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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The river where tradition says Jesus was baptized has lost 97 percent of its water supply and is now little more than a sewage canal, according to the international environmental group Friends of the Earth.
Two mayors from Israel and one from Jordan met in the middle of the Jordan River on Thursday, Earth Day, to call attention to the plight of a waterway which is a holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims.
"This is the river where Christ was baptized," said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the Friends of the Earth Middle East. "Moses looked across this river to the Promised Land. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad were buried along this river."
But today, the lower Jordan River, which flows south from the Sea of Galilee for about 100 kilometers before entering the Dead Sea, is heavily polluted by untreated sewage and carries only 3% of its original water volume, experts said.
Israeli Environment Ministry officials were unavailable for comment about the condition of the river.
Standing on the river's west bank at Old Gesher, where the remains of a 2,000 year old Roman bridge rise above the shallow, sluggish water, Bromberg said, "What you see here today is basically sewage."
Mahmoud Abu Jabber, mayor of a Jordanian town near the river, paddled over to the Israeli side of the river in a yellow kayak that was gradually filling up with the polluted water. He said he urges both Israel and Jordan to stop the flow of raw sewage into the river, guarantee the flow of more water into the river valley, and eliminate land mines along the river's banks.
Water diversion projects stop water from flowing into the Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, its main source, which supplies irrigation for much of northern Israel and drinking water for the whole country.
The river's second largest source is Jordan's Yarmouk River. Dams have severely reduced the flow, and the building of a new dam threatens to stop it altogether.
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 that includes a water-sharing plan.
Most of the lower Jordan River is still a military zone and closed to tourists. Old Gesher is one of only three places civilians can reach the lower Jordan on the Israeli side.
Mira Edelstein, Israeli coordinator of the Jordan River Rehabilitation Project, said one goal of environmentalists is to make many more spots on the river accessible to civilians.
"If people see what's happened to the Jordan River, they'll put pressure on their governments to do something about it," she said.
Bromberg said Friends of the Earth hopes to spur Israel and Jordan to place the Jordan River on UNESCO's World Heritage list, which will be a major step toward protecting it from further degradation.
Jordanian and Israeli soldiers watched from their respective river banks while the mayors from their two countries, after meeting in wobbly kayaks in the middle of the river, concluded the Earth Day event by putting messages in a bottle which they tossed into the water, sending their wishes downriver.
The messages read, "Rehabilitate the Jordan River now!" and "Bring back the water to the River Jordan!"
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