Dy­ing Sea: Jor­dan River ecosys­tem ca­su­alty of war, pol­i­tics

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Christo­pher Allbrit­ton

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.”

An­nie Tritt / Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Times

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.

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