The water of the Jordan River, debilitated by waste and intensely utilized for agriculture, may finally become cleaner thanks to steps now being taken by the governments of Israel and Jordan.

The Environmental Protection Ministry and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee are expected within weeks to submit a plan to the cabinet to allocate NIS 99 million to that very goal.

There has recently been a breakthrough in terms of regional cooperation on improving the Jordan's water, according to Gidon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth-Middle East. The group, consisting of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, has successfully pressured their governments into acting to save the river.

Only 4 percent of the amount of water that flowed through the southern Jordan River 80 years ago still flows through it after Israel built a dam to hold back Kinneret water to benefit the National Water Carrier. Jordan and Syria, for their part, have built dams in recent years on the Yarmouk River, the Jordan's main tributary.

Waste flows into the river from nearby communities and farms on both the Israeli and the Jordanian sides. A channel carrying saline water from springs in the Kinneret lake bed also leads to the Jordan. As a result, the Jordan has become polluted and sometimes has run nearly dry. This has damaged flora and fauna and threatens to ruin the traditional baptismal site of Kasr al-Yehud east of Jericho.

Initiatives to change this picture are coming from local bodies such as the Southern Jordan Drainage Authority and the Emek Hama'ayanot Regional Council in the Beit She'an area. These two agencies recently invited area residents to a public hearing where they presented their master plan for the river's rehabilitation.

"For the first time we are working to restore the river with government assistance in a way that will allow protection of nature and ecological corridors as well as the development of tourism in the area," says Ramon Ben-Ari, director general of the Southern Jordan Drainage Authority. Ben-Ari says they are trying to coordinate efforts with the Jordanians.

A waste treatment plant is set to go into operation next year near Bitaniya under the auspices of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, to purify waste from Tiberias that currently flows into the river and divert it for irrigation.

"The Jordanians are building a purification plant near Shuneh opposite Jericho with American funding, and the construction of another plant, funded by the Japanese, has already been decided on," Bromberg says.

However, environmental groups are concerned that the diversion of waste water from the river will improve water quality but reduce its quantity. The Water Authority has pledged it will replace the waste water with 30 million cubic meters of water, some from the Kinneret, although final approval for this plan has not yet come through.

Rehabilitation of the southern Jordan River, which is beyond the Green Line, depends on cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which is demanding recognition of its rights over this part of the river. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has expressed willingness to cooperate with the PA but so far there has been no real progress. Israel already uses a great deal of water in the area for farming in settlements, which the Palestinians do not recognize.

Bromberg says Friends of the Earth-Middle East wants to prepare its own master plan including the part of the river over the Green Line. "The master plan will analyze the current situation but there will also be a vision we propose for rehabilitation of the river that in the future the settlements will not be here."