which can live in saltwater and take over everything. Other water ferns and species also disappeared. The convenient access we had to the banks has been replaced by thicket that is practically impassable, and when we try to go down from the fields to the river, whose swishing we can hear in the distance, we have to forcefully clear the route. In the thicket, we can see actual “stairs” in the earth. Each step signifies the former width of the river. When we finally succeed in traversing many meters of jungle, we can’t help but be disappointed: “Gentlemen, this is the great Jordan,” Bromberg says sadly as we stand before a pathetic stream, two or three meters wide. When Munqeth dips a stick into it, we discover that its depth doesn’t exceed more than half a meter. That’s what’s left.

Laundry in the national water carrier

Juma’a, 41, stands in his field on the bank of the river. He watches, smiling, our attempt to clear a path through the thicket. He gave up long ago. He inherited the land from his father, but today there are no more orchards here. He grows peppers, potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, and okra. In areas further north, just across from the Jordan Valley in Israel, there is more rain, and there are still orchards and plots that require more water.

The river’s water is beyond the thicket but doesn’t touch it. “We don’t touch [the water] because it will ruin the crops. If only we could take water. It’s closer and doesn’t cost money,” he says. His generation wasn’t exposed to the wide river, and because of the paltry rainfall in the last few years, even flash floods are no longer. And yet, there are people on both sides who steal even the polluted and saline water water from the Jordan. You can see pumps lowered into the river on both sides, drawing water from it. “Maybe there are those who are trying to mix the water with clean water, but that’s not good water,” says one of them.

Under these circumstances, it turns out that the price of land next to the river is also a lot lower. More expensive land can be found near the Abdallah Canal. The canal is one of three central water sources for Jordanians. The transfer the water they took from the Yarmuch from north to south, and under the supervision of the Jordan Valley Authority (JVA), they are allotted water. The water flows once a week. On other days people must rely for their fields and homes on water tanks, or on agricultural catchment. In the absence of a river to be accessed and enjoyed, the canal isn’t just an elixir of life, but also a “hangout” spot. At the end of the day, after the intense heat that encompasses the valley on both sides of the border, the village youth swim in it. On the breached fence, laundry hangs.

The farmers say that today, a lot less water flows through the canal than in the past. They blame Israel and Syria. “Since the peace agreement, the Syrians are punishing us. They took our water,” one of them says. Government representatives in Jordan also say that this is the situation. “The Syrians aren’t meeting the agreements [they made] with us, and their dams stop most of the water,” says one of them. Despite the fact that the farmers blame Israel, in accordance with the peace agreement, Israel transfers to Jordan between 30 and 50 million cubes of water annually. Last week, it was possible to see large amounts of water flowing from the pipe that goes from the Sea of Galilee straight to the Abdullah Canal.

In Israel, change is already coming

Following long years of struggle and pressure from environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, Israel is expected to finally stop directly polluting the Jordan. In another half a year or so, a large purification facility is supposed to launch operations, which will stop the transfer of wastewater at the Alumot Dam. The wastewater that comes from the Beit She’an area is being treated, and they hope also to treat the runoff from the fish farms. At present, plans are in preparation to rehabilitate the banks of the river, and pave paths for bicycles and hikers, along with lookout and resting spots, and routes that will enable access to the stream. In the absence of one government authority, like the one established for the Kishon and the Yarkon rivers, two rehabilitation plans are being prepared — one for up until Naharayim, and the second south of Naharayim, up until Nahal Bezek south of Beit She’an. The two are not necessarily in full cooperation.

The main problem is that even if there are plans for environmental and landscape rehabilitation, that won’t ensure there will be water in the Jordan. Israel’s Water Authority is prepared to pour into the Jordan only 30 million cubes of water. Half of that will be water that will be transferred for the first time in 60 years from the Sea of Galilee on a regular basis, and half will come from the salty carrier that will continue to flow. In practice, the amount won’t exceed the amount of water that flows today. Pollution will lessen but the salinity is likely to increase.

Bromberg says that in order to rehabilitate the Jordan and begin to address the problem of the dying Dead Sea, 250 million cubes of water need to be transferred, and with the extent of planned desalination, it’s possible. “Even what is happening today wouldn’t have happened without organizations like us. We put a lot of pressure, also internationally, for them to acknowledge the need to deal with the Jordan and what the shortage of water is doing to the Dead Sea. It’s a good start, but there’s a long way to go,” he says. Recently, they succeeded in securing the establishment of a forum of parliamentarians from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, who will attempt together to push the governments to rehabilitate the river.

In Israel there are fears, which at present appear to be justified, that if they transfer more clean water, it will just be pumped out along the way. The minister in charge of the JVA, Sa’ad Abu Hammour, whose agreement to meet with journalists from Israel was unusual, says, “On our side, we presently have no master plans for the river, but we don’t need a plan. Our vision is for more water to pour into the river.” He expects Israel to transfer the water, and has a hard time promising that agricultural water won’t be pumped out. But he expresses optimism: “We have a law in Jordan and no one is allowed to pump without a permit. That is a law that can be enforced.” His statements suggest that the Jordanians may not be there yet, but they are also starting to make progress.

Next week, Abu Hammour will, for the first time, sit with representatives from the Israeli Water Authority to discuss water in the southern Jordan, through the joint committee that deals with the water issue as a result of the peace agreement. According to Bromberg, “From our perspective, it is practically a revolution. For years, we knocked on doors in Jordan, Israel, and the [Palestinian] Authority. We were told we were dreaming. In the past, they didn’t even agree to sit and talk about the water issue. Ultimately, it is money that will talk. This river has huge tourism potential and it’s good for everyone. It will take more time, but we are starting to yield fruits.”

Today, the only site that attracts tourists on the Jordanian site is the baptism site for Christians at Qasr al-Yahud. This site was established facing the Israeli site, where tradition has it that Jesus was baptized in the river. The polluted water that flows there was one of the sources of pressure that Bromberg and his partners used to bring about the rehabilitation of the Jordan. Now they are trying to prove to the Jordanians, with the help of the eco-park they established, that it is possible to rehabilitate natural territory, which would mean economic advantages for the population. “The farmers are the poorest people here, and as long as the situation on the ground remains [as it is], that will [continue to] be the case. The rehabilitation of the river and development of tourism will create an alternative.”

Signs of optimism

Since we wrote the article five years ago, the Dead Sea water level went down by another seven meters or so, and the water retreated by another ten meters from the shoreline. Just this year, it dropped by a meter and a half — the largest drop ever. The shortage in water influences the river and the sea, the latter having once been fed regularly by the former. In the absence of agreements on expanding the amount of water to be transferred into the Jordan, it’s hard to be optimistic. In these five years, only between 50 and 100 million cubes reached the Dead Sea, as opposed to 6.5 billion cubes that would flow into it a few decades ago. And still, it’s possible to detect signs of optimism. The water that will flow through the Jordan is expected to be far less polluted, and maybe, as Bromberg believes, that is the first significant step that will eventually enable the future transfer of more substantial amounts of water.

The park that will lead the way: How tourism will rehabilitate the Jordan

Whoever looks hard from Beit She’an eastward can see on the other side of the border, just a few minutes’ drive away, the eco-park that Friends of the Earth has established. The first field school [in Israeli terms], if you will, in Jordan. After extensive convincing, the Jordanian government agreed to give them 100 dunam of uncultivated land. “We decided to test a pilot that would show how the rehabilitation of land can contribute to the population,” says Bomberg.

The territory was fenced, developed, and trees were planted. “In a botanical survey that we did, we discovered that there are 150 types of flowers and plants, some of which haven’t been seen in the area in areas. We recognized dozens of types of birds and mammals,” says Abdel Sultan, a member of the organization who is responsible for the area.

The Jordanians saw that it was good and agreed to give the organization another 2,600 dunam, and the park, which also has huts and campgrounds, attracts thousands of visitors every weekend.

The territory is on the ravine of the Ziglab stream, where some 50 years ago, the first Jordanian dam was established, preventing water from flowing from the mountains into the Jordan River. There are now ten more in Jordan, and the organization believes that this rehabilitation could serve as an example in the future.

The grandiose tourism plan that they are presently drafting entails rehabilitating the power station site in Naharayim, which was destroyed in 1948, when its operation came to a halt. The territory is part of the Peace Island, which was established as part of the peace deal, to which both Israelis and Jordanians are supposed to enjoy total access without passport requirements. Today, Israelis can only reach the dams, and nobody goes to the power station, except the Jordanian Army, with permits. The plan is to establish a large bird watching park on the site, where the lake that fed the power station stood, which will attract tourists to accommodation sites that will be established there. Such a regional project could attract, they believe, many donations and investors, and speed up moves critical to the rehabilitation of the river.

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Found in: water, peace treaty, peace, jordan river, jordan, friends of the earth, energy, cooperation, agriculture
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