U.S. Water News Online
KIBBUTZ KINNERET, Israel -- Wading into the Jordan River,
the pastor blessed his flock, tapping the believers on the head
before sending them into the hallowed waters to be baptized.
The faithful wet their faces and arms, shouting 'amen' and
'hallelujah' after each baptism, unaware that just downstream, raw
sewage was flowing into the water.
That's the split personality of one of the world's most sacred
Small sections of the Jordan's upper portion, near the Sea of
Galilee, have been kept pristine for baptisms. But Israel, Jordan and
Syria have siphoned off huge amounts of river water to meet their
needs in this arid region, and pumped waste water back into the
Hardest hit is the 60-mile downstream stretch -- a meandering
stream from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.
Environmentalists say the practice has almost destroyed the
Now Christian evangelicals have teamed up with environmentalists
to save the Jordan. They want UNESCO to declare the entire Jordan
Valley and river a World Heritage Site, hoping it will force all
countries involved to work together to save it.
"If there's irreversible damage done ... Israel's going to have
another PR battle on its hands," said David Parsons, a spokesman for
the evangelical Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has joined
forces with Friends of the Earth Middle East, a green group.
Rescuing the river could take decades, environmentalists say.
The damage began in 1964, when Israel began operating a dam that
diverts water from the Sea of Galilee, a major Jordan River water
provider, to the national water carrier, said Hillel Glassman, a
stream expert at Israel's Parks Authority. At the same time, Jordan
built a channel that diverted water from the Yarmouk River, another
main tributary of the Jordan River.
Syria has also built reservoirs that catch the Yarmouk's waters.
In a year, the Yarmouk's flow into the Jordan River will dwindle to a
trickle, once Syria and Jordan begin operating a dam they jointly
built, he added.
Environmentalists blame all three countries.
The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty contained provisions for
rehabilitating the river, said Munqeth Mehyar, chairman of Friends of
the Earth Middle East in Amman.
"They simply did not implement what came in the agreement," he
said. "The violation took place much before and not only by the
Jordanians and the Israelis, but also the Syrians."
The three countries replenished the river with sewage water,
agricultural runoff and salt water, Glassman said. The freshwater
foliage that once flourished along the river's banks has been
replaced with saline vegetation.
"Almost no fresh water is flowing down the Jordan River anymore,"
said Mira Edelstein, an expert on the Jordan Valley for Friends of
the Earth Middle East. "It's true there are springs along the way
which replenish it a little bit, but unfortunately it has become the
... dumping yard of the countries."
Over pumping and mineral extraction by Israeli and Jordanian
companies are also drying up the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth,
with the shoreline receding three feet a year. The southern third of
the lake is gone, and the experts doubt the famously salty lake can
ever be rehabilitated.
Hadas Shamir, a masseuse at a spa in Ein Gedi, an Israeli resort
on the Dead Sea, remembers that when she moved to the area from South
Africa in 1978, the shoreline was just 30 feet from the road. Today,
the spa has to drive its guests a mile to the water.
Visitors flock here to sightsee and bathe in mineral-rich waters.
"People who believe the Dead Sea is good for them will still continue
coming. I don't know how much longer the sea will be there for them,"
Back at the baptismal site, Marilyn Spence, 54, of Plano, Texas,
was disappointed to hear the river's ecosystem had been ruined, but
said it didn't diminish the life-changing experience she had on her
"To read about it is one thing, but to really be here and to be in
the place that Jesus was baptized, it's really an emotion that you
can't describe," Spence said. "Saying yes to Jesus Christ is the
ultimate, it's just the ultimate."
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