Dying Sea: Jordan River ecosystem casualty of war, politics
JORDAN RIVER VALLEY — Abdel Rahman Sultan walked along the modern bridge over a small wadi flowing into the Dead Sea, about 300 yards to his left. On this side of the saline lake, he was in Jordan. On the other side was the West Bank, his ancestral home that his family fled in 1967 when Israel captured it in the Six-Day War.
He pointed away from the body of water and up into a rugged valley. A bone-dry channel full of gravel and small bits of trash were testament to the water that used to flow from high in the hills down into the sea.
“Three years ago, I used to bring kids from different schools to clean up this wadi bed,” he said. “There used to be fish here — small, little fish. [. . . ] Now you can see there are no fish here; there is no water. And no reason to keep it clean.”
The River Jordan and sea it feeds are dying.
Mr. Sultan is a project manager for Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a nongovernment organization (NGO) dedicated to preserving the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea basin, an integrated ecosystem that’s smack in the middle of the most contentious land dispute in the world: the ArabIsraeli conflict.
It’s a seemingly disconnected problem but in many ways, it encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with this part of the world: stubbornness, suspicion, lack of awareness and bureaucracy.
The Jordan River Valley is one of the most historic spots on earth, full of religious significance, historical interest and environmental richness.
The Israelites crossed it to enter the Promised Land; Christ was baptized in its waters; several of the prophet Muhammad’s companions are buried near its banks.
The valley has been a crossroads for humanity since prehistoric times: Our earliest ancestors traversed its banks on their way out of Africa and into Asia and Europe.
Its rich wetland ecosystem today is still one of the most important migratory pathways for more than 500 million birds, according to FOEME.
More down to earth, its waters provide sustenance to farmers on all sides of the Israeli-PalestinianJordanian border, and as such its life-giving liquid is coveted by everyone.
The Dead Sea, too, is a unique ecosystem. It is the lowest place on earth at 1,378 feet below sea level, and its sole source of water is the Jordan River basin, which travels from north of the Sea of Galilee.
Because of this flow, the Dead Sea also is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water — 8.6 times more salty than the oceans — and when swimming in it, people bob like a cork.
The minerals in its mud are prized for their rejuvenating effects on skin. Tapped out
More than 90 percent of the 1.3 billion cubic meters of water that would have flowed into the Dead Sea annually has been diverted by Israel, Jordan and Syria, causing the sea to shrink by 30 percent in the past 20 years.
Dams, pumping stations and canals suck the basin dry, while the countries dump their wastewater back.
The water flowing past Jesus’ baptismal spot, just north of the Dead Sea, is mostly sewage. With much of the valley a military zone because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problem is not wellknown.
To call attention to the problem, about a dozen Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian mayors from towns and settlements along the river traveled last month to wade in one of the last clean places left on the flow.
“The waters of the Jordan River were in the past full,” said Mamoun Alouneh, mayor of the Jordanian town of Tabket Fahal. “The river was full; now there are people who use the water without considering the needs of others.”
So threatened are the river valley and the Dead Sea, which is dropping by about one yard every year, that the World Monuments Fund mentioned the Jordan River Valley on its list of 100 most endangered sites in June.
Back at the wadi, Mr. Sultan broods over the empty riverbed. The water has been diverted upstream into an aqueduct for use in Amman, the Jordanian capital, which has very few water resources of its own.
The landscape is one of rugged beauty, with river-carved rocks showing the sediments laid down over eons. The red and ochre stones contrast sharply against the clear azure of the desert sky.
“It’s very beautiful and sad,” Mr. Sultan said. “We used to play in the water and play games, but now it is very dry. It is just one example of water diversion in Jordan.”
On the other side of the border, Israel diverts 65 percent of the water exiting the Sea of Galilee for its northern agricultural lands. Much of the rest goes to Jordanian and Palestinian agriculture. Toxic politics
Like most problems here, the toxic politics of the conflict are never far from hand. Under Article 18 of the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the two sides pledged to manage and rehabilitate the valley.
But both governments point fingers at the other when it comes to assigning blame for the problem.
And Syria is causing problems. Muneth Mehyar, chairman of the Jordanian chapter of FOEME, said a Syrian dam across the Yarmuk River, the Jordan’s main tributary, has reduced that flow to a trickle. Under an agreement, Mr. Mehyar said, Jordan should get 700,000 liters (182,000 gallons) per second.
The Syrians give them 700 liters, or 182 gallons.
The reason is because Jordan is obligated under the 1994 treaty to supply Israel with 25 million cubic meters of water every year, and Syria doesn’t want to indirectly benefit Israel, Mr. Mehyar said.
By cutting down on the flow of the Yarmuk, the Syrians reduce the amount of water left over for the Jordanians, forcing them to draw still more water from the Jordan for agriculture and other needs.
Further complicating his efforts are the nature of his partners, the Israelis.
“A lot of people in Jordan criticize us for talking to Israel,” he said with a sigh. “But we are moving the Israeli public inside toward our own issue.”
He pauses. “People still call us traitors.”
And the agricultural practices in the region aren’t helping. Farming makes up 8 percent of the Jordanian economy, Mr. Mehyar said, and it requires most of the Jordan’s water. Thirsty crops
The reason is because the preferred crops are guzzlers: bananas and citrus plants, which are favored by the Gulf countries and fetch good prices there.
FOEME in Jordan is urging farmers to diversify their crops, such as date trees, which use less water and can grow in saltier climes, but Mr. Mehyar is fighting tradition.
“Their response often is, ‘You want me to change what my greatgreat-grandfather started?’ “ he said. “You’re talking about a tribal mentality.”
But FOEME believes only a regional solution can preserve the Jordan River. With people in Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, they are talking to anyone with a stake in the matter.
Well, almost anyone. They won’t talk to Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.
“We look at them as a very, very huge obstacle,” Mr. Sultan said.
According to Mr. Mehyar, Palestinians in the West Bank use about 15 gallons per person per day. Jordanians use about 30 gallons. Settlers use nearly 80 gallons per day.
It’s part of the hardships Palestinians in the West Bank face because they live on top of the some of the world’s richest aquifers, but most of the water goes to Israelis.
They also don’t talk to the Syrians, mainly because the oppressive state apparatus in Damascus forbids independent NGOs such as FOEME from operating, and the Syria’s Water Ministry is more interested in punishing Jordan for its peace treaty than being environmentally conscious. ‘Red-Dead’ canal
There is some movement to save at least the Dead Sea, mainly because it’s more visible. In May 2005, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement to study the feasibility of a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.
This “Red-Dead” canal would pump up to 850 million cubic meters of seawater annually from the Gulf of Aqaba about 110 miles north to the Dead Sea.
The $5 billion project, which is favored by the World Bank, would also provide jobs and about 190 megawatts of electricity for the three parties.
FOEME opposes the canal, arguing that protecting the Jordan River Valley is a better solution than pumping water from elsewhere.
They note that the Red Sea water is different chemically than the Dead Sea water, which, when mixed, might change the unique properties of the Dead Sea and reduce its health and tourist attractiveness.
The coral reefs of Aqaba could be damaged by the pumping and by running the canal over an active fault line. Any damage to the conduit might leak seawater into the ground water, causing grave environmental effects.
Mr. Mehyar proposes bioshelters and peace parks, and increasing ecotourism and religious tourism as an incentive to preserve the valley.
A comprehensive political settlement between Arabs and Israelis wouldn’t hurt, either, as that would make regional cooperation possible and boost tourism for everyone.
“If we solved this water thing, we could solve 50 percent of the political issues,” he said. “I am sure people would come to their senses.”
Salt deposits are left as the water recedes in the Dead Sea, causing large sinkholes, which endanger farms and prevent tourists from visiting the famous body of water. The sea has shrunk by 30 percent in the past 20 years.