River Jordan, Deep and Wide Once More?

Experts warn that the river could dry up next year unless swift action is taken, while officials point to rescue plans that could head off catastrophe

From afar, the southern end of the Jordan River is a green stripe that crosses the ancient desert landscape and brings the surroundings to life. But the sight is deceptive. When you get closer to the river reality hits you in the face, and especially the nose. The Alumot Dam prevents the flow of water from Lake Kinneret south, into the river. Beyond the dam, visitors are met by a stench. From here south, what flows into the Jordan is mainly waste from the city of Tiberias and nearby communities.

Brackish water also reaches the Jordan, via channel from saline springs at the edges of Lake Kinneret. The goal was to decrease the salinity of the lake, but in fact the diversion of the water has increased considerably the salinity of the southern Jordan, which empties into the Dead Sea. Despite the meager flow and unpleasant odors, however, the Jordan River continues to attract tourists, mainly because of its religious importance: There are two baptismal sites on its banks that are associated with Jesus and John the Baptist.

Mark Twain, who visited the region in the 19th century, wrote that many streets in the United States are double the Jordan's width. Nevertheless, in the early 20th century the Australian army had to erect a 20-meter-long bridge to cross the expanse.

In the century that has passed since then, the waters of the Jordan and its tributaries have been diverted by bordering states - Jordan, Syria and Israel - and the river has shrunk. In some places it is just a few meters wide, and in others the water is stagnant and does not flow at all.

The U.S. naval officer William Lynch, who visited and explored the river in 1848, would scarcely recognize the place where he saw "a long and shelving rapid of great force" that sank the boats he tried to sail.

It is no wonder that the Bitanya water treatment plant, south of Lake Kinneret, construction on which has just begun, is getting a mixed reception from environmental organizations. Officials at Friends of the Earth Middle East are happy about the sewage treatment aspect but fear that the treated water will be used for agriculture, thus depriving the southern, or lower, Jordan of even the small amount of water that flows into it today.

The organization, which counts Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis among its members, this month published two comprehensive studies of the state of the lower Jordan and economic aspects of plans to rehabilitate it. According to these studies, in the past 50 years more than 98 percent of the river's water has been diverted to supply the needs of Jordan, Syria and Israel. The river now carries about 30 million cubic meters of water a year, compared to 1.3 billion cubic meters prior to the 1930s.

"In recent years Syria and Jordan have built dozens of dams on the Yarmuk, the river's largest tributary, and it is drying up," noted Gidon Bromberg, the organization's Israeli director, during a comprehensive tour along the Jordan two week ago.

South of the Alumot Dan is Naharayim, the site of the hydroelectric plant built by Pinchas Rotenberg. There is no point in trying to put the generating plant back on line: The Yarmuk River, whose flow was once harnessed to create power, has dwindled to a trickle, its water used for irrigation in Jordan.

"We still pump water from the Yarmuk for agricultural use, but it is increasingly difficult," related Ofer Levin of Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov." He tends the community's field crops, located in territory that was transferred to Jordan in the peace agreements. The Israeli farmers continue to work their lands, now in Jordanian territory.

Friends of the Earth plans to turn Peace Island, at the confluence of the Yarmuk and the Jordan, into a joint Israeli-Jordanian park that will attract tourists. Work on creating the park and rehabilitating the Jordan River is to be carried out in parallel.

Decline in biodiversity

"Our study is only preliminary, but a survey conducted by Dr. Sarig Gafni of the Ruppin Academic Center found that half of the animal species that once lived in the river have disappeared," Bromberg said. The study pointed to a decline in biological diversity as a result of the disappearance of animal habitats due the absence of swift currents and flooding, and a rise in water salinity. "Nevertheless, there are still many animals here. They can survive the sewage, but not an additional rise in salinity," Bromberg added.

Both Jordan and Israel are building sewage treatment plants for the water that flows into the Jordan. The Friends of the Earth report warns that diverting this water for agricultural irrigation will cause the Jordan to dry up by 2011 or increase its salinity, causing even more damage to the river's ecosystem.

According to Bromberg, only a change to the water management policies of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can save the river. The watchword, he said, is conservation: reducing water use to increase the annual flow of the Jordan to 400 million cubic feet, about one third of its historic levels.

That amount, which exceeds Israel's current water desalination output, seems impossible in light of the water shortage in the region. It must be remembered that the water shortage is more acute in Jordan and the PA than in Israel. But Bromberg is convinced that the goal can be met, based on the economic analysis commissioned by his organization of water conservation options.

Conservation and cooperation

"If conservation measures are taken in Jordan, Israel and the PA, large amounts of water could be put toward rehabilitating the Jordan, at a cost below that of desalination," Bromberg said, citing the use of "measures such as repairing leaks in the water transport system, or covering reservoirs" to decrease evaporation. "We believe each country will have to allocate water to the river proportional to its current usage of the sources of the Jordan. Israel will assume the major burden of this."

Water Authority officials promise that even after the Bitanya treatment plant is completed, in about two years, the Jordan's situation will not deteriorate and will even improve. "The plant will treat the sewage now coming in from the Tiberias area and will also desalinate brackish water," said Ze'ev Ahipaz, head of operations at the agency. "The treated wastewater will be used for irrigation but we will send water from Lake Kinneret into the southern Jordan and maintain current flow levels, more or less. The water will be of higher quality because the sewage won't be going into the river," Ahipaz said.

According to Alon Zask, head of the water and stream division in the Ministry of Environmental Protection, within several years all the major sources of pollution of the southern Jordan will be taken care of. "The Beit She'an sewage treatment plant is already in operation and in the future more communities will be connected to it," Zask said. He added that the Southern Jordan administration, which includes representatives from local government and government ministries, is formulating a master plan for rehabilitating the river.

"This plan will have to decide not only issues of water quantity and quality, but also of public access, which areas will serve as tourism sites and where there will be nature reserves. We hope the Jordanians will also prepare such a plan," Zask said.

It is too soon for Ahipaz to announce the introduction of more water from natural sources to reinvigorate the river. "We want to send more water flowing into it but today we do not have the water. In the future we will build more desalination plants and the situation of the natural water sources will improve. That could even increase the likelihood of water coming from Lake Kinneret into the Jordan. Flood events of that nature are important for the river. If in future we do have more water to send into the river, this will have to be coordinated with our neighbors. There is no point in sending water into the river if the Jordanians pump it out," Ahipaz said.

In fact, Jordan was the source recently of particularly encouraging support for the position of Friends of the Earth. In an editorial earlier this month, The Jordan Times called for the taking of all measures necessary to rehabilitate the river: "All the countries on the river banks have to stop overusing its water, stop polluting it and assist in restoring its traditional sources of freshwater," the editorial said. "If inaction continues, the riparian countries will face the condemnation of the international community."