Monday, May 10, 2010

Lot's lot: The Death of the Jordan

“You can almost jump across this river. In other places, you don’t need to even jump. You can just cross it. It’s ankle deep.” This was an Israeli scientist’s sad assessment of the dying Jordan River. Gidon Bromberg’s anecdotal evidence was backed by his team of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmental scientists which says large stretches of the Jordan River could dry up by 2011. (photo: Getty)

A report from the EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) group say the river is in grave danger from excessive water diversion and pollution as well as being treated as a backyard dump. An astonishing 98 percent of its fresh water is currently being diverted while discharge of large quantities of untreated sewage is threatening to cause irreversible damage to the river valley. In the last 50 years, the river’s annual flow has dropped from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters to less than 30 million cubic meters and it has lost half its biodiversity due to habitat loss and the high salinity of the water.

FoEME is an unique environmental peacemaking movement and a tri-lateral organisation that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. FoEME say their primary objective is the promotion of cooperative efforts to protect their shared environmental heritage. This, they say has a double purpose, that of advancing sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in the region.

The Jordan River is sacred to three religions. It is mentioned in Genesis: "And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord." A pillar of salt near Deir Ain Abata in the Dead Sea is said to be Lot’s wife, after she turned to watch the destruction of Sodom. The Jordan is also the traditional baptismal site of Jesus and many of Mohammad’s venerable companions are buried near its banks, making it a holy site for Muslims around the world as well.

The Jordan Valley is also of immense ecological significance. The Valley is part of the 7,200-kilometre Great Rift Valley and is at the centre of one of the most important bird migration flyways on the planet. 500 million birds migrate annually through this narrow corridor between Europe and Africa. The area is also an important Middle Eastern wetland; both Birdlife International andWetland International have declared the entire river basin a significant bird and wetland area, maintaining many globally valuable species that are regionally or globally threatened or endangered species. The plight of the river is adding the strain on these species.

FoEME’s Israeli co-director Gidon Bromberg took journalists on a tour of the region to tell them what is killing the river and to tell them how much water is needed to save it and where the water would come from. Al Jazeera’s Orly Halpern said the river “was a narrow foul brownish stream that gurgled its way south”. Bromberg said the sewage from an additional 15,000 Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley, 6,000 Israeli settlers, 60,000 Palestinians and 250,000 Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan with most of its water."No one can say this is holy water," said Bromberg. "The Jordan River has become holy shit.”

In their water quality study released 3 May entitled “Towards a Living River Jordan” (pdf) FoEME said the Lower Jordan needed 400 million cubic metres of fresh water annually to return to life. They suggest 220 mcm should be provided by Israel, 100 by Syria and 90 by Jordan based on the historical usage of the water. In addition, the report says the river needs an annual minor flood event to flush out the salinity of the water. It said Israel and Jordan are building new waste water treatment plants which will remove the pollutants but further action is now required to allocate fresh water.

But FoEME is pleased by the first steps. Earlier this year, the Israeli Ministry of Environment released the Terms of Reference (ToR) for their proposal to rehabilitate the LJR from the Sea of Galilee to Bezeq Stream at the border with the Palestinian West Bank. The Israeli side presented the ToR to Jordanian and Palestinian stakeholders for comments during FoEME’s Regional Advisory Committee in February. FoEME praised this as a “first step towards rehabilitation and encourages the international community to support Jordan and Palestine in the development of their own ToRs as partners to the rehabilitation effort.”

FoEME say a billion cubic metres of water could be saved if appropriate economies were introduced in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. "In the middle of the desert we continue to flush our toilets with fresh water rather than using grey water or even better - waterless toilets; and we grow tropical fruit for export," Bromberg said. "We can do much better in reducing water loss and we need to treat and reuse all of the sewage water that we produce."

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