For centuries, the children of Abraham–Jews, Christians and Muslims alike–have venerated the Jordan River. So much so that “crossing over Jordan” has become a mystical metaphor for liberation and resurrection. These days, it’s the river itself that could use some resurrecting. Instead of a mighty torrent “deep and wide,” as the gospel songs proclaim, much of the river is a thin rivulet of brown slime largely obscured by reeds. Most of what now flows in between the Jordan’s banks is human sewage, almost all of it untreated. The river where John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, a river so sacred it doesn’t need a priest’s blessing to be considered holy water, is today, for all intents and purposes, full of crap.
Almost all the water that used to flow into the river is now diverted for human use, and in past decades, both the Israeli and Jordanian governments have blocked off the Jordan’s sources. The relative trickle is so shocking that American pilgrims are often heard exclaiming “That’s it?” when crossing the river at Allenby Bridge, the checkpoint separating the Kingdom of Jordan on the river’s east bank from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on the west.
The decline of the river has had profound social and environmental consequences for the Jordan Valley. It has reduced habitats for the 500 million birds migrating each year from Europe to Africa. It is killing the Dead Sea, which, without replenishment from the Jordan, is being reduced in depth about a meter a year. And it is helping decimate Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank–home to some of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities–which are slowly dying of thirst without access to the river or the authority to dig their own wells.
But the plight of the Jordan Valley is also galvanizing a new generation of environmental activists in the region. For Palestinians, reviving the river is a necessary part of establishing a national water system, vital for a future Palestinian state. For Israelis–with environmentalism replacing Zionism as a motivating ideology among idealistic secular Jews–learning to live with their dry country’s fragile ecosystem is giving new meaning to the old imperative to “make the deserts bloom.” And for all the communities that live along the Jordan, sharing its blessings is an opportunity to nurture the region’s fragile peace.
The trick is to convince the national governments that use the Jordan’s water that they would be better off returning the river to its natural course. For Gidon Bromberg, founder of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a joint Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental organization that is leading the effort to revive the Jordan, the future of water conservation in the Middle East lies in transforming rural economies. Right now the Israeli and Jordanian governments provide precious water at subsidized prices to their agricultural industries. Farming consumes the majority of the water supply but contributes little to national economies. Because they don’t pay full price for their resources, farmers grow water-hungry crops such as garden vegetables, fruits and flowers, most of which are shipped to Europe. “We are exporting our water,” says Bromberg. “Bananas are a tropical fruit. Why are we growing them in the desert?”
Rural communities in the valley would be better off if they developed themselves as destination spots. In particular, a healthy and accessible Jordan River (much of its banks on the Israeli side are in a restricted military zone) could be a much bigger draw for pilgrims visiting holy sites. FOEME and Yale University architects have developed a showcase ecotourism project: a Peace Park on an island in the middle of the river, where Jordanians and Israelis may one day meet without passports or visas. The Peace Park would also be a concrete way of fighting the mistrust that pushes countries to grab and hoard as much water as they can. “War will not generate water,” says Nader Al-Khateeb, the Palestinian director of FOEME. “But peace can.”