Rehabilitating the Jordan

Many steps are being taken to renew this biblical body of water.

Jordan River 521 (photo credit: Tourism Ministry)
Jordan River 521
(photo credit: Tourism Ministry)
The River Jordan has great biblical significance, making it an important asset for Israeli tourism today. For instance, Naaman the Syrian commander had to dip in the Jordan to be healed of leprosy. But now it is the Jordan River itself which is in need of healing.
The Jordan River is first mentioned in the Bible when the Israelites cross over the lower Jordan into the Promised Land near Jericho. Centuries later, Jesus was baptized in these same waters by John the Baptist, according to the Gospels.
Consequently, the Jordan River is special to both Jews and Christians, inspiring countless hymns and folk songs known around the globe. So despite its comparably small size, it is one of the most famous rivers in the world. Yet sadly, in recent decades its modest flow has been reduced to a trickle – its waters often too polluted for pilgrims to enter.
Christians from around the world come to the Jordan to identify with the baptism of Jesus. But they can only do so at two baptismal sites: Yardenit, located at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, and Qasr el-Yahud, a traditional Greek Orthodox site near Jericho.
The Qasr el-Yahud site was reopened to Christian tourists only in 2010 after being closed for 44 years due to its location in a restricted military zone.
But in the dry summer months, the river is very narrow and largely stagnant at this point of the lower Jordan.
This is the result of decades of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel diverting the various streams in the Jordan River watershed for agricultural and household use. Much of these waters come from vital winter rains that have been siphoned off already before the upper Jordan ever hits the north end of the Sea of Galilee.
Then as the lower Jordan reforms at the south end of the Galilee to begin its final journey to the Dead Sea, it now flows only a mile or so through a man-made channel, passing the Yardenit baptismal site before hitting a dam just around the bend. The only source of the lower Jordan in recent years has been a waste-water outflow a few hundred meters further down.
“It’s five percent of what once flowed,” Ramon Ben-Ari, head of Israel’s Southern Jordan Drainage Authority, recently admitted.
Environmental groups, led by Friends of the Earth-Middle East, have been campaigning for a number of years to raise awareness about the river’s degradation. The World Monuments Fund Watch List identifies the 100 most endangered cultural heritage sites around the globe, and in 2007 the Watch List recognized the critical state of the lower Jordan River by declaring it an endangered site. This was an important victory for those pleading for the river’s rehabilitation.
Israeli authorities have finally come to recognize that all of the nation’s sources of fresh water were being over-used and endangered by the growing demands for public consumption. So a number of steps have been taken to lessen the burden on the Jordan and Galilee reservoir and the underground aquifers.
For instance, Israel has become a world leader in water conservation, drip irrigation systems and waste-water recycling techniques. Today Israel reuses 75% of its waste-water, mostly for agriculture.
The Jewish National Fund, among others, has also built large reservoirs across the country to collect rainfall for farming. Other large-scale projects have been undertaken to make optimal use of groundwater supplies.
In addition, Israel is in the midst of constructing five major desalination plants along the coast to serve as the primary source of future drinking water needs. Two are now on-line and three others are under construction. By next year, 85% of the nation’s drinking water will come from desalination plants, meaning that for the first time in its modern history Israel will have a water surplus.
The new Ashkelon Sea Water Reverse Osmosis plant will provide drinking water for 1.4 million people in southern Israel through the desalination of Mediterranean seawater. It produces 320,000 cubic meters of drinking water a day, 108 million cubic meters a year, which represents about six percent of the country’s water demands. Also, the new Hadera seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant is the largest of its kind in the world, and contains cutting edge technologies that are off-limits to press photographers, lest competitors learn their trade secrets.
Finally, the latest undertaking is an ambitious plan adopted by the Israeli government to rehabilitate the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee, which has also been severely depleted by over-use.
The initial government investment of over $20 million will go into infrastructure needed to resupply and clean up the Jordan River eco-system.
The lower Jordan Valley will also be developed into a more attractive natural landscape, with campgrounds and lodgings by its banks. Another facet of the plan is clearing away mines left over from years of hostility between Israel and its neighbors along the border area.
One main component of the rehabilitation plan is a large new waste-water treatment facility already under construction at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee which, when opened in two years, will improve the water quality and volume of the lower Jordan.
Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau said the plan calls for an average of 150 million cubic meters of water to be returned to the Jordan River watershed each year, thanks to desalination plants. This will not only raise the level of the Sea of Galilee, but also restore the Jordan River to its natural flow. The entire project may take up to 10 years to complete, according to Landau.
One of the most immediate benefits of this project will be a boost in tourism, which is at an all-time high in Israel.
There is also hope that the revived river will once again reach and fill the rapidly receding Dead Sea.