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Water

A last ditch effort to rescue the River Jordan

Once a mighty river, the Jordan is now heavily polluted, reduced to a mere trickle. An NGO working with Israel, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank hopes to create a plan to restore the river back to health.

The banks and tributaries of the River Jordan are shared by Israel, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank. But the failure of these governments to cooperate multilaterally has turned the river into a polluted wasteland of contaminated water. Local efforts to rehabilitate the River Jordan have long since dried up. Now the international community is turning to Friends of the Earth Middle East, an independent NGO, in a last ditch effort to save the ecosystem.

Map of the River Jordan

The river forms the border between Israel and Jordan

The River Jordan starts its life as snow on Mount Hermon and flows into the Dead Sea. It once gushed with more than a billion cubic meters of fresh water every year. Its lush wetland ecosystem was the source of life of agrarian villages and cities within the otherwise barren, brown landscape.

Today, it's a mere trickle. Just 20 to 30 million cubic meters splash along here, and the water is filthy. It's full of sewage run-off from Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian villages that house more than 300,000 people in communities along the River Jordan's banks.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, told DW about the power these waters once had. "The River Jordan was able to be harnessed and move turbines to produce electricity. The tragedy today is that the Jordan wouldn't turn a mouse wheel."

Troubled waters

In 1964, Israel began operating a major dam to divert water from the Sea of Galilee. That same year, Jordan constructed a channel to divert water from the Yarmouk River, a main tributary of the River Jordan. Syria also built reservoirs to catch the Yarmouk's waters. Between the three countries, 70 to 90 percent of the River Jordan's resources have been diverted for human use.

A bridge over the Jordan river between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is seen June 20, 2006. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The river is already running dry in some areas

Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians have the most strategic interest in restoring the river to health, but they have not been able to agree on an action plan due to territorial disputes and an unwillingness to invest in nature. According to Bromberg, the demise of the river is directly connected to the conflict.

"It's very much due to the mindset of conflict, competition, of the enemy, where the mindset has been that everyone wants to capture water for themselves, which is completely understandable, but also to deny the enemy water resources, because that would empower the enemy."

In order to tackle this problem, Friends of the Earth Middle East is partnering with the Stockholm International Water Institute and Global Nature Fund. They are investing three million euros in the development of a plan to restore the lower Jordan river basin to health.

Eighty percent of those funds have been granted by the European Union, which Bromberg says signifies substantial foreign interest in the River Jordan's restoration.

Disputed boundaries

The new restoration plan must balance both political and environmental strategies. The plan must convince the governments of Israel, Jordan, and Syria to release more than 400 million cubic meters of water per year, all while considering future possible borders.

Wadi Mujib dam, Jordan © Dario Bajurin #21995202
Die Mujib-Talsperre (auch: Wadi Al-Mujib-Damm) liegt am Wadi Mujib etwa 100 km südlich von Amman in Jordanien.

Israel, Jordan and Syria have siphoned off huge amounts of river water and pumped waste water back in

Even though the West Bank borders the River Jordan, Palestinians don't have access to its waters. Dr. Nader Al Khateeb, the Palestinian director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, believes it's crucial that Palestinians participate in the master plan and can give their input into the future of the River Jordan Valley.

"For the River Jordan, I will use the same words as the Palestinian president. He said, look, the Jordan Valley is our land, it's the food basket for the Palestinians. It's the future of our economy, and the River Jordan is the political border between Palestine and Jordan," Khateeb said. "We believe in a better future and that's why we work for the rehabilitation of the River Jordan."

Adel Yassen from the Palestinian Water Authority agrees. "The best solution is that the Israelis admit that we have our rights in the River Jordan Valley and the tributaries, and we are partners for these water resources. Then we can work together."

Israeli and Jordanian flags flutter over the Jordan river June 20, 2006. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians will have to cooperate to save the river

Palestinian territory is far downstream from where Jordan diverts the Yarmouk River, so Jordan collects its water share in accordance with the agreement it has with Syria and Israel. But by the time the Jordan River trickles past Palestinian territory it is little more than raw sewage.

Jordan is one of the world's ten most water poor countries, so its leaders are unlikely to reduce their water intake voluntarily. Even taps in its capital, Amman, run dry from time to time.

Instead, Jordan favors a plan to pipe water from its Red Sea port of Aqaba to the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, which it shares with Israel. This plan, known as the Red Sea – Dead Sea canal, aims to supply Jordan with up to a billion cubic meters of desalinated water per year, as well as replenish the rapidly decreasing water levels of the Dead Sea.

But Friends of the Earth Middle East isn't convinced that this will work. The group says a canal between the Red Sea and Dead Sea risks destroying the unique make-up of the Dead Sea.

Gidon Bromberg, the group's Israel director, said releasing more water into the River Jordan would also restore the Dead Sea, into which it flows. He thinks Israel should be the first to take the plunge. "We think Israel should lead because Israel is the economic powerhouse of the region."

For the benefit of all

Israel is a world leader in the clean-tech industry and nets more than two billion dollars a year in clean-tech exports. According to Bromberg, Israel should use this technology at home to design a system which reuses shower water to flush toilets. This way Israel could save 220 million cubic meters of water each year, and release more water back into the River Jordan.

However, Israel is also a water poor country and has 45 percent less water than it needs to meet the country's water demands. It makes up for the loss through an expensive desalination program.

Bromberg argues that building a healthy ecosystem creates many economic opportunities. "There's a great deal of local communities that are desperate for job opportunities, for income, and therefore, they're partnering with us."

FILE - In this June 20, 2006 file photo, pools of water are seen where the Dead Sea once reached. Scientists in Israel are drilling into the murky depths of the Dead Sea in hopes of unearthing scientific treasures found in 500,000 years worth of mud and sediment. The unique setting of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at 422 meters (1,385 feet) below sea level, should present researchers with distinctly stratified sedimentation that may answer scientific questions ranging from geology to archaeology and could lead to new insight into climate change.(AP Photo/Oded Balilty, Files)

Pollution in the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, which itself is under threat

He also highlighted the river's historical importance: "The river is just not important for nature – and it's very important for nature – but it's also perhaps the holiest river on this planet. There are millions of pilgrims that want to visit the River Jordan and are very limited as to where that visit can take place today."

Friends of the Earth Middle East are already making progress in the region. By the end of this year, no Israeli waste will flow into the River Jordan, thanks to a 30 million dollar investment in a new wastewater treatment plant.

Jordan is following suit with a treatment plant planned for its largest communities along the Jordan Valley. The Japanese government has also approved funds for a wastewater treatment plant in the Palestinian city of Jericho.

Bromberg is optimistic about the future of Friends of the Earth Middle East's rehabilitation project. "With the support that we have, the very broad support of the public, we believe that we'll get there."

DW.DE