In 1845, Lieutenant William Francis Lynch of the United States and Confederate State Navies sailed on behalf of the US Hydrographic Office in an expedition to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Later, he wrote a book dubbed “Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea” where he described his “attempt to explore a distant river and its wondrous reservoirs” (v) and spoke of his dissent from Lake Tiberias to the Dead Sea through the meandering Jordan River. His words painted an image of a “deep” and “transparent” river surrounded by lush greenery (Ibid, 104-106). An unrecognizable image a hundred and sixty nine years later as the River today is almost dry and its remaining waters are highly polluted. The River lost its biodiversity and its banks are covered with invasive plants. The lower Jordan River “LJR” has been reduced to a trickle. Its degradation raises many concerns and questions and is reflective of the deteriorating situation in the Middle East.
The Jordan River runs through the heart of the Middle East. According to a concept document produced by Friends of the Earth Middle East “FoEME”, a regional environmental NGO concerned with environmental peacebuilding and focusing on transboundary waters titled “Take Me over the Jordan: Concept Document to Rehabilitate, Promote Prosperity, and Help Bring Peace to the Lower Jordan River Valley” the Lower Jordan River flows from the Sea of Galilee “Tiberias” and stretches along an aerial distance of approximately 200 Kilometers before entering the Dead Sea. As it is situated in the lowest area on Earth and on one of the narrowest parts of the Great Rift Valley, it is considered the “longest” and the “lowest” river in the world (Hylton … et al, 6).
Not only is it located at the heart of the Middle East, but the Jordan River is also engraved in the history and collective consciousness of mankind as its banks witnessed the rise and fall of many civilizations. Romans, Byzantines, and Umayyad’s had constructed castles, churches, and monasteries on its banks. Prophets walked its banks in their sacred mission to promote love and peace in the universe and used its waters to perform miracles that instilled faith in nonbelievers. The River, for instance, is mentioned many times in the Old Testament in reference to various prophets such as Elijah and Moses. It is compared in the Genesis to “the garden of God” after Abraham’s nephew Lot saw that the Jordan valley was “well watered” 13:10. The River is revered in Christianity as Jesus Christ was baptized with its water as the Bible says “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” Matthew 3:16-17. In Islam, many of the companions of Prophet Mohammad were buried along its banks. There is no doubt that the River has spiritual value to more than half of humanity.
The River presently is in an extreme state of decline. An environmental study commissioned by “FoEME”, titled “Towards a Living Jordan River: An Environmental Flows Report on the Rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan River” states that the Lower Jordan River is a degraded system due to severe flow reduction and water quality decline. The river lost over 98% of its historic flow because it is diverted by Israel, Syria, and Jordan for domestic and agricultural use. The remaining flow consists of sewage, fish pond waters, agricultural run-off diverted into the LJR from salt springs around the Sea of Galilee. The River lost over 50% of its biodiversity due to loss of fast flow habitats, floods, and high salinity of the water (Gafny …et al, 13). It is anticipated that continued overuse and exploitation will lead to its complete dryness.
FoEME recognizes that continued lack of cooperation between neighboring countries compounded by the severe climate changes that result in a decreased annual rainfall will increase demand on the regions limited water resources. In fact, conflict prompted by environmental degradation is rising drastically especially with regards to freshwater resources according to Bonn International Center for Conversion “BICC”. BICC, an NGO dedicated to promoting peace and development through the transformation of military- related processes, functions, activities, assets and structures effectively and efficiently, states in a research project on “Crisis Prevention and Transboundary Water” that “… environmental degradation poses[s] serious challenges to security, foreign policy and human development… Related conflicts can easily cause international tension, since many rivers, lakes, groundwater reservoirs, marshes and wetlands are shared by two or more sovereign states.” (Croll … et al, 1) The declining state of the tranboundary Jordan River along with the shrinking water resources in the region could pose a threat to fragile peace in the future and instigate conflict if serious measures are not taken to properly manage shared water resources and restore the River back to its original state.
To create a better future for the region where peace, cooperation and understanding replace negative stereotyping, mistrust, and conflict, FoEME decided to alter the current degradation of the River by painting a brighter future for the transboundary Lower Jordan River. The new image is that of a healthy river bordered by peace parks and managed jointly by neighboring countries. A healthy river that is reflective of a better future for the entire region if cooperation replaces competition. To this end, FoEME relies on Environmental Peacebuilding as it has many advantages. For instance, it ignores political boundaries, it requires long term cooperation and demands people to people interaction according to Geoffrey Dabelko in his article “From Threat to Opportunity: Exploiting Environmental Pathways to Peace.” (2) As such, rehabilitating the Jordan could actually advance peace in the region by producing a feeling of a shared responsibility and creating a sense of a shared future (16) as affirmed by Nicole Harari in her research “Environmental Peacebuilding Theory and Practice: A Case Study of the Good Water Neighbours Project and In-depth Analysis of the Wadi Fukin/ Tzur Hadassah Communities”.
To turn the vision of a healthy river into a reality, FoEME identified the best methodologies, and stated its recommendations in two studies; environmental and economic. The environmental flow study “Towards a Living Jordan: An Environmental Flows Report on the Rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan River” aims at strengthening the knowledge base that will enable decision makers in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine to formulate best policies to rehabilitate the Lower Jordan River. According to the study, Rehabilitation of the river entails “…bringing [the] river[s] system back to a healthy and balanced ecological state …. [T]o reintroduce the fundamental elements of the original stream, either by direct intervention or by hastening the recovery process.”(Gafny … et al, 19) To do so, it recommended the annual return of 400-600 million cubic meters of fresh water to the River to be expanded to 600 mcm over time. Moreover, it suggested that Israel, undertakes an experimental flooding which requires a flow of approximately 100m3/sec from the Alumot Dam for a 24 hour period. The flood is expected to reintroduce the lost habitats and remove invasive plants. Most importantly is the establishment of an International commission to manage LJR basin (Ibid, 14-18). FoEME anticipates that by determining the flow needed to support the River as well as its riparian ecosystem, governments will formulate a better understanding to the amount of water needed to return back to the River and consequently, alter their national policies and practices to return it.
The economic regional study that included Palestine, Israel, and Jordan investigated the feasibility and cost effectiveness of returning water to the River. It explored the means by which each country can save water nationally in order to contribute to the rehabilitation of the Jordan River by allowing water to flow back to it. The study titled “Towards a Living Jordan River: An Economic Analysis of Policy Options for Water Conservation in Jordan, Israel and Palestine” identified conservation wedges as the basis for the economic analysis. A wedge, according to the study, is the amount of water that should be transferred to the Jordan River from each sector of the water economy (Gorskaya … et al, 4). The report recommended that Israel could conserve 517 mcm of water, Jordan 305 mcm, and Palestine 126 mcm if the three countries manage their water resources effectively. Proper management can be through multiple methods such as municipal wastewater reclamation, rainwater catchment, garden reforms, grey water use, and most importantly, raising public awareness (Ibid, 5-7). Once the three governments comply with the findings and recommendations of the study, they will be able to save approximately 1000 mcm of water per year; an amount close to the historical natural flow of the River.
Restoring the Rivers historical flow is a major step towards peace in the region that can only be achieved through cooperation between neighboring countries. FoEME believes that joining efforts to rehabilitate the River will set a model for future cooperation between conflicting countries and prove that peaceful coexistence is achievable. Therefore, FoEME resorted to lobbying at the US congress to garner international support for the River and place pressure on governments to act cooperatively. The US congress recognized the importance of rehabilitating the River and issued on November 16th, 2007 a Senate resolution that was considered and approved. Senate Resolution 387 acknowledged that the River has exceptional historic, religious, cultural, economic, and environmental importance for the Middle East and the world. Local governments have diverted more than 90 percent of the Jordan’s traditional 1.3 million cubic meters of annual flow endangering the River as well as the Dead Sea. The Resolution mentions that the Senate calls upon the world’s attention to the potential irreversible degradation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, applauds cooperation between governments of Israel, Jordan, and Palestinian Authority to manage and solve water crises in the region. The resolution states that such cooperation serves as a model for “… upcoming meetings in Washington area between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as they seek to resolve long-standing disagreements and develop a durable solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis.” International efforts have been very useful in prompting governments to act for the rehabilitation of the River. It led to the establishment of a joint Jordan River Basin Commission. Moreover, Israel is releasing approximately 10,000 cubic meters of water per hour from Tiberias Lake to the River.
Recognizing the Rivers spiritual value, the organization launched a Faithbased campaign that ties the river’s religious significance to the importance of its environmental preservation. During a regional conference titled “Rehabilitation of the Jordan River: A Commitment of Faith”, religious representatives from the 3 monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – joined to learn about the current state of the Lower Jordan River and to endorse the “Covenant for the Jordan River” calling on regional governments to work together towards its rehabilitation. By engaging Muslim, Christian and Jewish congregations in Jordan, Palestine and Israel as well as internationally, through its widespread faithbased advocacy campaign, FoEME aims to leverage support from faithbased communities toward the rehabilitation of the River.
FoEME works for the creation of the Jordan River Peace Park that will contribute to the rehabilitation of the Jordan River. In 1927, Pinchas Rutenberg, A Russian Engineer, used the Baqoura Island located at the northern section of the Lower Jordan Valley to build Palestine Electric Company also known as the Naharayim Power Plant to generate electricity from the confluence of the Jordan River and the Yarmouk River. The cooperation between him and King Abdullah I of Jordan set an unprecedented example to the benefits each country can reap since the power plant supplied electricity to both countries. However, the power plant was destroyed in 1948, due to Arab/ Israeli hostilities. In 1994, the Island was leased as a tranboundary “Peace Island” after the signing of Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel. A Transboundary Protected Area according to the World Conservation Union “IUCN” is a protected area that extends to multiple countries and does not recognize political borders. Neighboring countries manage it jointly thus setting a model of cooperation and coexistence. Turning the Baqoura Island into a transboundary “Peace Park” has many environmental and economic advantages. In this regard, Mr., Munqeth Mehyar FoEME’s Jordanian Director states that “The Park will be of great importance for peace, for biodiversity, for tourism and for the Jordan River.” He elaborated with regards to the Jordan River that “Not only will the park be used to raise awareness to the deteriorating status of the Jordan River, but the waters of the lake situated at the center of the park will pour into the Jordan River restoring some of its historic flow.” He added that from an economic perspective, the park is expected to become a tourist attraction which will create work opportunities thus empowering local communities.
FoEME endeavors to paint a new portrait to the Jordan River and its surrounding banks. A portrait of a River flowing with clean water surrounded by lush green banks and managed jointly by neighboring countries. A River surrounded by peace parks uniting visitors from all over the world for peace. The path to realizing this vision is long and filled with hardships but achievable for we share with Lynch the same appreciation for the Jordan River when he declares that although our “pillows” are hard, and our beds “the native earth”, we are upon the brink of the sacred Jordan River (10).
This post is contributed by Samar M. Salma, FoEMEs Media Officer, PR & Projects Coordinator at the Amman Office.