Restoration of Jordan River up for debate

Green group suggests reduction in agricultural water consumption, farmers say impossible.

November 18, 2011 03:58
A VIEW of the Jordan River in 2005

A VIEW of the Jordan River in 2005 (R) 311 . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Environmentalists and farmers clashed in a heated debate about whether agricultural water consumption should be significantly reduced, at a conference on Wednesday at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee.

The conference, hosted by green group Friends of the Earth Middle East, focused the organization’s newly released study called “Roadmap for the Rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan River,” which, among under recommendations, suggests that farmers reduce their water consumption for agriculture by 30 percent. While farmers and representatives on their behalf argued that such a cutback would be impossible, the environmentalists contended that the reductions would be necessary to restoring the Jordan River to reasonable water levels, according to a statement released after the gathering.

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“An estimated 97% of its historical flow of some 1,250 million cubic meters per year has been diverted by Israel, Syria and Jordan,” the report says, noting that in large portions of the river there is very little flowing water. “The river has already lost 50% of its biodiversity and has essentially been converted into a sewage canal.”

The purpose of the report, drafted for Friends of the Earth by Gilad Safier, an environmental consultant, hydrologist at DHV MED Environmental Infrastructure Engineering, is to provide the government with an “implementable vision” for the first phase of the Lower Jordan River rehabilitation plan. This phase focuses on the Israeli side of the river between the Sea of Galilee and the Bezeq Stream, according to the report.

The author bases his research on a previously conducted Friends of the Earth report, which revealed that the countries bordering on the river needed to return 400 million cubic meters of water per year to the river – with Israel responsible for the brunt of it, at 220 million cubic meters.

Safier’s report – and the topic of Wednesday’s conference – studies how Israel could successfully meet the goal of reintroducing the 220 million cubic meters annually. His recommendations build upon an existing “Zero Scenario,” which predicts that with already approved government plans like heightened desalination efforts, the river’s situation is already expected to improve in the next 30 years – and Israel will succeed in restoring around 100 million cubic meters of the total 220 annual goal.

However, the report notes, “the anticipated improvement is not enough to sustain a healthy biological system in the Lower Jordan River and further actions will be needed.”

To fulfill the remaining approximately 120 million cubic meter deficit, Safier recommends a number of measures.

He suggests a change in operation of the Deganiya dam, a dam currently closed at the northern portion of the Lower Jordan River, as well as transferring brine from the Saline Water Carrier – an artificial conduit built to lower the salinity of the Kinneret – to the Dead Sea instead of Emek Hamayanot, an area whose springs gush into the southern portion of the uppermost portion of the Lower Jordan River.

Meanwhile, he also proposes a pumping reduction from the river to the national water carrier, desalinating an additional 1.5 million cubic meters per year of the Saline Water Carrier water and reducing agricultural consumption by 30% and fishpond consumption by 50%.

For their losses, which would amount to about 30 million cubic meters total, farmers and fishpond owners could receive financial compensation, the report explains.

“For the first time in Israel, a public, intensive and open debate has been conducted on the fate of the Jordan River,” said Dr. Yuval Arbel, Israeli Deputy Director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

“The environmental demand to restore water to rehabilitate the Lower Jordan requires a reduction in water allocations from the national carrier and from the agricultural water associations, which will need to conserve more water and reduce the scale of fish ponds and agricultural irrigation. Exchanges of words about these intents will enable different bodies that will be influenced by the necessary changes in water policy to express their voices, in order to reach joint solutions that will be acceptable to all parties.”

To the dissatisfaction of Friends of the Earth, the Water Authority was only willing to commit a total restoration of 30 million cubic meters annually, out of the total approximately 120 that the green group had recommended.

Meanwhile, it did not stipulate that any of the water would come directly from farmers’ reductions.

“The rehabilitation activities of the Jordan River need to begin with utilizing treated waste water – that today pollutes the river – for agricultural purposes, and with the release of reused water for agriculture and nature,” said Ze’ev Achipaz, director of the Water Authority’s Operations Department, also according to the statement. “This way we can guarantee the restoration of 30 million cubic meters per year, which will include a mixture of Kinneret and brackish waters.”

Regarding the proposed reduction in water allocation, Achipaz warned: “It is necessary to take under consideration...the severe water shortage in the Kingdom of Jordan.

It is possible that in the future there will be a need to transfer to Jordan more water than the amount Israel transfers today, and this is likely to come at the expense of the increase of quantities for the river rehabilitation.”

Farmers and their representatives were far from pleased with the suggestions made by the report.

“Reducing the water for agriculture by 30% means that the farmers can only lose 30% of their fields and fishponds and 30% of the profit.

so somebody has to pay for it or to find alternative sources,” Gil Korati, head of the Emek Hamayanot Water Association, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday afternoon.

While the report proposed that farmers receive financial compensation for their losses, Korati said he had doubts that this would actually occur.

“In the report it’s very easy to write, but who will do it? The government?” he asked.

“Drying 30% of the fishponds and the fields also has very bad [repercussions] on the ecosystem around the area and on tourism, Korati said. “I think that the plans of the Water Authority are also going to improve the salinity and cleanliness and enlarge the quantities [of water in the Jordan].

They’re good plans that will benefit the Jordan without damaging the area.”

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