U.S. Water News Online
DEGANYA, Israel -- At the Alumot Dam on the edge of Kibbutz
Deganya, a cooperative community a couple of miles south of the Sea
of Galilee, you can smell the Jordan River long before you see it.
Once there, two Jordan rivers come into view.
North of the dam, the water is calm and clean enough for swimming,
and every year tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims flock to
Yardenit, the picturesque baptism site on the Israeli side of the
Jordan, the river in which Jesus was baptized.
South of the dam, the river is tainted with untreated and
partially treated sewage, saline water and fish pond effluents that
tumble from large drainage pipes built into the riverbed. The stench
This pollution, coupled with the diversion of much of the river's
clean water by Israel, Syria and Jordan, is endangering the river --
the backdrop of so many biblical narratives -- to the point of
"In the summer, the Lower Jordan River [the river below the
Galilee] is dry in certain places, and this is a totally man-made
problem," said Gidon Bromberg, an Israeli environmentalist, as he
watched the toxic water drain menacingly into the river, which
meanders another 200 kilometers from this junction.
"The Lower River is an open sewage canal, and the sad irony is
that the sewage water is keeping the river flowing. Being baptized in
the water below the dam -- something that takes place on the
Jordanian side of the river -- cannot be too spiritually uplifting,"
said Bromberg, who heads the Israeli branch of Friends of the Earth
The Old and New Testaments present the lush Jordan River Valley,
which stood in stark contrast to the parched desert landscape beyond,
as the Gates to the Garden of Eden.
The Book of Genesis says that Lot decided to settle in the valley
because he found it "well watered everywhere like the garden of the
Lord." Moses dreamed of crossing the river into the Promised Land,
but died in Jordan, atop Mount Nebo. The Bible says John the Baptist
found refuge by the river, where he baptized countless followers,
including Jesus. It's the place where Gospel writers say the spirit
of God "descended like a dove" on Christ.
The Jordan River's main water source is precipitation from Mount
Hermon, a snow-covered peak shared uneasily by Israel and Syria in
the north. Three streams originating in Lebanon, Israel and the
contested Golan Heights also feed the river. On its way to the Dead
Sea, its final destination, the Jordan swells the Huleh Lake and the
Sea of Galilee, and waters the Jordan Valley.
The river's slow but steady decline began in the 1950s, when
Israel started to divert the water for agriculture and other domestic
use. Jordan and Syria built a series of dams and canals on the
Yarmouk River, the Jordan's main tributary, further cutting the flow
to the river. Yet another large Jordanian-Syrian dam is slated to
open by 2006, a fact that makes the issue that much more urgent for
Before the diversions 50 years ago, the average amount of water
that flowed down the Jordan to the Dead Sea each year was 1.3 billion
cubic meters, according to environmentalists. Today it's just 50
million to 100 million cubic meters annually.
"In the summertime, up to half of that flow is untreated sewage
from communities in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority,"
"Agriculture accounts for just 2 percent of Israel's gross
domestic product (GDP), yet it utilizes 30 percent of the fresh water
in the country," Bromberg said, pointing out an Israeli grove of
banana trees within sight of the Yarmouk River. "In Jordan, where
agriculture accounts for 6 percent of the GDP, 70 percent of the
fresh water is used for crops. The economies would benefit more from
Friends of the Earth Middle East, one of the few successful
partnerships among Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, recently
stepped up its efforts to bring the Jordan River's sorry state to
world attention. One July publicity stunt saw Jewish and Arab mayors
from local municipalities jumping into the clean part of the river,
hand in hand.
"Water can be a bridge for peace," Nader Khateeb, the
organization's Palestinian director, told a group representing 200
nongovernmental organizations during a seminar at the United Nations.
"The water resources are so scarce in the Middle East that we have to
work together with our Israeli neighbors in order to help guarantee
that we as Palestinians get our fair share of water and all together
stop the pollution of the water resource."
Religious leaders, who also have a stake in the embattled Jordan,
say more needs to be done to get the word out.
"The whole Sea of Galilee and Jordan River are in and of
themselves a holy site," says David Parsons, information officer for
the International Christian Embassy, an evangelical ministry that
brings thousands of Christians to the Holy Land every year. "If this
news gets out, I think a lot of Christians will be very concerned."
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