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The Dead River? How the waters of the Jordan run foul

If and when bombing stops and Syrian farmers turn their irrigation taps on once again, a dire water shortage problem on the River Jordan could become drastically worse

Let’s dream a little and imagine the bombings in Syria have ceased and the conflict is drawing to a close.

As Syria’s farmers once again cultivate their lands, so the taps for irrigating crops are turned back on. But not everyone is happy.

For Jordan, Syria’s neighbour to the south, what is a dire water shortage problem could, with the end of the war, suddenly become worse.

The River Jordan, which rises on the slopes of Mt Hermon on the Syria-Lebanon border and flows 250km to end its journey emptying into the Dead Sea, is a vital source of water for the country which is named after it.

The trouble is that Syria – along with Israel and Jordan itself – has been taking vast amounts of water out of the river over the years.

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Francesca de Châtel, who has carried out extensive work on water systems in the Middle East, says what was once a meandering river, full of rapids and cascades, has been extensively developed, with dams, diversion canals and large-scale irrigation projects on the river, its tributaries and headwaters. 

“As a result,” says de Châtel, “flow has been reduced to about one-tenth of the historic value and water quality has sharply deteriorated, with raw sewage, saline flows, and agricultural run-off polluting the remaining water.”

Polluted promised land

Tourists flock to see the River Jordan, one of the world’s most celebrated and holiest of rivers. It is said to be the body of water which the Israelites crossed to reach their promised land and in which Jesus was baptised. But there is little that is holy about the river now.

These days, those wishing to follow in Jesus’s footsteps and be soaked in the Jordan’s waters have to go to specially designated – and relatively pollution free - baptism areas.

Menawhile hydroelectric schemes which were built along the Jordan’s course have been abandoned. “At one stage the River Jordan was able to be harnessed and move turbines to produce electricity,” said an environmental activist in the area. “The tragedy today is that the Jordan wouldn’t turn a mouse wheel.” 

During the past 60 years, Syria has built more than 40 dams along the Jordan and its tributaries, although water-sharing agreements between Damascus and Amman have not been implemented. 

In the early 1960s, Israel opened a major dam diverting water from the Sea of Galilee for crops on adjacent lands.

An Orthodox Christian priest and pilgrims in the Jordan River at Qasr al-Yahud, near Jericho, where Jesus is believed to have been baptised (AFP)

At the same time Jordan built a wide channel to harness water from the Yarmouk river, one of the Jordan’s main tributaries.

For Jordan in particular, the diversion of the waters of the country’s main river has been a disaster. The United Nations has described it as one of the most water scarce countries on earth. 

Influx and outflow

The statistics tell a grim tale. According to recent analysis by academics at Stanford University in California, working in cooperation with Jordanian water experts, Jordan’s per capita water availability has decreased from 3,600 cubic metres per year in 1946 to only 135 cubic metres at present – well below what is considered to be a level of “absolute scarcity”.

Groundwater resources in Jordan have been chronically over exploited with aquifers unable to replenish themselves. Other factors have contributed to the country’s water scarcity problems.

Jordan and the surrounding region have had to endure periods of prolonged drought, which was particularly severe from 2008 to 2014. 

The country's population has ballooned during the last quarter century, both through an increase in birth rates and the influx of vast numbers of refugees from fighting, first in Iraq, then in Syria.

According to the latest country-wide census, there are nearly 9.5m in the country, up from 2.2m in 1990. Of these, the government classifies nearly three million as non Jordanians, including Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians.

Clearly, such a growth in population over a relatively short timespan puts severe strain on water and other resources. Every day, hundreds of tankers deliver water to the Syrian refugee camp at Zaatari which, with an estimated 100,000 inhabitants, is one of the largest settlements in the country.

Syrian refugees collect water at the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq (AFP)

“Jordan is facing a deepening multipronged freshwater crisis, exacerbated by a long-term decline in rainfall, declining groundwater levels and regional conflict and immigration,” says the Stanford study.  

The analysis says further steep declines in the flow of the river are likely as climate change intensifies in the region. It forecasts that temperatures in Jordan will increase by more than four degrees Celsius by the end of the century while rainfall will decline by up to 30 percent.

Improvement projects

But there are some optimistic signs amid the gloom.

Considerable progress has been made – mainly by Jordan and Israel – on building sewage treatment plants along the length of the river. There are also plans for sewage treatment for waters flowing in from the Palestinian territories.

Projects involving the cross-border Friends of the Earth Middle East non-governmental organisation and other international bodies have raised funds for cleaning up sections, though local political arguments have led to delays. 

Israel is releasing more water from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan and, in some areas, flows have improved. The most ambitious – and controversial - plan for improving access to water in the region is what’s called the Red Sea-Dead Sea project

The $1.1bn project, first conjured up by colonial engineers in the mid-19th century, involves building a desalination and hydroelectric plant near the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba and pumping the brine – the byproduct of the desalination process - up to the Dead Sea through a 180km long pipeline.

In a complex series of water swaps, freshwater from the desalination plant will be sold to Israel’s southern Arava region, while Jordan will buy water from the Sea of Galilee and the Palestinian Authority will purchase water from an Israeli desalination plant.

The drying shores of the Dead Sea, south of Amman in 2009 (AFP)

The aim is not only to provide more fresh water to the region but also to increase water levels in the Dead Sea, the world’s lowest land elevation.

The Dead Sea – a major tourist resort with hundreds of thousands tourists visiting each year to bob about in its salt and mineral-rich waters – has shrunk by a third during the last 20 years, around a metre every 12 months. 

Scientists say the shrinkage is not only because the amount of water from the River Jordan entering the Red Sea has declined but also through increased evaporation caused by higher regional temperatures.

Hotels which once stood on the sea’s banks have been abandoned. Buildings have been swallowed up by sinkholes that have opened up on land nearby.

In 2015, Jordan and Israel signed an agreement to proceed with the project, which is being sponsored by the World Bank. The scheme’s backers say $400m of initial finance has been raised and five consortia – most of them from the Far East – have been shortlisted for the project. Work is supposed to start next year, with the first phase due to be completed by 2020.

“Jordan is very committed to the Red Sea-Dead Sea project, and we think it is a very important strategic project for us,” said a Jordanian water official

Reviving the river

Yet for all the enthusiasm that might be professed in Amman and Tel Aviv, the project faces several obstacles. Any cross-border agreement in the Middle East is fraught with problems, particularly at a time when moves towards a regional settlement have ground to a halt.

The Palestinian Authority, which has largely been left out of negotiations, is wary of participating at such a time of tension and mutual suspicion.

Environmental groups also question the viability of the Red Sea-Dead Sea project, arguing that mixing the very different waters from the two seas could endanger ecosystems. 

Palestinian scouts march toward the Jordan River as part of the Orthodox Feast of the Epiphany (AFP)

If brine – the waste from the desalination process – is dumped into the Dead Sea, then its blue waters could turn a milky white and affect the tourist industry.

Environmentalists argue that the only way to ensure adequate water supplies – and preserve what’s left of the Dead Sea – is to stop water being diverted out of the River Jordan. 

That would mean less water for agriculture and also for Jordanian and Israeli mining conglomerates which divert waters in the Jordan’s southern stretch to evaporation ponds in order to make valuable potash and bromine chemicals. 

Persuading all these different interest groups – and countries bitterly divided by conflict and politics – to take action on the River Jordan is an enormous task.

Despite all the problems, water expert de Châtel sees some reasons for optimism. Environmental groups and others are working hard – against the odds – to revive the lower portions of the river.

“While the Jordan river will never return to its natural state," she says, "it could again becoming a living river and a carrier of holy water that is not only worshipped in a religious context but also revered and respected as the key to life and livelihood in this arid region.”

Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times, and continues to contribute to the BBC as well as international newspapers and radio networks.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Christian Orthodox priest baptises a baby in the Jordan River during a ritual at the Qasr al-Yahud baptism site in April 2009 (AFP)

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