Just a few kilometers south of the Yardenit baptismal site, plastic soda bottles
blanket the southernmost “clean” section of the Jordan River, while below, raw
sewage trickles into a saline brook gushing from an adjacent pipe.
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stench overpowers the nostrils of passersby, as the wastewater from nearby
communities makes its way into the Jordan River, just south of the Kinneret (Sea
“This used to be a great river that had great environmental
benefits for the whole region and has great historical significance and
religious significance for people of three religions,” US Ambassador Dan Shapiro
Shapiro was on a tour on Tuesday led by the multinational Friends
of the Earth Middle East of rehabilitation sites along the river as well as the
Jordan River Peace Park in Naharayim, which is under Jordanian
At Yardenit, where about 600,000 Christians dunk their heads
for baptism annually, the water is still entirely clean, and there is a family
of beavers and numerous catfish, according to staff members.
Just to the
south, however, is an entirely different story – there, the river has lost 50
percent of its biodiversity, and a willow tree would not be able to survive on
the riverbanks due to the extreme salinity, Friends of the Earth Israel director
Gidon Bromberg explained.
But not all is grim, he said.
walk away from Alumot Dam, the river-turned-sewage-pit, is a construction site,
where in a year the Bitanya wastewater treatment plant will arise, followed by a
desalination facility, Bromberg said.
“The good news is at the end of
next year there will be no sewage flowing from the Israeli side,” he told The
, in a follow-up interview Wednesday.
The treatment plant
will absorb the raw sewage currently flowing into the river, while the
desalination plant will take in the brine being extracted from the Kinneret,
which is now pumped straight into the Jordan River. The facilities are taking
shape from a total investment of NIS 400 million, through the combined budgets
of the government and the Jordan Valley Regional Council.
“We will no
longer be dependent on expensive drinking water [for irrigation],” council head
Yossi Vardi said during the tour.
The two plants will produce a total of
about 20 million cubic meters of water for agricultural use annually, Vardi
“It’s encouraging to know that within a year that dam will be
removed, the water will begin to flow again,” Shapiro said. “That’s a major step
in the path toward rehabilitating this river.”
The water flow from the
Kinneret to the Jordan River, which was once 1.3 billion cubic meters annually,
has now dwindled to nothing, according to Bromberg. The Jordanians and Syrians
have caused a similar problem by building dams and side tributaries on their
stem of the Yarmouk River, which also once flowed into the Jordan.
the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Water Authority have collectively
pledged to restore 30 million cubic meters a year – “a first drop and an
important drop” – this is hardly enough to restore a healthy river, which would
require about 400 million to 600 million cubic meters, Bromberg said. To
accomplish, commitments of 220 million cubic meters from Israel, 100 million
cubic meters from Syria and 90 million cubic meters from Jordan would be
required, according to a Friends of the Earth report released last year and
funded by the United States Agency for International Development.
know that this is not going to happen overnight – it’s difficult for Jordan and
we have no impact on Syria,” Bromberg told the Post
. “We’re calling for each
country to return a portion of what they took.”
As far as sewage is
concerned, however, Bromberg said he has gotten word that USAID is helping
Jordan move forward with a sewage treatment plant on its side of the river,
which is laden with poor communities where “every home has a hole in the ground”
to collect personal sewage. In the West Bank, the Japanese government has just
committed to build a treatment plant for the Palestinian Authority in the
particularly problematic city of Jericho, according to Bromberg.
good progress on all sides,” he said. “The fact that Israel is leading reflects
[the fact] that Israel is a more economically powerful country, but it also
reflects that Israel was the first in the demise of the river.”
at the Naharayim viewpoint overlooking Peace Island – where Friends of the Earth
hopes to develop a larger Transboundary Peace Park that would not require visas
– Shapiro said he was impressed with the work being conducted by all the
surrounding states, bolstered by efforts of Friends of the Earth and money from
the US government through the Good Water Neighbors program.
All of the
collaborators are “working to use these very vexing, very important
environmental challenges as a means to also build peaceful relations,” the
ambassador said. “We’re here to support the Israeli government, the local
communities and all the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian local residents who
are trying to solve their joint environmental and water challenges.”
representative of USAID agreed, stressing that there is still, however, much
more to be done.
Water, in Shapiro’s opinion, has already become a bridge
for peace, and he praised the fact that Environmental Protection Minister Gilad
Erdan and PA Water Minister Shaddad Attili finally spoke face-toface last week,
at a conference in Ashdod.
“That’s the kind of direct interaction between
the two sides that I think can solve both the water problem and make a
contribution toward solving the bigger peace problems,” Shapiro
While progress has certainly been made on water issues such as the
Jordan River’s rehabilitation, the work is far from finished.
example, at perhaps the holiest Christian baptismal site along the Jordan –
Kaser el-Yehud, east of Jericho, where many believe John the Baptist baptized
Jesus – the water remains dangerously polluted.
“I wouldn’t want to be
baptized there, I can tell you that,” Bromberg said.
To ensure that
visitors can once again safely dip themselves there, Israel, the PA and Jordan
must mimic the efforts of the countries that partner to protect bodies such as
the Rhine River and the Great Lakes, he said.
“This is a river holy to
half of humanity,” he said.