Casualty of war

After decades of Mideast conflict, the once mighty Jordan River is now little more than a drainage ditch -- and there's no solution in sight.

By Chris McGreal
Published March 10, 2005 10:24PM (EST)

Once it was the mighty Jordan River, a crossroads of civilizations and continents, and a favorite of pilgrims seeking baptism in its waters. Now just about the only thing that flows for large parts of the year, keeping the river alive, is sewage. Decades of competition for water have turned the lower Jordan River, running between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, into little more than a drainage ditch.

Dams and pumping stations have diverted almost 90 percent of the river's water to leave parts of the surrounding valley and the Dead Sea on the brink of ecological disaster.

On Tuesday, Israel's environment minister and Jordanian royalty met on a small island in the river to discuss the crisis. But the only area of agreement between them was that the most obvious solution -- restoring the original water supply -- is not even up for discussion.

The Jordan River provides Israel with nearly a third of its water supply, and Jordan relies on dams to sustain agriculture in the area. With demand ever increasing for the most precious commodity in the region, neither country is prepared to give up a drop. "Unfortunately, environmental policies are governed by politics," said Jordan's Prince Hassan Bin Talal, brother of the late king. "We're talking about a 70-mile zone of crisis. We don't have a comprehensive peace, but I don't see why we have to continue with the policy of mutually assured destruction of the environment and resources."

Fifty years ago, 1.3 billion cubic meters of water flowed through the lower Jordan each year. Today, environmentalists say that if 200 million cubic meters travel the lower Jordan, then it is a good year, and nearly half of that is raw sewage from Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements, the effluent from commercial fish farms and other untreated wastewater.

"Ironically, it is sewage that is maintaining what little biodiversity there is along the Jordan," said Gidon Bromber, head of Friends of the Earth Middle East in Tel Aviv. "Right now the river is so desperate, the sewage is the only thing keeping the river flowing at times. It feeds life there."

But at the lower end of the Jordan the pollutants spill into the Dead Sea, compounding an environmental crisis there that has seen the famed sea's level drop 25 meters since Israel dammed the river and industries began sucking water out.

FoEME, a cross-border group, brought officials from Amman and Jerusalem together Tuesday to press them to meet commitments made under their 1994 peace treaty to rescue the Jordan River, which marks out their common border and is the lowest river in the world.

"Is it a competition: who can damage the river more than the other?" asked Munqeth Mehyar, director of FoEME in Amman. "This could be understood in a state of war, but not now. Did we have to take all the water?"

In the hope of reminding the participants of the peace treaty commitments, the meeting took place on Peace Island, a bump of land that splits the river and became a symbol of an end to conflict after Israel handed it back to Jordan under the peace treaty. In 1998, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the island and murdered seven of them. The river running around the island was flowing Tuesday, but even after weeks of winter rains it was a relative trickle.

The Jordan River crisis is a direct result of decades of conflict. "Each side tried to grab as much of the resources as they [could] without any consideration of the consequences," said Bromber. "It started in the '60s with Israel ceasing the flow of the upper Jordan into the lower Jordan. Syria tried to build a dam at the same time to stop water coming down the Jordan River. Jordan in the '70s built a canal to capture the main tributary into the river. It escalated from there." The existing problems are compounded by Amman's construction of a new dam on the Yarmuk River, the largest tributary of the Jordan.

The straightforward solution -- practically if not politically -- is to divert less water, but almost everyone involved with Tuesday's discussions said that was unlikely to happen because of political considerations and the sheer demand for water. Without a commitment from either government to restore the natural water supply to the river, FoEME is pressing for sewage to be treated and pumped into the Jordan as clean water.

The group had hoped that the Israeli environment minister, Shalom Simhon, would use the meeting to announce plans for new sewage plants that would pump treated water into the river. "We have long recognized the urgent need for action ... It is a high national priority," Simhon said. But he gave no hint as to what Israel intends to do about it.

Chris McGreal

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