Once upon a time, 1.3 billion cubic meters of water flowed between the Jordan River’s banks—a quantity that carried a large enough punch to power a joint Jewish-Jordanian hydroelectric plant which served both sides of the river, from 1932-1948.
Today, however, between Israel’s dam just south of the Sea of Galilee and the country’s redirecting of area springs; the wasteful and inefficient agricultural practices of pretty much everyone; and the recently built Syrian and Jordan dams on the Yarmouk River (the Jordan’s largest feeder), the river and its ecosystem must struggle by with only some 4% of that. About half of what remains is made up of agricultural runoff, redirected saline water and raw sewage. On a warm day, the smell can be a little overpowering.
For years now, Friends of the Earth Middle East (a Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian NGO) has been lobbying the governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to take the gradual strangling of the area’s most important water source seriously—and it looks like those governments have finally begun to listen.
Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee have said that they will soon submit a plan to provide $25.5 million for cleaning up the river, and
[t]here has recently been a breakthrough in terms of regional cooperation on improving the Jordan's water, according to Gidon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth-Middle East.
…A waste treatment plant is set to go into operation next year near Bitaniya under the auspices of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, to purify waste from Tiberias that currently flows into the river and divert it for irrigation.
"The Jordanians are building a purification plant near Shuneh opposite Jericho with American funding, and the construction of another plant, funded by the Japanese, has already been decided on," Bromberg says.
All of which is wonderful, but even if everyone follows through as expected, such efforts can only be seen as a first step—if only because the filth and saline waste has often been the only thing keeping the river and its complex environment alive, however shakily.
Environmental groups are concerned that the diversion of waste water from the river will improve water quality but reduce its quantity. The Water Authority has pledged it will replace the waste water with 30 million cubic meters of water, some from the [Sea of Galilee], although final approval for this plan has not yet come through.
And of course, there’s the conflict:
Rehabilitation of the southern Jordan River, which is beyond the Green Line, depends on cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which is demanding recognition of its rights over this part of the river. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has expressed willingness to cooperate with the PA but so far there has been no real progress. Israel already uses a great deal of water in the area for farming in settlements, which the Palestinians do not recognize.
But all that being said, after so many years, this is truly excellent news. The Jordan River Valley is an international treasure, playing a vital role in Jewish, Christian and Muslim history alike. Some of humanity’s earliest farming took place along its banks, and an estimated half a million birds migrate through the 125 mile-long corridor every year. Every ecosystem deserves our protection, but this one undeniably has a special place in the human heart.
And for a century or so, Jews and Arabs have been fighting over the tiny piece of land that surrounds it. I’m grateful that we might be learning how to come together a little bit, if not for our peoples, then at least for the land itself.