The Jordan – Politics, Pollution, and the Death of a River

Update: Some resources for the following can be found in this brief follow-up post.

Thanks to my new best friend, Twitter (follow me, won’t you?), I learned yesterday that hey, guess what? The Jordan River may run dry next year.

So I’ve been tweeting a bit about the issue, and was reminded of this post, wherein I promised to someday put up the transcript of a talk I gave at the Chicago Humanities Festival a couple of years ago, discussing the degradation of the Jordan River Valley down to and including the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

At that point in my blogging life, I wasn’t sure how to post the thing. Its own page? Perhaps? And then I pretty much just forgot about it. Well, now I’ve remembered, and now I know! I’ll start the transcript here, and you’ll find the rest of it after the jump.

One last thing: If you know anyone interested in the environment, the science of waterways, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and/or able to donate much-needed funds to a very worthy cause, please forward this post to him or her — or just direct him/her to Friends of the Earth Middle East (a link to which can always be found in the blogroll, to the right). Thanks!


Chicago Humanities Festival
The Jordan – Politics, Pollution, and the Death of a River

Good afternoon, and thank you so much for being here today. My name is Emily Hauser; I’m an American-Israeli who has written about the contemporary Middle East for 15 or so years. Ever since the explosion of the second intifada in September 2000, I have made no effort to hide my politics in my writing: I believe that the only thing that can possibly bring real peace or security to Israelis or Palestinians is a negotiated, mutually accepted two-state solution.

Years have proven, though, that while this is a surpassingly simple thing to say, it is apparently all but impossible to achieve. There are many, many reasons for the continuation of the conflict, and many heartbreaking consequences of its continuation – more often than not, the consequences wind up providing more reasons to keep fighting, and the struggle and the losses become ever more tightly wrapped around each other. Each dead child, every dead father, every shattered dream is another reason to never stop hating, never give an inch. On both sides.

As a rule in my work, I tend to focus on the blood spilled, the hearts broken – narrowing the harrowing numbers of dead and wounded down to an individual story or face, in an effort to shake readers and audiences into remembering that these numbers represent real people, real lives. People who, while they might not be exactly like you and me, have lost their worlds, and who among us cannot understand the terror and grief that must bring?

Yet in focusing entirely on people, I miss other pieces of the story – facets that are, perhaps, less immediate, but nonetheless tragic, and serve to play a crucial role in the perpetuation of the conflict.

Olive trees, for instance. Israel is constantly ripping up Palestinian olive groves, with the reasoning that either, a) the grove has been used as a hiding place for terrorists, or b) it’s in the way of a road, or c) it doesn’t really belong to the Palestinians who have been farming it, so it can be taken for settlement purposes. I’m of the opinion that more often than not, the idea is also one of collective punishment, that destroying the trees – the livelihood of an entire family, perhaps, or a village – is less fatal than other methods might be, and maybe they’ll learn their lesson. We Israelis fail to take into consideration the visceral attachment people (any people) often have to their fields, and the desperation that is created when centuries of income are wiped away in an instant. And we fail to consider that perhaps the olive trees are not, themselves, guilty of anything.

But our willingness to rip up trees that are literally hundreds of years old is to me an indication of a different, no less real problem. Nature, in the Israeli national narrative, is more often than not a force to contend with, something with which to struggle. We drained the swamps, we made the desert bloom – like many in the Western world in the post-industrial age, we saw the world as a series of resources waiting to be harnessed. Olive trees surely could not be expected to get in our way, any more than swamps. It did not occur to us – or to our many admirers – that deserts are not supposed to bloom.

And yet, to make any land habitable for humans, some adjustments must be made. Before I go any further, I must make one thing very clear: I do not wish to suggest that people, any people, do not have a right to live fully realized lives, or that any human impact on the environment is, in and of itself, evil. Nor do I mean to suggest that Israel is the only country in the Middle East, or the world, to have made enormous errors of judgment regarding the ecosystem of which it is a part.

Instead, what I intend to do here today is discuss the hopelessly intertwined problems of nationalism, scarce resources, and environmental ruin. I will maintain, as I generally do, that Israel’s position as the more powerful side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that a greater share of the responsibility for the problems and their resolution rests with Israel; this does not mean that Palestinians – or, indeed, the other nations in the region – do not also share responsibility. They, too, must act to save both the Jordan River Valley, and, I believe, their own futures. I will suggest that without a true peace – one that is durable, mutually accepted and respectful of the legitimate needs on all sides – the Jordan River may, in fact, be as doomed as the people who live on its shores. I plan to speak for about 45 minutes, and then open the floor to questions.


In truth, though, it’s hard to know where to begin. Do I begin with Israel’s establishment in 1948? Do I look at the water-inspired violence between Israel and Syria in the 50s and 60s? Do I start with a physical description of the river valley, its threatened flora and fauna, and the reasons the Jordan is in such bad shape today?

I’ll start with a story.

I was recently in Israel, and three weeks ago today, on October 21st, I took a trip down to the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea with Mira Edelstein, an Israeli representative of Friends of the Earth – Middle East. This is a tremendous organization, made up of Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis working together to try to address regional environmental issues, their work based on the understanding that ecosystems do not recognize national borders or nationalist narratives. I’ve interviewed each of Friends of the Earth’s national directors, and have known the Israeli director, Gidon Bromberg, for years. Any research you might ever hope to do on the conditions of the Jordan River will refer to Friends of the Earth time and again. I will also say right here and now that much of what you’ll hear today directly reflects their research and their work, but any mistakes I make or opinions I express are my own.

Having toured the area in the past with Mira, I realized that I really needed to talk with a Palestinian representative of the group as well. She arranged for us to meet with Muhammad Saideh, a field worker for Friends of the Earth in Ouja, a small Palestinian village that lies northeast of Jerusalem, just to the west of the river.

Ouja the village was built on the edges of Ouja Spring, a fresh water source that naturally feeds into the Jordan, as do other underground springs, small tributaries, the Sea of Galilee, and the Yarmouk River, which starts in Syria. (Of all these other sources, by the way, I will say much more, later).

The water from Ouja Spring flows east by way of a channel built by the villagers, who use it to irrigate their fields. Driving along the main road into and through Ouja, one can see the narrow channel, small sluice gates regulating the water’s flow, leading past Yeitav, an Israeli settlement, and to the spring itself.

Muhammad was kind enough to show us the ecological garden he’s working on with the town’s schoolchildren, and we discussed the educational center which Friends of the Earth hopes to build in the park (which, by the way, if anyone here would like to fund such a thing, I’m sure they’d be very grateful!). The center would provide work for the villagers, both in the building of it and the administration, would allow the village to become a hub for environmental activism, would provide education for the kids in the surrounding area – many of whom come on regular field trips to the spring – and would, it’s hoped, increase environmental awareness and lead to a greater sense of responsibility for facing the area’s environmental issues.

Lovely. But as we sat on the dusty ground under a tree – even in mid-October, the Jordan River Valley is a place in which to seek out shade – Muhammad couldn’t really keep the conversation strictly on the local environment, and the impact his village is having on its ecosystem. You see, the Israeli National Water Carrier now pumps the water out of Ouja Spring, selling water back to the village at a price they find hard to meet. The water doesn’t, in fact, truly flow down that channel anymore. The settlement of Yeitav pays a subsidized rate, and Israel will not allow Ouja’s residents to dig wells. As a result, the farmers are doing what Muhammad called “killing their fields,” allowing most of their banana trees to die off, he told us, in order to successfully water a small portion of them.

I heard this, and my ears perked up. The last time I drove around with Mira, she told me about the folly of banana farming. Bananas require an enormous amount of water, and as we drove past Israeli banana farms on that earlier trip, she said that shipping those bananas to Europe (which is where most of them were headed) was like sending Israel’s water to Europe. And Europe, she reminded me, has plenty of water.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when Mira raised this with Muhammad, asking him if perhaps the farmers had considered growing something else. “It’s what they can sell in the Israeli market,” he said with a bit of a shrug.

He then took us to the village council building, as he wanted us to meet the council members who deal with the water issue every day. Given the opportunity to discuss their daily struggles, the council members gave example after example of dying land, improvement projects stymied by the Israeli Civil Administration, and frustration with the impotent Palestinian Authority. When I asked the council member responsible for water allocation what he thought about the possibility of changing agriculture methods and land-use priorities in order to allow for some environmental recovery, both for their fields and the Jordan River, he smiled and said “When I have to spend all night giving people water, from the little water I have, how can I worry about the environment?”

It was as we got up to leave, though, that the Ouja Council was able to really make its point. As an afterthought, just before we walked out the door, Mira and I were called back to the kitchen area. “Look,” someone said simply, and turned a tap. Nothing came out. Then he pointed to a hand-written sign, taped to the door of the bathroom next to the kitchen. Muhammad translated: “Please don’t use the toilets, because we have no water.”

And so, to sum up: The Ouja Spring feeds the Jordan River, and allows cultivation along its path to the valley – but Israel is using that water, meaning that both the Palestinians living on it, and the river it feeds, do not in fact get any. If the Palestinians were to raise something other than bananas, they would need much less water to begin with – but the occupation means that their sole market is in Israel, and the one crop for which they have a ready market is bananas. In order to offer a cool drink on a hot day to a visiting journalist, Ouja’s leaders have to buy bottled water – a thing that the journalist herself has tried to stop doing, because of the environmental impact of our consumption of bottled water. And, because it bears repeating: The river itself gets nothing in the entire process.

The river. Now, having spent several minutes telling one story in order to demonstrate just a few of the issue’s complexities, I will finally turn to the river.

North of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan is in pretty good shape; it’s the lower reaches where the crisis lies. Sixty years ago, the lower Jordan carried 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water through its banks – I’ll be honest, though, this number really doesn’t mean a lot to me, as a lay person, until I put it in some context. So, let’s say this: it powered a hydroelectric plant. Today, the river carries less than 10% of that.

From the Sea of Galilee, the river meanders south for some 125 miles to the Dead Sea, through the lowest spot on earth, at the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. Some 500 million birds migrate through the valley twice every year, and a wide variety of flora and fauna find their northern and southern limits in the valley. Early humans migrated out from Africa along the river, and archeologists have found evidence of humanity’s first farms just outside Jericho – a small, jumbled city best known for its appearance in the Book of Joshua and, at 11,000 years old, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the world.

Of course, Western culture is shaped by the monotheism that first arose in the Middle East, and the river’s religious context is surely its most familiar. The Hebrew scriptures tell us of the valley’s beauty, in Genesis 13: “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord”; at the end of Deuteronomy, we learn of the death and burial of Moses on Mt. Nebo, on the Jordan’s eastern shore. In the first chapter of Mark, we read: “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” These scriptures are holy also to the world’s one billion Muslims, and a number of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions are said to be buried on the Jordan’s shores.

Since Biblical times and the rise of Islam, the river valley has seen the passage of caravans and armies, and it is currently shared by three nations: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians; about 15 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, the river moves into the West Bank.

And yet, strictly speaking, this isn’t really the case anymore. For all intents and purposes, the river actually stops a couple of miles south of the Galilee, at Israel’s Alumot Dam. You can go to the dam and see, to one side, the last of the Jordan’s waters, and to the other see, and smell, raw sewage gushing directly into the river bed. It’s frankly a bit stomach-turning. Literally the only fluids flowing into the bed of the Jordan River at this point are untreated human waste, and brackish, saline water that Israel pumps from springs to the north of the Sea, and dumps here.

As this combination moves south, it’s augmented by the tributaries and underground springs I mentioned earlier, and about six miles to the south of the Sea, the Yarmouk River. All told, about half of the Jordan River’s flow today comes from these natural sources; the other half is human waste, runoff from agriculture and fish farms, and that saline water. Some stretches of the river are so dry you’d have to portage a kayak.

Lest people think that I blame Israel alone for this sad state of affairs, let me say very clearly: Everyone is to blame. As Mira from Friends of the Earth once said to me, the ironic thing is that the multinational cooperation in destroying the river has been fantastic.

It’s true that Israel diverts some 60 percent of the fresh water heading downriver from the Sea of Galilee for its own farms and kitchens. But Jordan maintains a major canal that diverts water from the Yarmouk, upstream from which Syria has built more than 40 dams. Jordanian and Palestinian septic tanks and cesspits allow untreated sewage to seep into the water basin. And finally, the recently completed but not yet fully operational Unity Dam, a joint Syrian-Jordanian project, threatens to reduce the Yarmouk’s contribution to nearly nothing. Up and down the Jordan, the casual observer can easily pick out visible reminders of its former glory: An Ottoman bridge, for instance, its soaring arches built in the early 20th century to accommodate the Jordan at full flow in mid-winter – today, the water doesn’t even cover its foundation stones. On both banks, most of the valley is a closed military zone, the whole miserable thing hidden from view because of Israel’s and Jordan’s military demands.

Much of the water diversion is a result of decision making which might have once made sense, but certainly no longer does. Remember those bananas? They represent an enormous problem that, like pollution, spans the river: In Israel, agriculture takes up some 30% of the country’s fresh water, but translates to not quite 3% of the gross domestic product. In Jordan, the payoff is even worse: 70% of the country’s fresh water supplies go toward the production of some 6% of Jordan’s GDP.

But the Jordanian director of Friends of the Earth, Munqeth Mehyar, says that if you suggest to Jordanian farmers that they give up bananas (or citrus, another water-guzzling crop and also huge in Israel), their response is usually “You want me to change what my great-great-great-grandfather started?”

Likewise, in Israel, the idea of the farmer-scholar plays a central role in our understanding of ourselves. Schoolchildren are taught that the early pioneers were “redeeming the land,” and many people still believe that Israel’s security demands the kind of Jewish self-sufficiency that has been so highly valued since the launch of the Zionist project. Agriculture is seen as a crucial part of that self-reliance.

It would surprise many Israelis, I believe, to learn that more than 80% of their daily caloric intake actually comes from agricultural imports. At the same time, some 250 million cubic meters of fresh water are exported annually, in the form of flowers, vegetables, fruit, spices and cotton.

Simply put, this doesn’t make sense. Even if we were to put aside the legitimate needs of the river and its ecosystem, it simply makes no economic sense for such arid countries as Jordan and Israel to be agricultural exporters to the West. It’s the very essence of carrying coals to Newcastle, selling ice to Eskimos, whatever metaphor you can think of: It’s irrational, at best. And when you consider that it’s actually killing one of the main sources of water for both countries, it begins to look downright stupid.

All this mistreatment of the Jordan has led to a series of very sad consequences. The situation in Ouja, for instance, a direct result of over-pumping and ill-considered farming on all sides, is but one example of the impact of the Jordan’s demise on its human dependents. If the river truly dries up, one can only guess the impact that would have all up and down its banks.

Moreover, the ecosystem itself is changing. A representative of the Israel Parks Authority, Hillel Glassman, reports that over the past 40 years, it has become saline based, with saline flora. Animals or birds are occasionally found poisoned by toxic run-off, and the river is truly off-limits to humans. At Qasr al-Yahud, for instance, widely considered the very spot where Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John, pilgrims who bath in the water, “are likely to come out with a rash on their heads,” in the words of Gidon Bromberg, Friends of the Earth’s Israeli director. This is part of why Israel maintains a separate baptism site just to the north of the Alumot Dam, and officially, no one is allowed in on the Israeli side at Qasr al-Yahud. Meanwhile, some 20 or 30 feet east, across barely moving, greenish water, on the Jordanian side, pilgrims dunk themselves in white robes, a sign of spiritual purity, coming up covered in fetid water that may literally make them ill. And by the way, in the late 19th century, pilgrims reported that they had to take care in entering the river here, lest they be swept away by the rush of its waters.

At the Jordan River’s end point, the Dead Sea, the story is even more tragic. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the Dead Sea is dying, and that it may well be too late to truly reverse the damage. At best, we might be able to manage it, to keep the Sea itself from a deeper crisis, and to prevent human disaster.

Entirely as a result of human behavior, the Dead Sea has shrunk drastically in size – losing a third of its surface area over the last 50 or so years – and continues to shrink at a rate of three feet or more every year. Between the reduced flow from it’s one real source, the Jordan, and the work of the mineral industries, the Dead Sea is now, in fact, two bodies of water, the northern basin and southern basin completely separated by a land bridge.

While the sea’s rapid decline has been visible to the naked eye for some time, there has been an alarming, new development over the past decade: sinkholes, spots where the land, once covered by water, literally collapses in on itself. Ten years ago, there were ten reported sinkholes; today, there more than 1,600 holes and crevasses, some dozens of yards deep.

Sinkholes happen when salt deposits under the surface of what was once the sea bed dissolve, largely as a result of the now unmitigated flow of underground fresh water springs in the direction of the sea. Once, the Dead Sea’s mineral content balanced the fresh water; now, in its absence, the salt deposits are essentially being washed away. All of this is underground, however, and there’s no way of knowing that it’s about to happen, until it does.

The result is that the mud flats around what is left of the sea are pock-marked and scarred, as if hit by a meteor shower.  Mira reports that there have been periods in which, literally, week to week, new, enormous holes have opened; in the course of our trip, a trip designed precisely to show me the magnitude of the problem, she was audibly surprised and visibly horrified by the sinkholes’ expansion in one particular area, an area she had visited not two months previous.

The spas and resorts that cater to tourists along the Dead Sea continue to move their umbrellas and beach chairs in pursuit of the ever-moving shore – the 21st century version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg – and they block off access to areas in which sinkholes lie open and spreading. The single road that leads along the Dead Sea to the southern half of the country has seen only one sinkhole crack through, so far, but there’s no real reason to think that stretches of the highway won’t just collapse, today, tomorrow, next week. There are sinkholes literally yards from the pavement, and for long stretches, the only thing on the other side is a solid rock wall. As someone who generally tries to avoid scare tactics and extreme statements, I say honestly: It is only a matter of time before a sinkhole, or many sinkholes, open in an instant, and threaten the lives of anyone nearby. The first sinkhole ever recorded, on Kibbutz Ein Gedi, yawned open under a woman as she walked along a path in the kibbutz campgrounds. She emerged unscathed, but the fact that no one has died yet frankly surprises me.

No one in government, in either Jordan or Israel, is seriously addressing the question of the Jordan River’s endangered status, but both governments are actively pursuing one possible solution to the shrinking of the Dead Sea. Known as the “Red-Dead Canal” or the “Peace Conduit,” the countries purpose to pipe water from the Red Sea to the Dead, creating jobs, producing hydroelectric power, and providing water for desalinization along the way. The left-over, salt-heavy remains would wind up in the Dead Sea, raising its level over time. The cost of this project would be astronomical, anywhere from 1.5 billion to more than 5 billion dollars, but the two governments maintain that it is the best possible solution to the Dead Sea’s dire situation.

To once again quote my friend Mira, though: We already have a canal. It’s called the Jordan River. It’s already dug, for one thing, and more to the point, the entire make-up of the Dead Sea is predicated on what nature designed it to receive from its own ecosystem – the Jordan River Valley – and not whatever might come up the pipe from the Red Sea.

A study produced by Israeli geologist Eli Raz, at the Dead Sea Institute for Research and Development – an arm, it should be noted, of Israel’s Ministry of Science – found that “various negative effects on the limnology, microbiology and the chemical industry are expected by mixing the water of the two seas,” and that furthermore, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea “should be regarded as one system; stabilizing the Dead Sea level by the recovery of the Jordan River is the closest to the original situation and hence the most proper one.”

Friends of the Earth is spear-heading efforts to have feasibility studies done on alternatives to building the Red-Dead – i.e.: reviving the Jordan – but to my mind, the fact that they have to push such a notion is indication of just how far gone the planners already are.

The pursuit of the Red-Dead Canal speaks to me of two human problems, the first of which is our apparent unwillingness – across the globe, and from culture to culture – to change our behavior significantly. Rather that reconsider the habits of decades, the Zionist farming ethos, or our current methods of water allocation, rather than encourage people to become responsible for their actions and approach nature as a partner, we will spend 5 billion dollars to build some fancy plumbing. The screaming progressive in me suspects that capitalism’s ugliest face can be seen here as well: The Red-Dead will create not just jobs, but profits, and power. Those close to the plate will no doubt get a big ol’ piece of pie, and the business elite always benefits when government decides to build something big.

The bigger problem, I suspect, is very specific to the region. In building a pipe from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, Israel will not touch a single square inch of occupied Palestinian territory. Rather than having to talk to the people whose lives we’ve controlled for forty years, rather than actually achieving peace with them so that we might work together, we can just hatch a plan with those nice Arabs, the ones we have always liked best and who have their own issues with the Palestinians, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Expensive and a potential environmental disaster the Red-Dead might be, but it will not be messy. It will not require the complicated and decidedly unpleasant process of peace negotiations, with their attendant hissy fits and painful concessions, it will not require admitting any wrong-doing, it will not require finding a way to work as equals with people we are far more used to ordering around. In his book The Process, chief Israeli negotiator Uri Savir offers a first-hand account of the Oslo peace neogtiations, and writes about discovering how hard it is for Israeli negotiators to deal with their Palestinian partners respectfully, as equals. He wrote: “We had been engaged in dehumanization for so long that we really thought ourselves ‘more equal’ – and at the same time the threatened side, [and] therefore justifiably hesitant…. Whenever we offered a concession or a compromise, our people tended to begin by saying; ‘We have decided to allow you…’.” (Interestingly, in looking up that quote the other day, I re-discovered this one, too: “The solution to the [water] problem,” Savir wrote back in 1998, “must be regional, and therefore the best source of water is peace.”)

Any work we do then on the southern two-thirds of the lower Jordan and the northern third of the Dead Sea, would be endlessly complicated by our occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank. If we actually achieve peace with them – and real peace will require that we return the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians, much as Prime Minister Olmert might like to refer to the valley as “Israel’s eastern border” – then almost everything we invest in the river will stay right there in the sovereign state of Palestine. Whereas, if we leave things as they are and wind up forking over the valley to people we really don’t like, well, we’re set, aren’t we? We have the upper Jordan, the Sea of Galilee – and the Alumot Dam. So what if the lower Jordan dries up on the Palestinians?

Of course, this suggests a conscious conspiracy, and conscious malice, on Israel’s part, and I can’t honestly say if these things are discussed at government levels. But I simply cannot believe that they don’t play a very important role in the decision making, on levels both conscious and sub-, in both open behavior and that ever-difficult to quantify influence, gut feeling. If I don’t like you, if you scare me, if (worse yet) I think you’re not really worth very much, I might not even consider you in the first place. Crimes of omission are a very significant part of the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Having said that, however, it remains true that Israel and the Palestinians remain in a state of low-level war. I can understand the government official who would rather trust the folks with whom we have a peace treaty – the Jordanians – than the ones with whom we don’t – the Palestinians. Water is a security issue, no doubt, and with the Jordanians, we have security arrangements which would allow the sides to address any issues that might come up without finding ourselves taking up arms.

But here’s a thought that came to me as I stared at the map of Israel while preparing this talk: This canal is a 125-mile long target. One determined group of terrorist infiltrators, one missile launched by some new Saddam Hussein and – well, what? What then? If people are seriously talking about Israel’s agriculture as a security issue – in spite of the fact that most of our food comes from elsewhere – surely the security concerns raised by the Red-Dead Canal should be considered as well. I am certain that it would be very carefully guarded – but how much will that cost? And if Israel has learned nothing else from nearly 60 years of existence, we have seen that a resolute, highly competent military can only accomplish so much. The best possible method for keeping one’s people (and one’s water supplies) safe from attack, is peace.

Ah, peace. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it? If only we could all like each other.

The real problem with peace is that it’s not as simple as we want it to be. We cannot make people like us, we cannot make people think as we wish they would, we cannot make them agree with us. We can scare them, push them around, kill them if need be, but we can’t force them to actually get along with us.

That part is difficult and demanding and requires not only realizing how much we have in common, but also how much separates us. We and the Palestinians are very different. We started out different, and the hostilities of a century have turned some of those differences into points of pride. On both sides, if we really want to stop dying – either the instant death of a bomb, or the drawn-out death of choking our water supplies – we had better start paying attention to what really matters to the other side, whether or not it makes sense to our own.

Friends of the Earth is made up of a bunch of really smart people who truly love the lands in which they live. They think the Jordan and its various animals and plants deserve water, because they do. Full-stop. But they are also realists, and understand that people will have to benefit from any effort made to save the river valley. They have some excellent ideas, centered on shifting the valley’s primary economic activity from agriculture to tourism. Imagine, for instance, what kind of tourist site Qasr al-Yahud, the site of Jesus’ baptism, could be, if it were cleaned up and cared for by all three nations.

At Friends of the Earth, they’re quick to point out that the tourism would have to be carefully planned, so as not to add new pressures to the environment, but such a shift in priorities would save an entirely irreplaceable and priceless natural resource; would, in Israel’s case, protect the very land to which Zionists so longed to return; and would preserve the historical heritage on both sides. Indeed, the river itself plays such a big role in the history of the region – the world – that just reviving it would be an important step toward protecting the international community’s cultural heritage.

To this end, in fact, the World Monuments Fund placed the entire “Jordan River Cultural Landscape” on its list of the world’s one hundred most endangered sites – a list that includes the cultural heritage sites of Iraq, and the Buddhist remains of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan.

And further to this end, Friends of the Earth has been working for years to get the Jordan River named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. But getting that recognition from the UN would require an integrated development plan, and an implementing body – of which the region currently has neither. Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli mayors working together with Friends of the Earth have met with organizations that do similar work, such as the International Boundary and Water Commission in Texas, and are looking into the best way to in fact develop a plan and establish an executive body, but as you may have guessed, the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians creates a sizeable obstacle. The election of Hamas in 2006, for instance, meant that the world community cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority. The Authority, in turn, couldn’t pay salaries, and any government employee – like say, a mayor interested in working with Israelis to save the Jordan River – was out of luck.

The obstacles created by the lack of peace are actually much less dramatic on the average day, though. When we met with Muhammad in Ouja, he reminded Mira that he needed some permits arranged. She said she’d take care of it. What permits, though, you might ask? Travel permits. Why “permits,” in the plural? Because when Muhammad wants to go elsewhere in the West Bank, say to examine the sinkholes, the Israeli occupation authorities require him to have a travel permit. If he wants to go to Jerusalem to attend a Friends of the Earth conference, he needs a different permit. If he wants to travel to the Jordanian offices, a third permit. If he wants to meet with Gidon Bromberg, at the Tel Aviv office – another permit. And if Gidon should decide on the spur of the moment that Muhammad should really meet with someone in an office in, let’s say, Kfar Saba, 20 minutes northeast of Tel Aviv – he can’t. Because Muhammad’s permit only says “Tel Aviv.” And I haven’t even mentioned the time Palestinians spend just getting through the hundreds of Israeli road blocks set up all over the West Bank, or the expense. Trips that should take 15 or 45 minutes can take, quite literally, all day. And then people have to go home. Where it’s anybody’s guess if they’ll have water when they step in the shower. It’s a wonder that Friends of the Earth – or any of the other wonderful groups in which Israelis and Palestinians work together – gets anything done at all.

There are many things that Israelis and Palestinians and Jordanians can and must do to save the river they share. Israel must build more sewage treatment facilities, Palestinians must consider alternative crops, Jordanians must reconsider the damming of the Yarmouk River. But bottom line, unless and until the occupation has ended and there is a real, durable, trustworthy peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea, don’t stand much of a chance.

What Israelis often forget is that peace agreements don’t mean that you’ve abandoned yourself to the good graces of people who just yesterday wanted you dead – peace treaties presume that the nasty emotions remain, and must be controlled. They come with security arrangements, lines of communication, and in this case, let us not forget, the backing of the world’s one remaining superpower. Entrusting our water’s future to an agreement with the Palestinians is not an act of faith – it’s an act of wisdom, and of foresight.

And though the necessary reclamation work can seem prohibitively complex, the state of California recently provided a wonderfully successful example: In 2006, sixty-two dry miles of the Owens River – arguably in worse shape than the Jordan – were reclaimed and now flow again, after nearly a century of the Owens being diverted to Los Angeles.  It would be expensive, and it wouldn’t be easy. But it can be done.

But if we don’t do it soon, there might, and I keep saying this word but, there might literally be nothing left to save.

I’ll leave the last word, though, to Nader Khateeb, Friends of the Earth’s Palestinian director: “In our area,” he told me once in an interview, “you cannot give up, because if you give up, you’re finished…. We need to save something for our children, so that they will have a better life.”

Thank you.


Update: For some resources on this topic, please click here.


  1. dmf

     /  May 11, 2010

    thank you ee, this is lovely and ever timely. was just reading kingsolver’s post 9/11 reflections, “small wonder”, and her ch. called “the patience of a saint” on the endangered san pedro river:
    This place is one of the blessings I count when I brace myself to consider a dearly beloved and threatened world, and stake my heart onto the pieces of what’s left of it. The pulse of a whole continent beats in this thinly drawn vein, and I’m called to put my hand in it and listen.

  2. Emily — I read this just after writing about the oil spill in the Gulf and the way we kill water, the most essential element of life, so it reverberated all the more. You sum up the complex disaster of the murky stream that was once the Jordan River perfectly — “the hopelessly intertwined problems of nationalism, scarce resources, and environmental ruin” — and then had the grace to quote Friends of the Earth’s Nadeer Khateeb (“you cannot give up, because if you give up, you’re finished”)to save us from despair. Thanks so much for posting the full transcript.

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