Middle East conflict killing the holy water

ON A searing hot summer day, Chana Ridlin screwed up her nose in disgust as she looked out over the dull, brackish waters of the River Jordan. "It’s hard to believe now, but we used to actually drink the water and go swimming with the children without worrying," the 83-year-old Israeli kibbutznik said.

Some 60 miles further downstream, at the site where Jesus was said to be baptised, a Jordanian family gathered on the river’s bank to christen their baby daughter. The Orthodox priest explained in Arabic that the child could not be christened with the holy waters of the Jordan "as the river was far too contaminated".

The biblical river, a holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims, is under threat of drying up altogether during summer and reduced to a meager flow during winter, thanks to Israel, Jordan and Syria embarking on massive water diversion programmes.

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In Amman today, environmentalists, who say the river’s situation is critical, will call on Unesco to place the Jordan on its World Heritage list.

A senior Unesco official will meet Middle East representatives from Friends of the Earth who are advocating that the river be listed. He will also brief Jordanian government officials on the process of obtaining a World Heritage listing, which requires the nomination to be signed off by the Israeli and Jordanian governments along with the Palestinian Authority.

"People and governments need to act immediately as the river’s ecosystem has been so badly compromised that the damage may be irreversible," FOE Israeli director Gidon Bromberg told Scotland on Sunday.

If successful, the area will receive both financial and technical assistance from Unesco to safeguard its waters.

The FOE Palestinian director, Nada Al-Khateeb, said: "The Middle East is not just about conflict. The environment knows no borders and it is impossible to save the River Jordan without co-operation from all sides. We are worried that we have already lost too much time."

For millions of people around the world, the Jordan holds a special religious symbolism. As well as being the location of Jesus’s baptism, many of Mohammad’s companions are buried near its banks, making it also a holy site for Muslims, while the Old Testament talks of how the prophet Moses was forbidden from entering the Jordan Valley and instead could only gaze upon the river from Mount Nevo.

At Yardenit in Israel, there is a major Baptism site on the river which attracts Greek and Russian Orthodox Pilgrims and the Mandean people of the only surviving Gnostic religion.

However, looking far less like a river and more like a narrow sewage channel, and only several metres wide in some places, the Jordan comes nowhere close to matching its iconic image.

Its demise is another casualty of the Middle East conflict, as the river, which forms the international border between Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, flows through some of the world’s most hotly contested land.

Since it is a border zone, a large part of the river is solely restricted to military access, making it harder for the public to see, yet alone comprehend, the extent of environmental damage.

Fifty years ago, the river’s flow was more than one billion cubic metres annually. Now, with Israel, Syria and Jordan siphoning water from the Jordan and its tributary, the Yarmouk for their national water carriers, it is less than 100 million cubic metres per year including 22 million cubic metres of saline water and 20 million of untreated sewage.

Currently, the Jordanian and Syrian governments are building a new dam on the Yarmouk which will decrease the Jordan’s flow even more so.

A recent report by a joint team of Israeli and Palestinian engineers and scientists from Israel’s Institute of Technology, Ben Gurion University and Al-Quds University found low flow rates made the river far more susceptible to external sources. Their study found the water contained "high sulphate concentration" and concluded that if nothing was done to improve the Jordan’s flow rate, "in some areas it will decrease to a level that will dry the river".

The highly-polluted river ends at the Dead Sea which itself is also under threat, having shrunk by 30% in the past 50 years as it relies on the Jordan as its major source. Some 14 wetlands dotted across the river’s basin are also facing a precarious future while the lack of decent water has resulted in many species of fish disappearing altogether.

A highly valuable commodity, the use of water is a contentious issue in the Middle East as local populations continue to grow rapidly.

Hillel Glassman, the head of the Streams Monitoring Unit for the Israeli government’s Nature and Parks Authority, said: "Let us not forget that the reason we reached this terrible point is because of the severe lack of drinking water in the region.

"All those nations around the Jordan and its sources want a healthy river and its ecosystem rehabilitated. Hopefully, the development of technology to desalinate water from the Mediterranean, will allow us to give more water back to the river itself."

Under the 1994 Peace Treaty, both Israel and Jordan must co-operate on matters affecting the river. But the Jordanians also want the Syrians to participate in discussions about the River Jordan’s rehabilitation.

Zafer Alem, the secretary-general of the Jordan Valley Authority, on the Jordanian side, said: "All three nations have taken water from the Jordan and its sources... so we are hoping the Syrians will get involved as well."

Unesco officials view the potential World Heritage nomination as an important opportunity to create dialogue between the three parties. "We support and encourage all forms of cultural and scientific exchange among the countries concerned and the Palestinian Authority in view of a better protection of the natural and cultural values of the area," said Francesco Banderin, the director of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre in Paris.

One person who would be delighted to see the area granted World Heritage listing is Ridlin, a grandmother who moved to Kibbutz Gesher in northern Israel in 1939 at the age of 19.

A former classmate of assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Ridlin moved into a stone cottage overlooking the Jordan and positioned her bed near the window so she could see the river every time she woke.

"There are so many songs and prayers about this river," she said. "It is our responsibility to keep the cosmos clean. Besides when we see each side of the river is flourishing, then we know there is peace."