Saving the Jordan: The Sacred Middle Eastern River Is Dying

By Hauser, Emily L. | E Magazine, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Saving the Jordan: The Sacred Middle Eastern River Is Dying


Hauser, Emily L., E Magazine


Sixty years ago, it carried 45 billion cubic feet of flesh water and powered a hydroelectric plant. Today, only 3.5 billion cubic feet flow down the lower Jordan River--and of this, about half is sewage or salt water. Some stretches are so dry, you'd have to portage a kayak. While deterioration on this scale is appalling anywhere, it's especially so when the body of water in question has such deep resonance in human culture.

"Half of humanity sees this river as holy!" says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli head of the tri-national Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). The nonprofit is that rarest of Middle Eastern birds: a group of Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis who work together on shared concerns. In separate phone interviews, both Nader Khateeb and Munqeth Mehyar, the Palestinian and Jordanian heads of the organization respectively, say they're mindful that many believe they should have no contact with Israelis (at least until the occupation of Palestinian lands is resolved). But the river's plight can't wait.

"Nobody denies the priority of solving the conflict," Khateeb says. "But by the time the politicians are done, the environmental degradation will be so [advanced], this land that we've been fighting over for decades will not be suitable for living anymore."

Mehyar sounds a similar note. "The ecosystem is so small that any action, by any party, affects the others," he says. "You can't say that you won't talk to the other side--you're only hurting yourself."

The lower Jordan meanders for 125 miles between the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south. It forms the eastern edge of both Israel and lands recognized internationally as part of a future Palestinian state. It is the western edge of the Kingdom of Jordan.

Both the Hebrew Torah and Christian Bible are filled with references to the lower Jordan region, where Moses' body was laid out and John the Baptist preached. American Christian and Jewish scriptures are also holy to Islam, the faith of some 85 percent of Palestinians and nearly 100 percent of Jordanians.

Today, Bromberg says, making pilgrimage to the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus "is a health hazard. You're likely to come out with a rash on your head."

Running along the lowest spot on Earth, the waters of the lower Jordan gather at the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. A wide variety of flora and fauna, including the Palestinian Mountain Gazelle and the Yellow Flag Iris, find their northern and southern limits in the valley, and everyone from early humans leaving Africa to modern armies have passed through. Farmers first cultivated wheat near Jericho, a small city better known for its appearance in the biblical book of Joshua. In the 1990s, Jericho became the first part of the West Bank to be handed over to Palestinian rule by the occupying authorities.

The river's steep decline has been exacerbated by the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel diverts some 60 percent of the fresh water heading downriver from the Sea of Galilee. …

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