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Over-use of water from the southern stretch of the Jordan River threatens to dry it up and devastate one of the world's most important religious sites. The warning comes from conservationists, Christian groups and the heads of local authorities in the region - Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians. Israel, Jordan and Syria are preparing to increase use of the tributaries feeding the southern Jordan - a stretch of the river between Lake Kinneret and the Dead Sea - and there is mounting fear of a natural disaster that would have far-reaching consequences.

Until the 1950s, more than a billion cubic meters flowed through the southern Jordan annually, helping to maintain the Dead Sea's water level and a healthy river with a diverse ecological system. Construction of a dam that prevented water flow from the Kinneret, channeling part of the Yarmuk River into an irrigation canal in Jordan and later building dams on the Yarmuk's tributaries caused the river to dry up. Now the flow is only 100 million cubic meters a year, except when the Kinneret dam is opened due to flooding.

Reservoir project

Last month an unusual group of mayors from Jordan, Israel and the PA returned from a visit to the United States to raise awareness of the problem. The group included the head of Israel's Tamar Regional Council, Dov Litvinoff, mayor of Jordan's Tabket Fahel Municipality, Wajdy Abdelhammed Masaadeh, and Jericho Mayor Hassan Saleh Hussein. They were accompanied by the directors of Friend of the Earth Middle East (FOEME). The delegation met with Congressional members, U.S. State Department officials and environment ministers attending a United Nations conference.

According to FOEME, the state of the southern Jordan will worsen once the Unity Dam being built by Jordan and Syria on the Yarmuk is completed at the end of the year. The Yarmuk is one of the Jordan's main tributaries in its southern part. The Unity Dam is supposed to collect tens of millions of cubic meters annually, thereby further reducing the flow to the southern Jordan.

"This is a fatal blow because these were the only flood waters flowing in that part of the Jordan," says Hilel Glazman, of the stream monitoring department at the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. "These floodwaters helped a little to cleanse the immense pollution that has collected in the Jordan."

A significant portion of the water now reaching the river is saltwater that Israel diverted from the Kinneret through a special carrier, as well as inadequately treated waste. Plans in Israel to treat the waste for use in irrigation will reduce pollution in the Jordan but will further reduce the river's meager water.

Christian importance

Along with the dying Jordan, the Dead Sea has also begun disappearing, its water level going down each year by close to a meter. Israel and Jordan are studying the possibility of building, with the World Bank's help, a water carrier from the Gulf of Eilat to the Dead Sea to stop the decline.

"With construction of the Jordanian-Syrian dam, water flow in the southern Jordan will decline to the point where it ceases flowing throughout the river," warns Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of FOEME. "The significance, beyond the environmental and ecological damage, is severe damage to one of the sites sacred to Christianity, and of great importance to Jewish and Muslim heritage. If anyone were to harm in this manner a site sacred to Judaism, Israel would raise an outcry. It's true that Syria and Jordan also share in the damage to the river, but most of the water is used by Israel, and we also have greater ability to find solutions."

Concern for the river's future is shared by Christian groups that are ardent supporters of Israel. One of these is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). "I think Israelis do not sufficiently grasp how important the Jordan is to us," says ICEJ Media Director David Parsons. "The pollution and lack of conservation greatly offend Christians. The citizens of Israel as well as the decision makers must understand that preserving the river for pilgrims and also preserving the ecological system will prevent damage to Israel's image. We are working to enlist support for Israel, but there are Christian elements that will exploit the neglect of the Jordan to hurt Israel. It is clear to us that Israel needs water, but other alternatives must be considered."

"We are calling for fresh water from the Kinneret to be restored to the Jordan River," says Bromberg." Litvinoff adds that even a partial restoration of water flow would help rehabilitate the river, slow the decline in the Dead Sea water level and allow for tourism development to replace agriculture.

FOEME has received a discouraging message on this score from the Water Commission. "Rehabilitating the Jordan is particularly problematic because it is a river shared with neighboring countries," Water Commissioner Shimon Tal wrote to Bromberg several weeks ago. "Channeling clear water to the river can only be done through full cooperation among the countries. In view of the water shortage in the region, especially in the neighboring countries, it is hard to believe there would be consent to this."