By Orly Halpern

The Jordan River is the main source of the Sea of Galilee [GETTY]

Normally on bus tours the guide will make numerous pit stops for the sightseers. But as we drove from Jerusalem out of the Judea Mountains and into the open space of the Jordan Valley, our Jordan River tour guide asked the participants to use the bathroom at the gas station where we first stopped, because we would be avoiding all other toilet facilities until we reached the Sea of Galilee.

“All the sewage of the communities along the Jordan River goes right into it and we want to avoid adding ours,” Gidon Bromberg said with a wry smile.

Bromberg is the Israeli co-director of Friends of Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental NGO that is making surprising headway into the most critical environmental crisis facing Israel, Palestine and Jordan: water.

FoEME organised the tour to teach journalists about what is killing the renowned Jordan River and to share the results of two groundbreaking studies it released that identify for the first time how to save the river – both in terms of how much water is needed and where the water would come from.

The studies reveal that with cooperation between Israel, Jordan and Palestine, the river can be saved – and FoEME itself offers an example of such cooperation.

Abandoned and neglected

We travelled up the western side of the Jordan River along Road 90, which goes through both the Palestinian and Israeli parts of the Jordan Valley.

Our first stop was Qasr El-Yahud, which translates from Arabic to Castle of the Jews.

The name is misleading. It is actually a very holy Christian site where a cluster of ancient churches are set near the banks of the Lower Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea. In Arabic it is called al-Maghtas (Baptism Site).

Many believe that it was here that Jesus was baptised.

Until the 1967 war, pilgrims visited daily, but since then Israel has closed the site to the public for security reasons.

The military opened a gate and our bus passed two barbed wire fences that run the length of the border.

We then drove through low barren desert hills towards the river.

As we approached we saw ancient churches on either side. They looked as they were: abandoned and neglected for over 40 years.

Fetid stream
A cluster of ancient churches sit near the banks of the river [GETTY]

Close to the river we parked and walked down steps that led to a deck on the river’s edge.

One look at the river and we understood why we came on the trip. It was pitiful.

The Jordan River, for all its fame, was a narrow foul brownish stream that gurgled its way south.

On the opposite side, just a few metres away from us in Jordan, was a similar wooden deck where tourists came and went.

One Russian-speaking pilgrim put on a white cloth and calmly entered the water.

Bromberg, who had been explaining to us how and why the river turned from gushing rapids into a fetid stream, stopped mid-sentence as we all watched in horror.

Once 1.3 billion metric cubes flowed annually through the Jordan River. It was 25 metres wide, flanked by willow trees and poplars and filled with fish that could be eaten.

As we would see later on our bus trip, the water of the Jordan River is no longer coming from the Sea of Galilee but from the sewage, the contaminated agricultural run-off and saline water that was dumped into it.

Saving the river

The FoEME studies are the first to show just how much the Jordan River requires to be rehabilitated.

According to a water quality study released by the NGO on May 3, the river could return to life with 400 million cubic metres (mcm) of fresh water annually.

But who would provide the water and where would it come from?

According to FoEME, 220 mcm should be provided by Israel, 100 by Syria and 90 by Jordan.

“That’s based on historically who has taken what,” Bromberg explained as we sat in front of the river.

“Israel has taken 46 per cent of the historical flow. So it can at least return that much and because of its [strong] economic situation it can return more.”

A second FoEME study – prepared jointly by an Israeli, a Jordanian and a Palestinian economist – measured the amounts of water that could be saved through various means and their cost-effectiveness.

It concluded that over one billion cubic metres of water could be saved from the fresh waters used by Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Israel could conserve 800 million mcm, Jordan could save over 300 million and Palestine over 100 million – all at an economically viable cost.

The economic analysis listed a number of ways to increase supply and reduce demand in the most cost-effective way and FoEME has been working with Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to encourage cooperation in order the save the river that is dear to them all.

Holy water?
The river has turned from gushing rapids
into a fetid stream [EPA]

We continued north, passing a crusader castle on our left, and we crossed Herod’s stream, a contributor to the river, which today is contaminated by Israeli fishpond waters filled with feed, hormones, and fish droppings.

Our next destination was the beginning of the Lower Jordan River at the Sea of Galilee.

To our great surprise, we quickly discovered that the river ends almost as soon as it starts.

The bus turned into a dirt road and stopped in front of the Alumot Dam, a simple mound of dirt only two kilometres from where the river began.

On the northern side of the dam heavy machinery pumped fresh river water into Israel’s national carrier, which supplies Israelis with one-quarter to one-third of their fresh water.

On the southern side of the dam a large pipe spewed brownish-yellow sewage water which bubbled and foamed and ran into the bed of the river. The smell was overpowering.

This was the point where the fresh water from the Sea of Galilee ended and the sewage of 15,000 Israelis living around the sea began.

Over the length of the river, the sewage from an additional 15,000 Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley, 6,000 Israeli settlers, 60,000 Palestinians and 250,000 Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan River with most of its water.

“No one can say this is holy water,” said Bromberg in a foreboding tone.

“The Jordan River has become holy shit … and Qasr Al-Yahud [the site where Jesus is thought to have been baptised] is only 100 kilometres away.”

Political will

But FOEME is confident that this will change. Now with the recently released studies, Israel, Jordan and Palestine have the information they need to save the river.

They just need a great deal of political will.

FoEME has proven that persistence, cooperation between all sides and public awareness through the media, can help to generate change.

The work FOEME has done with local councils and the media has created a public outcry which in turn has convinced the local authorities near the Sea of Galilee to finally build a sewage treatment plant, which will treat the waste and then use that water for other purposes.

Paradoxically, the plant, which is due to be completed soon, will bring the demise of the river.

Bromberg warns: “In 2011 the sewage plant will be finished and no more water will be going from here to the Jordan River – and this is its main source of water. Time is running out.”