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Emily L. HauserMarch 19, 2007

On a stunning midwinter’s day, with blue sky above and a gentle breeze blowing, I stand on the banks of the River Jordan, a 30 minute walk from the Sea of Galilee. To my left is a small dam; the river stops, for all intents and purposes, here. To my right is the source of a nauseating stench: untreated sewage, gushing directly into the Jordan River’s bed. Sixty years ago, the lower reaches of the river in which Jesus was baptized carried 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water through its banks. It powered a hydroelectric plant.


Today, the flow through the lower Jordan has been reduced by more than 90 percent. Of what remains, about half comes from small tributaries, underground springs and the Yarmouk River, which begins in Syria and joins the Jordan six miles south of the Sea of Galilee. The other half of today’s river is raw sewage, runoff from agriculture and fish farms, and saline water, diverted from springs north of the sea. Some stretches of the river are so dry you’d have to portage a kayak.

Degrading the Holy

Deterioration on this scale would be appalling anywhere, but there is something particularly disturbing about the devastation of a body of water that resonates so profoundly in human culture. As Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, exclaims with evident frustration, “Half of humanity sees this river as holy!”

Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible are filled with references to the Jordan Valley. In the last chapter of Deuteronomy, we learn that Moses was shown the Promised Land from a mountain on the river’s eastern edge “and Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab” (Deut 34:5). Mark relates John’s fulfillment of his mission, baptizing “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (Mark 1:5), foretelling the coming of “one more powerful than I” (Mark 1:7).

Perhaps the most famous reference to the river, though, comes two verses later: “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:9-10).

For centuries, pilgrims have flocked to Qasr al-Yahud, traditionally considered the site of Jesus’ baptism. Today, Bromberg says, those few who choose to go to Qasr al-Yahud rather than to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s official baptism site 10 miles to the north, are literally risking their health: “You’re likely to come out with a rash on your head.”

What is often forgotten in the West is that these Scriptures are holy also to Islam, the faith of some 85 percent of Palestinians, nearly 100 percent of Jordanians and about a billion people worldwide. Without a doubt, the globe-spanning cultures that have grown out of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all find a touchstone here; yet the demands of modern life in a water-starved region, decades of violent conflict and the kinds of abuse and neglect have conspired to bring the river to the brink of ecological death.

A Trinational Response

Friends of the Earth Middle East is one of the groups fighting to reverse the Jordan’s downward spiral. A trinational nonprofit organization with Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian directors, FoEME is a rarity in today’s Middle East: a joint effort by Arabs and Israelis to address vital shared concerns.

In separate phone interviews, both Nader Khateeb and Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Palestinian and Jordanian directors, respectively, say they are mindful that many in the Arab world feel they should not cooperate with any Israelis until the Israeli government ends its 40-year occupation of Palestinian territories; but they are equally, and painfully, aware that time is running out.

“Definitely 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 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. You can’t say that you won’t talk to the other side—you’re hurting yourself!”

Indeed, the lower Jordan is the meeting point between the three peoples. The river meanders south for some 125 miles to the Dead Sea, forming the eastern edge of both Israel and the West Bank (internationally recognized as part of any future Palestinian state) and the western edge of the Kingdom of Jordan—named, of course, for the river.

My guide through the river valley, Mira Edelstein, is the Israeli coordinator of FoEME’s river rehabilitation project. She speaks with evident passion about the Jordan’s fate, touching on the many ways in which Syrian, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian actions have contributed to the river’s current state. “Ironically,” she says, “the cooperation on polluting the Jordan River has been fantastic.”

Running through the lowest spot on earth, the lower Jordan gathers at the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. An estimated 500,000 birds migrate through the valley every year, and a wide variety of flora and fauna find their northern and southern limits in the valley, including the Palestinian Mountain Gazelle and the Yellow Flag Iris. Early humans migrating from Africa as well as modern armies have all passed through this region. Just outside Jericho, a small, jumbled city best known for its appearance in the Book of Joshua, archeologists have found evidence of humanity’s first farms. In more recent times, Jericho was the first piece of the West Bank to be handed over by Israel to Palestinian rule in the 1990’s.

The Causes of Deterioration

The reasons for the precipitous deterioration of the river’s health are myriad and interconnected, and are inevitably shaped by the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel diverts some 60 percent of the fresh water heading downriver from the Sea of Galilee for its farms and kitchens. Jordan maintains a major canal that diverts water from the Yarmouk, upstream from which Syria has built more than 40 dams. Jordanian septic tanks allow untreated sewage to seep into the water basin, while Israeli municipalities and kibbutzim release their own sewage directly into the river. On both banks, most of the valley is a closed military zone, its misery hidden from view because of Israel’s and Jordan’s military demands.

Later this year, Syria and Jordan plan to inaugurate the recently completed Unity Dam, a joint project on the Yarmouk built to catch winter floodwaters for irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power. Because of this added diversion, Mehyar predicts, “there will be no more water going down the Jordan, except from occasional springs and agricultural run off. The riverbed will have absolutely no water.”

FoEME has initiated a number of creative projects intended to engage the area’s people and leaders, local and national, but the organization must often battle forces unrelated to environmental issues. A three-day journey down the entire lower Jordan was planned for November, for instance, but was ultimately limited by the Israeli military to the river’s last mile-and-a-half of clean water, just south of the Sea of Galilee.

In mid-January, though, FoEME was able, in spite of enormous tensions in the Middle East, to secure the signatures of Jordanian and Israeli mayors of river valley communities on a memorandum of understanding that recognizes the critical importance of rehabilitating the river and supporting the idea of a cross-border nature park. The very notion of either would have been political anathema a mere 15 years ago.

At the end of the day, of course, FoEME hopes to capture not only local attention, but also that of the international community, from the U.S. Congress to the United Nations.

“We are losing the river!” Khateeb says unequivocally. “And it’s not important only for us; it’s very important for the whole world. We want to see it on the world agenda.”

A Powerful Symbol for the World

Walt Grazer, director of the Environmental Justice Program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, believes that the issue is important for the world’s Catholics on both the spiritual and the literal level. “We are a very symbolic people,” he says, “with a sacramental approach to nature…. Since the river is a creature of God, it will demand a certain respect.” The symbolism, he says, is merely compounded by the fact that this particular river “is in the land of our Lord…. Not that the Jordan, as a river, is more important than the Mississippi,” he stresses, but addressing the Jordan’s woes, in the land Jews, Muslims and Christians call holy, will allow those living far away “to make the leap to what we are doing to all of God’s creation.”

“What does it mean,” he asks simply, “to be [baptized], made whole and clean, with water that is fetid?”

What FoEME proposes is a limited restoration of the river, allowing for controlled access to restricted sections while developing sustainable management plans that would give farmers recycled water and return fresh water to the Jordan. “Nature is a legitimate consumer,” Edelstein says. “It’s not wasting the water to let it run down the river.”

At minimum, in Bromberg’s view, the Jordan must have a flow of at least 300 million cubic meters of clean water. “Without it,” he says starkly, “the river will no longer live.”

Though such reclamation can seem prohibitively complex, Americans recently witnessed the successful restoration of a part of the Owens River in California, a body of water that, if anything, had been in even worse shape than the Jordan. After being drained dry for nearly 100 years by the city of Los Angeles, a 62-mile long stretch of the Owens now has water flowing between its banks once again.

“It’s expensive, and it’s hard,” Edelstein concedes as she watches brackish water and the remains of human excrement foam and tumble down the Jordan’s bed, “but we have to do it, if we want to build a sustainable life here.” Restoring the river, Grazer believes, could be a source of unity among the peoples of the region. “It could be a symbol of death, or it could be a symbol of life.”

Diplomatic Challenges

As with all things in this part of the world, of course, much depends on the grinding of diplomatic wheels. Israel and the Palestinians seem further away than ever from anything resembling peace, and so far, the Olmert government is rejecting Syrian overtures. While Jordan and Israel maintain cordial relations, a random cross-border raid by a disgruntled Jordanian soldier, or a single Israeli attack on a Palestinian town, could slam the door shut on cooperation.

Acknowledging this uncertainty, the leaders of FoEME maintain nonetheless a certain white-knuckled optimism. “Conflict actually increases our strength,” Mehyar says, “because we can see the foolishness of it.”

Khateeb, however, provides the most straightforward explanation: “In our area you cannot give up, because if you give up, you’re finished.... We need to save something for our children,” he says, “so that they will have a better life.”

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