National Geographic Water Currents blog with permission The Jordan River of the Middle East has supported a long succession of empires and other human settlements for more than 8,000 years, but it took less than one generation of modern civilization to reduce the river to a trickle of sewage. Now, the ultra-modern technology of “desalination”—turning ocean water into fresh water—may provide the best hope for bringing the river back to life. At least that appeared to be the implicit consensus I heard last week from the more than 400 Israeli and Jordanian water experts and interested stakeholders gathered in a kibbutz just downstream of the Sea of Galilee, in the Jordan River’s watershed. While the river forms an international boundary that divides their countries, the river’s advocates have come to realize that only by working together can they hope to bring the river back to some semblance of the sacred blue ribbon in the desert that once sustained Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, Israelite, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab and Ottoman empires.
A River BetrayedThe once-mighty yet still-holy Jordan River has lost more than 90% of its natural water flow to thirsty farms and cities. The trickle of water still flowing down the lower Jordan channel into the Dead Sea today is a fetid brew comprised mainly of raw sewage, fish pond waste, and agricultural runoff. It seems an ungodly fate for a river immortalized in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whose stories tell of the places where Jesus was baptized, four companions of the Prophet Mohammed were buried, and where Moses looked out onto the Promised Land. Sadly, the primary river site in use today for baptizing more than a half million Christian pilgrims each year is located some 200 river kilometers upstream from where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus, due to two unfortunate realities: the biblical site is situated in a no-man’s land along the international border that is largely off-limits to all but the military, and immersion in the filthy river that now exists at the biblical site might leave a pilgrim relieved of sin but newly burdened with river-borne diseases. The river’s flow had been only lightly depleted until 1964, when Israel completed its 130-kilometer-long National Water Carrier, a canal and pipeline system that removes water at the Sea of Galilee and delivers it to Tel Aviv and other cities, power plants and industries along the country’s Mediterranean coastline and to irrigated farms extending as far south as the Negev Desert. From 1969-2008, the NWC diverted an average of 329 million cubic meters (MCM) of water from the Jordan each year, amounting to more than a quarter of the river’s total flow. As the Israelis were building the National Water Carrier, Jordan was constructing a large water diversion of its own, the King Abdullah Canal, completed in 1966. The 110-km King Abdullah Canal takes an estimated 140 MCM of water from the Yarmouk River, the Jordan’s largest tributary, to supply the capital of Amman as well as farms in the southern Jordan River valley. Because Syria withdraws virtually all of the remaining water available in the Yarmouk, this tributary no longer contributes much water flow to the Jordan River. By the time the withered Jordan River reaches the Dead Sea, only a paltry fraction of its original water flow remains. With greatly-reduced inflow from the Jordan River and with huge losses to evaporation, the water level of the Dead Sea—the lowest and one of the hottest places on Earth, currently at 427 meters below sea level—has been dropping by a meter each year.
The Jordan River Rehabilitation Conference was convened at Kibbutz Nir David, near the Sea of Galilee.