At Kidron Valley’s ‘Holy Basin,’ where Palestinians and Israelis cooperate

The sad fact is that the 30-km. basin sitting at the heart of three great world religions has become a conduit for raw sewage.

THE HISTORIC Kidron Valley, as seen from the Haas Promenade (photo credit: CASSANDRA GOMES HOCHBERG)
THE HISTORIC Kidron Valley, as seen from the Haas Promenade
The Kidron Valley, which lies between the eastern wall of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Mount of Olives, is far from being just another valley. As with most attractions in Jerusalem and the region, it contains layers upon layers of history, while carrying legacies, prophecies – and past and future promises.
“The Holy Basin,” as it is also called, sits on the juxtaposition of Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, and therefore is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the center of the drainage basin, one finds Jerusalem’s Old City along the Temple Mount courtyard, the Western Wall, Mount Zion, al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and countless other sacred and historical sites.
Outside of Jerusalem, Wadi an-Nar in Arabic, or Valley of Fire, meanders through the Judean Desert into areas A, B and C of the West Bank and then into the Dead Sea. It crosses five legal jurisdictions – passing monasteries, such as the breathtaking Mar Saba Christian monastery; Second Temple-period tombs, used also during the Byzantine period as shelter and burial for hermits and monks of the local communities; and impressive landscapes.
It was mentioned by the prophet Joel (Joel 4:12) as Jehoshaphat Valley, one of the tributaries of the Kidron, as the site of the resurrection of the dead and the beginning of the redemption. In Jewish prophesies, it is the site where Elijah will return, followed by the arrival of the Messiah.
The most staggering – and disturbing – aspect about the Kidron Valley, however, is far from all of its historical, biblical and archeological richness, but the sad fact that the 30-kilometer basin that sits at the heart of three great world religions has become a conduit for raw sewage.
What could have been for years a route of environmental tourism and a path for pilgrimage and religious inspiration, is an open pit for a third of Jerusalem’s population and surrounding areas to dump their toilet flushes, accounting for 28 million liters of raw sewage per day – equivalent to six Olympic pools.
As reported by the science and environment news agency Zavit, while 30% of the West Bank’s population is connected to a sewage network, two-thirds of those not connected rely on cesspits to contain their sewage. The content of these cesspits is dumped with no further treatment into the valley as well, posing a health and environment threat, especially to local residents and those downstream. Due to the desert climate characteristics of most of the basin, sewage flows in the dry season, but in the winter, the seasonal rainfall floods the area, extending the threat of surface and subsurface contamination.
GEOGRAPHICALLY, the area is also a challenge. It starts at an elevation of 800 meters in Jerusalem, reaching a depth of 433 meters below the sea level at the Dead Sea. The situation is further aggravated by the lack of clear boundaries, sharp fragmentation and lack of political territorial contiguity, high population density and significant differences in living standards.
Sewage, and the environmental consequences of pollution and contamination, is a problem that knows no boundaries. Above all, it demands cooperation in order to be solved. Sewage not only poses as an environmental nuisance due to its smell and a public health issue, but it could be responsible for one of the biggest environmental contamination catastrophes in the entire country. In a report published by the state comptroller in 2017, water pollution from sewage was recognized as the most serious environmental hazard in the Judea Samaria region, a problem that endangers the most important natural source of water in the region – the mountain aquifer, which extends from Beersheba in the south to the slopes of the Carmel in the north.
The main issue that has prevented a resolution for the sewage problem in the valley is the political situation. Since the Oslo Accords, there have been various international and regional proposals for a wastewater treatment plant. International bodies and private companies tried to come up with ideas on how to treat Kidron’s “holy waste,” but building a sewage treatment plant or a pipeline to divert the sewage in the West Bank, and cooperating with Israel while doing so, equated for Palestinians an actual recognition of Israeli control over the West Bank.
The cooperation begins
In a region where water is a scarce commodity, sewage is not necessarily a burden, but rather a potential solution for irrigating farmland.
Palestinian farmers have understood this, specifically the promising water and nutrient potential that treated sewage can bring to the date palm industry, which is beginning to flourish in the area. Treating sewage means that the arid region extending from east Jerusalem to the Dead Sea could have a constant supply of irrigation water throughout the year, which would boost its agricultural fields without relying on vulnerable water resources.
“The best way to handle water is in a basin,” says Hebrew University Environmental Law Professor Richard Laster. The region, as mentioned earlier, is particularly tricky due to its meandering paths and altitude range, descending over a thousand meters. But as Laster puts it, “even in the Middle East, water flows downhill” – and the sewage, which has been contaminating areas below Jerusalem could, in fact, become a source of treated wastewater for farmers to irrigate their land downstream.
The benefits and technology of treating sewage are nothing new, though. Israel has been the leading the world in treatment and reuse of its wastewater, with more than 85% reused for agricultural purposes. Spain comes far in second place at only 30%. The potential and solution for the sewage problem were known and have already been implemented in other areas of the country; the real issue was how to approach the basin as a whole.
Laster recalls coming across the European Water Directive, which demanded that all rivers and streams should be handled in a basin-like manner. European rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine and the Elbe have a master plan for their entire basin. Dealing with water bodies in such a way requires not only expertise, but cooperation.
From a sewage conduit that only brought more sorrow to an already convoluted area, the Kidron Valley became an example of hope and cooperation, showing that Jerusalem is not as divided as it might seem. In 2012, the Kidron Master Plan was completed by a grassroots team of engineers, geographers, architects and environmental professionals, together with local officials.
Laster, one of the heads of the project, brought together a team of experts. Among them were Avner Goren, who was the chief archaeologist for the Archeology Authority in Sinai for 15 years and Mohammed Nakhal, an urban planner and community organizer from east Jerusalem. Along with a number of hydrologists, engineers and ecologists, they created a plan that was approved by both sides and has already been implemented.
THE MASTER Plan adopted an integrated water resource management approach, where land use, water use and the environment in the valley are managed holistically, taking into account not only the social and economic needs of its population, but ecological ones as well. The plan was agreed to by both sides, independent of present and future political establishments.
According to the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), one of the bodies overseeing the project, the sewage treatment system will include a dam that will stop non-biodegradable waste from entering the river and a sewage pipeline, as well as tunneling and sewage-plant facilities. Local water will be purified for use; solid waste will be recycled for possible energy use.
“People in the communities in the area, from all religions, agree and accept to make ‘ecological peace’ in the valley,” said Nakhal, who lives in east Jerusalem and is the main mediator between the project and local communities. “The people, and not the politicians, are the ones pushing for a solution here.”
The project also includes a significant educational and green tourism aspects. The Afak school in the Arab neighborhood of Sur Baher on the southeastern outskirts of east Jerusalem on the Kidron basin, educates its students on significant environmental issues such as conservation and restoration, since it’s happening in the project right outside their schools. Involving educational institutions and the youth is another important aspect of the project. Both Palestinian and Israeli youth are experiencing first hand not only an environmental project of significant impact, but an example of peace cooperation in the region.
The Kidron Valley also became an example of how Palestinians and Israeli parties decided “to deal with primary issues rather than dither over final status equations,” Laster said.
Once the project is completed, he adds, “It can serve as a blueprint for similar plans for the other 15 cross-boundary waterways that are desperately in need of rehabilitation.” It could also go beyond the environmental boundaries and serve as a true model of broad cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.