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Don’t Dip in the Jordan

By Robert Swift | The Media Line

July 12, 2015

Egyptian Coptic pilgrims baptize a pilgrim in the water of the Jordan River as part of their Easter pilgrimage to the Holy Land on April 7, 2015 at the baptismal site of Kasser el-Yahud. Hundreds of Orthodox Christian pilgrims took a ritual dip in the Jordan River near the West Bank city of Jericho part of their Easter pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (Photo: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
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NGO believes it has the Master Plan to restore the polluted water of the Lower Jordan Valley

When US Naval officer William F. Lynch became the first Westerner to sail the lower Jordan River in 1847, he traversed the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan to the Dead Sea over current so strong that, according to his journal, he required four metal boats, one of which was smashed on the rocks of the powerful rapids. Lynch goes on the recount the broad and forceful flow of the then-mighty river.

Today, though, the Jordan is barley a trickle – just four meters wide and two meters deep in some parts. Its color is an opaque brown; and despite being holy to the world’s three major religions, a mouthful of the river’s water would most likely lead to a variety of rather unpleasant effects.

Throughout the years, successive governments in Syria, Israel and Jordan have redistributed the water supply for various reasons. Sewage has been leaked or directly pumped into the river; while a number of overflows from agricultural and fish farming add to the flavor. A variety of plants and wildlife, including willow trees and otters, which had formerly followed the banks of the meandering river can no longer be found along its shores.

If you had told William F. Lynch that a rejuvenation program costing billions of American dollars would be required to restore an adequate flow to the Jordan River within a mere 150-years, it is a fair guess to say it’s unlikely he would have believed you.

The Jordan River, the international border between Israel and Jordan, but today narrow enough to hold a conversation across (Photo: Robert Swift/The Media Line)

The Jordan River, the international border between Israel and Jordan, but today narrow enough to hold a conversation across (Photo: Robert Swift/The Media Line)

EcoPeace, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Friends of the Earth Middle East, sees the restoration of the Jordan River as a problem for all people of the region: especially Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Not only is the degradation of the water supply harmful to the environment and the communities which rely on it, but it is wasting the huge financial potential of the valley which could improve the living standards of many.

The successful transformation of the river would lead to huge economic and environmental advantages, argues Gidon Bromberg, the organization’s director in Israel. He told The Media Line that EcoPeace believes that if its proposals were enacted, the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the Jordan Valley would increase to as many as ten million each year –a tenfold increase that Bromberg called “a game changer” for the region’s economy.

EcoPeace has put together a series of policy proposals which it has termed the “Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley.” A variety of measures ranging from pollution control, water resourcing and ecological management; to the development of tourism and cultural heritage sites make up the organization’s wish list, forecasted up to the year 2050.

The benefits would be felt in agriculture and industry as well as in the tourism and environmental sectors, Bromberg said, while explaining that changes in perception would need to be made. “It requires that we treat the river differently – as a livelihood source, as the healthy economic engine, instead of seeing the river as the sewage canal and as the dumping ground.”

“We feel that the Jordan Valley is part of the common cultural heritage of this region and it is being shared between three parties here: the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Israelis,” Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, said, keen to show that the EU was a partner to the Master Plan.

The benefits of cooperation and of sustainable development when living in a well-populated compact area were clear to see, the ambassador said, suggesting that this is true in Europe and in the Jordan Valley as well. Bottom-up cooperation, as evidenced by EcoPeace’s past work, could lead to peace building, Faaborg-Andersen said, adding, “We hope that the (local) governments will take inspiration from this.”

Europe’s economic and political integration following the Second World War, and the decades of relative peace which have followed since are a model to follow according to Bromberg, who argued that just as steel and coal, the continent’s two most important resources, were were able to form ties in Europe, water and energy could do the same in the Jordan Valley.

A demonstration of how the water levels in the Dead Sea have lowered over time leading to the body of water shrinking (Graphic: courtesy of EcoPeace)

A demonstration of how the water levels in the Dead Sea have lowered over time leading to the body of water shrinking (Graphic: courtesy of EcoPeace)

Yet, inevitably, as with everything in the region, the discussion devolves into a political one. “Water is not a problem, it is not a zero sum game. Some people, especially in Israel, have a surplus of water,” Dr. Nader Al-Khateeb, EcoPeace’s director in the Palestinian Territories, told The Media Line. Politics, and not a shortage of water, was causing the pollution and lack of economic resourcing seen in the area, he charged. According to Al-Khateeb, it is for this reason that the NGO EcoPeace weighs in on politically-charged issues and debates and is “very clear about our political position, [supporting] a two state solution, within the international [consensus] on recognized 1967 borders.”

A stance on politics is not unnatural Bromberg said, “Our name is EcoPeace: ecological peace – we are an environmental organization at heart but we are also a peace organization.” In order to move forward on the environmental agenda, Bromberg argued, such issues have to be touched on and therefore EcoPeace advocates for a two-state solution.

“We don’t think that this is particularly radical – our Israeli Prime Minister says he’s in favor of a two-state solution,” Bromberg pointed out.

But he did acknowledge that EcoPeace is not without its detractors. Activists in the Palestinian Territories and in Jordan have received threatening phone calls and activities by the organization have been disrupted by individuals aligned with the “anti-normalization campaign”[Editor’s Note: a movement in the Arab world opposing all efforts to “normalize” relations with the state of Israel or institutions located inside the Jewish state.] In Israel, EcoPeace has found itself labelled as traitorous.

Extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hostile to EcoPeace’s work, Bromberg said. Such individuals believe that any cooperation with the other side prior to a resolution of the conflict is an attempt to maintain the status quo or is collaboration against your own people, the Israeli Director said. “We think that has no analytical or practical basis what so ever,” Bromberg concluded.

A pro-Israel think tank maintains that water has increasingly become a politicized weapon in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is being used as a tool to delegitimize the Jewish state. NGO Monitor, an organization which aims to expose anti-Israeli sentiment among many of the groups working in Israel, listed a number of NGOs it felt were using water as a political tool. EcoPeace was not among the list, reinforcing its assertion that “it focuses on the environment and not on the conflict.”

In the meantime, while the politics is debated, the Jordan continues to trickle by and thousands of pilgrims come to be baptized in its sickly beige water each year. If environmentalists are able to get their way, within a few decades the water such visitors bathe in might even be clean.

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