Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
At Kasr-al-Yahud, dozens of pilgrims pray on the banks of the Jordan River. Dressed in white, they prepare to immerse themselves in the muddy green water at this spot where Christian tradition says John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
They enter the water one a time, completely immersing themselves, including their faces in the river. Many fill up small plastic bottles to take home with them.
A small sign in the parking lot, easily missed, says the water is not drinkable. But these pilgrims don’t seem to care.
Later in the gift shop, Father Sinesius Victoratus from Greece, says the baptism is a culmination of a dream for many of these pilgrims.
He says the religious experience over-rides any fear that the water may be polluted. “It seems not to be so clean, but if we bless it with the Holy Spirit, and all the liturgy is very clean, then we can drink from it. We take as a blessing bottles so as to have to drink.”
As the pilgrims immerse themselves, Gideon Bromberg cringes. Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, says the water is polluted.
“I have to hold myself back from saying stop! Don’t do that! Don’t put your head in the water! The water is not clean and has residue of sewerage, fishpond waste, and agricultural runoff. There’s nothing very holy about the state of the water today and that’s the tragedy. It makes you feel very sad.”
Part of the reason that the river is so polluted is that neither Israel, nor Jordan, nor the Palestinians have enough wastewater treatment plants. Bromberg says the Palestinian city of Jericho, just a few miles behind Kasr al Yahud, has no sewage treatment facilities.
“Jericho is a typical example of all of the Palestinian communities and all of the Jordanian communities along the Jordan valley that don’t have even a sewage network, let alone a sewage treatment plant. Every home has a hole in the ground. The sewage goes into this cesspit, into the hole, that percolates into the ground and makes its way into the river because the river is the lowest spot.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Jordan River is that there is simply not enough water. Israel, Syria and Jordan are all diverting large quantities of the Jordan River for drinking water and agriculture. Sarig Gafni, a freshwater ecologist and professor of ecology at Tel Aviv University, says there’s not enough water in the Jordan River.
“It used to carry 1.3 billion cubic meters per year, and now it carries less than 30 million per year. Which means about two percent about what it used to carry. Israel is diverting about 50 percent of the water through the national water carrier. Jordanians and Syrians are taking the water of the Yarmouk river, which is the main tributary, so the southern Jordan river is hardly flowing.”
As part of their peace agreement, Israel and Jordan agreed to share the fresh water that comes from the streams that feed into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest fresh-water reservoir. But little of that water goes to the Jordan River. Bromberg says like everything else in the region, the river became part of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“It’s very much connected to the conflict because the river became the border. The mindset became that the border is the back door, an area people should not access. It’s dangerous. You should stay away from it. You should capture the water before it leaves your territory because water is valuable. It’s powerful and you don’t want to empower your enemy downstream.”
Israel’s Minister of Environment, Gilad Erdan, recently agreed to return 30 million cubic meters of water to the Jordan. But Israel, Syria and Jordan need to divert less water away from the river and allow more fresh water to flow. In the short-term that seems unlikely. Amer Sweiti, a Jordanian graduate student in environmental studies, notes that the entire country of Jordan takes its name from the river. He says Jordan is facing a growing water crisis.
“Jordan is considered one of the poorest countries in water resources in the world, not only in the region. It’s in the last ten countries in the world. People can buy water but the problem is the quality. People have access, but even in Amman, it’s getting worse. There’s a sort of timetable for the water distribution or allocation in the city. We used to get it once a week from the national network.”
Most people supplement their water consumption, says Sweiti, by buying water from tankers, which is often not clean. Sweiti’s Ph.D. focuses on desalination which could provide more water in Jordan but desalination plants are expensive to build. It is so expensive to build the plants that it is often cheaper to buy and ship water from one country to another.
The width of the Jordan has also decreased substantially. Bromberg says the river is slowly dying.
“A healthy river system has to flow. It has to have annual periodic floods. If it’s a freshwater system, such as the Jordan, it needs to contain fresh water. We’ve completely altered the state of this river to the demise of the environment and to the demise of the cultural heritage of the three Abrahamic faiths.”
The Jordan River is holy to all three religions. Beyond the baptism site, it is also the place where the Jewish people are believed to have crossed the river into the holy land. Four of the companions of the prophet Mohammed are also believed to be buried along the banks of the Jordan.
Sweiti says that just as the entire region is responsible for diverting the water from the Jordan River, Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians must cooperate to rehabilitate the Jordan River.
“It’s the three parties’ responsibilities – not any one party. You can’t claim any one side. Its something in between the three countries.”
That means investing a lot of money in wastewater treatment and desalination plants. Most of all, it means diverting less water and trying to pour more fresh water back into the Jordan River to get it flowing again.
– Reported by Linda Gradstein for America Abroad