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Inside Israel and Jordan’s new bid to rehabilitate the Jordan River

'In Israel, what’s happening now is a bit like a dream come true,' one Israeli environmental activist said. 'If you came here 10 years ago, nobody would have thought that such a thing could happen.'

YARDENIT, Jordan Valley – In the Bible, the Jordan River is described as a gushing body of water, risky for the high priests carrying the ark of the covenant to cross. Today, if the people of Israel reached these reedy banks, they would have no problem skipping over the almost dried-up stream; their only hesitation might be the pollution.

Over the last 50 years, the river’s annual flow has dropped drastically — from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters per year to less than 30 million cubic meters. The climate crisis, coupled with regional conflicts and the practical needs of people in the surrounding countries, have turned the Jordan’s waters into a pitiful trickle.

At the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Israeli and Jordanian officials appeared to recognize the need for action. Ministers from both countries signed what was touted as a historic “Declaration of Intent” to rehabilitate the once-flowing river and ensure it is sustainable for future generations.

Then-Israeli Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg, from the left-leaning Meretz party, also described the declaration as “an expression of the connection between Israel and Jordan, neighboring countries with a river flowing between them.”

But such efforts by Israel and Jordan to safeguard and revive the shared stream have been discussed before. Nearly 30 years ago, when the two countries signed their peace agreement, provisions were laid out for rehabilitating the river, including environmental protection, agricultural pollution control, liquid waste restrictions and pest control. There were also plans to create nature reserves and protected areas, as well as tourist and historical heritage sites along the river’s banks.

As relations between the countries deteriorated, however, little changed in the status of the iconic waterway. Israel and Jordan, along with Syria and Lebanon, continued to siphon off much of the clean water, and conflicts – old and new – kept cooperation and conservation from becoming priorities.

In his recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman, who has long touted the environmental crisis as a factor that could ultimately force peace on the region, referred to the declaration between Israel and Jordan and expressed hope that it would now nudge the countries in a new direction.

Environmental activists are hopeful too.

“In Israel, what’s happening now is a bit like a dream come true,” Nadav Tal, water officer for the Israel office of EcoPeace, a regional environmental nonprofit that has long been pushing for cleanup of the river, told Jewish Insider recently. “If you came here 10 years ago, nobody would have thought that such a thing could happen.”

Tal took Jewish Insider to Yardenit, a tourism site just south of the Sea of Galilee where some Christians believe John first baptized Jesus and where visitors can take a short, leisurely kayak trip along part of the river. Decades ago, Tal explained, Israel rerouted most of the water that flows to the area from the Kinneret, first to an electrical plant further south and then via its national water carrier to the center of the country and beyond. Human engineering currently allows for only a small amount of freshwater and a mix of high-quality wastewater and saline water to reach the Jordan River, which flows south to the Dead Sea.

People raft down the Hasbani river, a major tributary of the Jordan River, near the northern Israeli Kibbutz of Kfar Blum, on May 3, 2022. (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Located here now, however, is a newly built wastewater treatment center, and land has been set aside for a water desalination plant. The renewed plan between Israel and Jordan is to clean up the river’s water supplies, boost the flow of cubic meters and divert a significant amount from here to Jordan, one of the world’s driest countries.

Tal, who is also EcoPeace’s field coordinator for the Jordan Valley, calls the rehabilitation project “urgent.”

“We have to do it now because the pollution is still continuing,” he said. “We’ve already seen what happens when we neglect nature. Take the Dead Sea, for example; we neglected the Dead Sea, we allowed water diversion and industry, then nature took its revenge with sinkholes, destroying the infrastructure and the people there are now really suffering.”

“That will happen here, too, eventually. If we don’t fix problems in nature, it will come back to hurt us,” Tal continued, giving the example of a recent discovery of cholera in nearby Syrian waters. “Nobody’s had cholera here for decades, but it’s a waterborne disease in places with poor sanitation. It’s all pretty straightforward.”

Mansour Abu Rashid, a former major general in the Jordanian armed services who describes himself as a peace activist and who has been involved in efforts to rehabilitate the river from the Jordanian side, told JI that renewing the waterway was important for both countries, but was essential for his homeland.

“As you know, Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of water,” he explained. “In Israel, there is now enough water for drinking, for industry and for agriculture from desalination plants, but in Jordan we have around four million refugees from neighboring countries and there’s not enough water to support us and them.”

Abu Rashid said the declaration signed between Israel and Jordan at COP27 will be a big boost for Jordan’s fledgling water supply. The plan requires Israel to release some 180 million cubic meters into the river to clean it up; a portion of that will be directed towards Jordan.

“The Jordan River is not only a river for water, it’s also important religiously in Islam, Christianity and Judaism – it’s a holy river and we have to revive it,” explained Abu Rashid. “It is also very important for the peace between Jordan and Israel.”

Idan Greenbaum, head of the Emek Hayarden regional council, concurred, saying that the waterway had been neglected for far too long and the cleanup was now essential for both sides.

“We have a very peaceful border with Jordan,” Greenbaum, who lives on the Israeli side of the river just south of the Sea of Galilee, said. “All that separates us is the river and a fence. When there are dangers in Jordan – brushfires, agricultural diseases and other natural disasters – it crosses over quickly into Israel.”

“Those who live in this area do not have the privilege to fight with our neighbors,” Greenbaum continued, adding, “we pay the price of politicians who are not careful with their decisions. When there is unrest in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, it impacts us here.”

Greenbaum recalled a 2017 incident in which the guard at Israel’s embassy in Amman opened fire, killing two Jordanian nationals, one who was attempting to carry out an attack. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the guard for his bravery, sparking a diplomatic crisis with Jordan; a few weeks later, Greenbaum said, rabies-infected wildlife crossed over the border from Jordan, putting human life at risk.

“Right now, relations with Jordan are very good,” he said. “We are trying to grow them, but it’s hard because of the situation internally in Jordan.”

There has been some unrest in the Kingdom over the rising cost of living and dissatisfaction with the rule of King Abdullah II, but the country is also closely watching as Israel’s new government, which includes right-wing figures who have argued for a change in the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif, which contains the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which is under the custodianship of Jordan. Jews refer to the site as the Temple Mount; the Western Wall sits below it.

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the river rehabilitation project was a “bull’s-eye if the goal was to find an issue of mutual interest to both countries.”

But, he continued, cooperation of any kind with Israel has become deeply unpopular in Jordan, where some elements of the population even derided receiving gas from its Jewish neighbor.

“Quiet cooperation between the two countries seems to be the only cooperation that really works in recent years,” said Schanzer, who recently authored a report on Jordan’s place in the Abraham Accords normalization process with Israel. “Israeli intelligence, military assistance and continued provision of water and energy happen out of the eye of the Jordanian public, but the interaction of the two countries in just about every other way has been fraught with tension.

“Much of this tension derives from a decision taken on the part of the royal court and the political elite in Amman to engage in vitriolic rhetoric against Israel,” Schanzer continued. “The Israelis continue to absorb this quietly, but they are growing frustrated.”

Greenbaum also expressed frustration over the quiet cooperation and the impact of political unrest between the countries, but said he was optimistic for the river renewal project. Roughly 14 kilometers (9 miles) of the Jordan River is under his regional purview and, he said, the plans include creating a national park and protected nature reserve.

A group of Israeli hikers walk on the hills near the Jordan River where the stream pours into the Dead Sea, near the West Bank city of Jericho, on October 14, 2022. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“EcoPeace knows how to work with the Jordanians and the Palestinians on environmental projects, they can bring the sides together,” he said, adding, “Besides, we don’t have much of a choice here but to partner with our neighbors. If we don’t cooperate it will be a problem for all of us.”

In Jordan, Abu Rashid said he was also hopeful that the important project would go ahead, regardless of the decisions made by Israel’s new government.

“They aren’t giving us water out of mercy for Jordanians, it is written in an international agreement signed by the leaders of both countries and the parliaments of the countries,” he said. “People have to respect what has been signed and the new government must continue to supply Jordan with water as mentioned in the peace treaty.”

Abu Rashid added: “In areas of military and security, Jordan and Israel have good cooperation, but this is not enough. I hope on other issues such as politics, trade, industry, water, tourism and cross-border cooperation they can do the same.”

EcoPeace’s Tal also said he was optimistic the plan would move ahead. There are always uncertainties, he told JI, “but what we do know is that there is now a will and a channel of communication that we need to keep open.”

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