If you ask Gideon Bromberg, the sorry state of the Jordan River is manmade, the result of government policies, even if climate change does aggravate the situation. Bromberg reels off reams of statistics to back up his case: 30,000 Israelis channel raw sewage into the river from Beit She’an, Tiberias, and kibbutzim and moshavim along the river’s route, down into what is known as the lower part of the Jordan River (LJR) which flows from the southern end of Lake Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee, more than 115 kilometers until reaching the Dead Sea.
Sixty thousand Palestinians, who have no sewage treatment network, dump raw sewage into wadis and landfills that eventually reaches the LJR. At least 250,000 Jordanians, who have virtually no sewage treatment facilities, are also included.
Bromberg, 47, is originally from Australia and an attorney by profession. He developed a passion from an early age for championing environmental issues; especially those concerning Israel and its neighbors. While studying to become a lawyer, he formed an environmental group known as Eco Peace in 1984, whose aims were to help spread the ideas of peaceful cooperation between peoples on issues such as water and security.
This later led to entry into the international grassroots environmental organization known as Friends of the Earth International, with his branch becoming known as Friends of The Earth Middle East (FoEME). Environmental issues dealing with water have become some of the NGO’s most important functions.
FoEME sponsored this particular eco-tour to give members of the media a first-hand look at what has happened to a river that is mentioned so frequently in the Bible and figures so prominently in the history of this region.
As the bus left Jerusalem toward the Jordan Valley, just north of the Dead Sea, Bromberg presented a wealth of statistics on the Jordan River’s current problems, noting who directly pollutes the Jordan the most – the residents who live along its banks.
“Although Israel treats 70 percent of its own sewage, it still hasn't done much to prevent raw sewage being dumped ‘through the back door’ into the Jordan,” he explained. “Even removal of the sewage doesn’t help as the water is still very saline (from saline springs and fish ponds). The only solution is to bring in fresh water to reduce salinity levels.”
What is needed to return the river to a healthy ecosystem, he said, is to replenish it with at least 70% fresh water and 30% recycled sewage water. Noting that Israel recycles 70% of its sewage and wastewater – more than any other country – Bromberg noted that this isn’t helping the Lower Jordan, where only 2% of its original natural flow reaches the Dead Sea.
“We’re asking for a return of at least 30% of the Jordan’s former flow,” he stressed.
Bromberg: “Without the restoration of at least some of the Jordan River’s flow, the river’s lower portion is expected to “run dry” by the end of 2011, due to the sewage and saline waters being ‘diverted’ by treatment plants in Israel and Jordan for the water’s use in agriculture.”
FoEME is the only Middle East organization where representatives of three countries – Israel, Jordan, and Palestine – work together on various projects. The NGO has won several environmental awards, including the Green and Black Globe, for effectively dealing with environmental issues. FoEME helps people of the region work together to improve the water resources in their own communities.
The first LJR stop, the Kaser el-Yahud Baptismal site, is an incredible cultural asset, which UNESCO is going to list as a world endangered heritage site. Located 422 meters below sea level, and 5 km. north-east of Jericho, the site has important religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The ancient Israelites are said to have crossed over the Jordan there to the Promised Land. It is also where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and where four original followers of the Prophet Muhammad are said to be buried.
Formerly a popular baptismal site, the Israeli side of Kaser el-Yahud is now a closed military zone, opened briefly during the visits of Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
The Jordanian side, however, is open for visits, and new churches have been built there, including a golden domed Russian Orthodox Church.
The Jordan River was anywhere from 25 to 65 meters wide during the time when an American naval officer, Lt. W.F. Lynch, launched his expedition there in 1847 and described it as a “series of cascading rapids and waterfalls, with rich vegetation of poplars and willows on either side.” Now the maximum width is only 25 meters, with a minimum width of six to seven meters. Sometimes there is no width at all, due to the stream being choked by reeds (one of the few plants able to survive in the polluted, saline waters).
Little animal life is found in this section, with even small invertebrates such as snails finding it difficult to survive in the heavily polluted waters.
While Bromberg lectured, a Russian tourist on the Jordanian side donned a white baptismal robe and immersed himself completely in the “pure” holy waters. Bromberg commented that a person “can get very sick by swallowing this water, and get severe skin rashes if he has any broken skin on his body.”
The willows and poplars Lynch described in his journal are long gone, replaced by the ubiquitous reeds.
Israel has taken 46% of the Jordan’s flow, Bromberg said, with Syria taking 25% and Jordan 23%. Syria and Jordan have also dammed several streams that used to feed into the Jordan, including the Yarmuk River; it is now reduced to almost a trickle.
The tour continued northward, passing a Palestinian village, Auja, where FoEME helped build an environmental school to teach Palestinian youth about water conservation and other environmental issues. There are corn and banana groves, both water-intensive crops, as well as date groves.
Bromberg noted that date palms are able to grow in polluted and brackish water, unlike bananas and other tropical fruit, which need fresh water. He added that Jordanian farmers (other big users of Jordan River water) seem to have few water-conserving irrigation methods and usually use sprinkler irrigation systems, which waste water.
Crossing through a checkpoint into Israel proper and reaching Beit She’an, the largest town in the Jordan Valley, Bromberg noted that the Meir School there is participating in a FoEME project involving collecting rainwater from roofs, as well as collecting water from AC condensation. “The city’s mayor finally agreed to meet with Palestinians and Jordanians to work on conserving water,” he added.
The next stop was a short stretch of the Jordan that flows out of Lake Kinneret, known as the Yardenit. This part of the Jordan has only a 2-km. stretch of what can be called ‘clean water’; and it is here that Christians come from all over the world to be baptized in the river. A small dirt and gravel road passed a site where a sewage treatment plant was being constructed to treat raw sewage presently being dumped into the river.
“The plant should be operating by sometime in 2011, and then most of the treated sewage water will be diverted from the LJR for use in agriculture,” Bromberg said, adding: “This is the part of the LJR that the (Israeli) government does not want you to see!”
Reaching the location of the earthen Alumot Dam, Bromberg said that the water backed up behind it is removed from the river in large pipes to be used for agriculture and other uses. On the other side of the dam, however, raw sewage was literally spewing into what was now going to be the Jordan River until it reaches the Dead Sea.
Just a few meters away was another outward flow of what Bromberg said was highly saline water from saline springs and fish ponds, diverted from entering the Kinneret and channeled into the river.
As a result, the “river” becomes a mixture of raw sewage, saline water and a bit of fresh water from the Yarmuk and other streams. The “mighty Jordan” is now nothing more than a sewage canal. “Since this sewage flows into one of the world’s holiest streams, we might as well call it ‘Holy Shit,’” Bromberg mused.
The next stop, Kibbutz Naharayim (“two rivers” – meaning where the Yarmuk River runs into the Jordan) adjoins the Jordanian Peace Island, established following the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel in 1994.
Naharayim Park, maintained by the kibbutz, is remembered as the place where seven Israeli schoolgirls were killed in March 1997, by a Jordanian border guard who went berserk and starting shooting at them while they were visiting the park, located just outside the border fence with Jordan. The tragedy so affected Jordan’s King Hussein that he paid condolence visits to several of the families of the slain girls, asking forgiveness from their parents and other relatives.
Peace Island is located where a Jewish engineer, Pinhas Rotenberg, built a hydroelectric power plant that began operating in 1932, harnessing the water flow from a dam built across the Yarmuk River. The dam provided electricity to both Jordan and Mandatory Palestine until it was destroyed in 1948 during the War of Independence.
The remains of the dam and power station are still there, bearing testimony to how water was used for agriculture and providing clean energy to the region. Standing on the top of the island’s upper ridge, one can see the diminutive Jordan winding along below.
The Yarmuk, with most of it diverted by Syria, Jordan and Israel, is no more than a small brook at this point, providing the LJR with its main source of fresh water.
It’s hard to believe that there was once a lake here; and that the water that ran over the dam’s spillway provided enough energy to run the generators of Rotenberg’s hydroelectric power plant.
“You can see that the Jordan below us is a very sick river, and is no longer bio-diversified. The governments of the countries that took the Jordan and Yarmuk’s water are directly to blame for this,” Bromberg says.
He added that a nature park, similar to the one in the Hula Valley, is being planned to attract migratory birds – providing the Jordan River can be restored enough to provide sufficient water for this purpose.
The last stop, the Three Bridges Park near Kibbutz Gesher, is noted for the remains of three famous bridges that once spanned the Jordan: a Roman and Mameluke one dating back 2,000 years; an Ottoman one that was part of a railway line extending from Haifa to Damascus; and one built by the British. These bridges are significant in that they once spanned a river that was much more majestic than the pitiful, polluted stream that now flows underneath them.
The tour ended with Bromberg saying that the only way to revive the LJR – even by only a third of its former glory – was to give it an infusion of fresh water; and this will only happen as a result of a reform in the water policies of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (Syria is not counted due to its state of war with Israel).
And these reforms can only be effective through intense measures to
conserve the water resources available – which means public education
to reduce the amount of water use on a daily basis; a reduction of
water loss from pipe leakages; and the diversion of “grey water” from
dishwashing and showers for use in flushing toilets and in agriculture.
Measures such as constructing more desalination plants are more costly and environmentally damaging, he noted.
“The governments that have ‘contributed’ to the Jordan’s demise must
now contribute to its restoration,” he said, emphasizing that “projects
like the proposed Red-Dead Sea Canal will only make the situation worse
– since the last thing the Dead Sea and LJR need is more salt.”Information about Friends of The Earth Middle East can be found at www.foeme.org or by emailing email@example.com.
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