By: Yosra Albakkar and Catherine Brown. August 23, 2011

On November 20, 1847, Commander William F. Lynch sailed out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a burly crew of 14 men on the first U.S. Expedition to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Equipped with two boats, Lynch and his crew sailed across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to Acre in current-day Israel. From here they loaded their boats and equipment onto wooden carriages and transported them to the Sea of Galilee. They spent several months sailing down the Jordan River from its sources at the foot of Mt. Hermon to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south. Published in 1853, Lynch’s travel diary remains one of the most vivid accounts of the Jordan River in its natural state.

Lynch describes the river as “deep, narrow, and impetuous… It curved and twisted north, south, east and west, turning, in the short space of half an hour, to every quarter of the compass, seeming as if desirous to prolong its luxuriant meanderings in the calm and silent valley, and reluctant to pour its sweet and sacred waters into the accursed bosom of the bitter sea.”

Today, barely a drop of water reaches that bitter sea. Salty and surreal, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, and the final reservoir for water in the Jordan River Basin. According to research by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a regional NGO, Israel, Jordan and Syria divert more than 98 percent of the Jordan River for agricultural and domestic purposes. The result is that the flow of the Lower Jordan River has declined from its historic level of around 1.3 billion cubic meters per year in the 1930s to a mere 20-30 million cubic meters in 2009. This has in turn led to a 33-meter drop in the level of the Dead Sea, reducing its historic surface area by a third.

Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israeli director, fears that “the Jordan River will run dry by the end of 2011” if the five countries of the Jordan River Basin—Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine – do not take immediate action.

“It is a dream to restore the environmental flow of the Jordan River, but we don’t have water,” said Abraham Tenne, the head of desalination policy at the Israeli Water Authority. “Each and every drop is used.” In order to restore the river, he said, “we will have to negotiate”.

However, ongoing regional conflict has stymied all diplomatic efforts to negotiate an equitable water-sharing agreement between the five countries of the Jordan River, let alone a solution to the environmental tragedy unfolding in the Jordan Valley.

Israel, Syria and Lebanon are still formally in a state of war. Israel has maintained unilateral control over the water resources in the Golan Heights and the West Bank since the conclusion of the Six-Day War in 1967. Jordanian citizens must secure permits from Jordanian security services in order to access the river, while Palestinians have not had access to it since 1967 when Israel declared the west bank of the Jordan River a closed military zone.

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