Israel has announced plans to begin restoring the sacred river Jordan by pumping about 30 million cubic metres of water into the parched valley.

Up to 98 per cent of the lower river Jordan’s historic flow is diverted by Israel, Jordan and Syria for agricultural use, according to environmentalists. The trickle that remains in the river bed is mostly raw sewage.

Despite this, the river – which runs along the border between Israel and Jordan – remains an important religious site for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

Gidon Bromberg, of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), said that half of the water promised by Israel will come from the Sea of Galilee.

Israel’s pledge is the first step towards revitalising the river and an encouraging sign of diplomatic cooperation between the nations surrounding it, Mr Bromberg said, adding that a lot more must be done to restore the river to its former glory. “This 30 million cubic metres [of water] is clearly insufficient on its own, but what it does signify is a turnaround in attitude,” he said.

Water has long been a source of dispute between dry Middle Eastern nations. The late King Hussein of Jordan once said water would be the only reason that might lead him to war with Israel.

FoEME, which unites Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists, said the river would require a minimum of 400 to 600 million cubic metres of water to regenerate a healthy ecosystem.