AIES alumni report on Jordan River
Feature WATER The Jordan River: Declining, Disappearing, Endangered
Yosra Albakkar and Catherine Brown
Published in REVOLVE 23 Aug 2011
On November 20, 1847, Commander William F. Lynch sailed out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a burly crew of 14 men on the first U.S. Expedition to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Equipped with two boats, Lynch and his crew sailed across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to Acre in current-day Israel. From here they loaded their boats and equipment onto wooden carriages and transported them to the Sea of Galilee. They spent several months sailing down the Jordan River from its sources at the foot of Mt. Hermon to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south. Published in 1853, Lynch’s travel diary remains one of the most vivid accounts of the Jordan River in its natural state.
Lynch describes the river as “deep, narrow, and impetuous… It curved and twisted north, south, east and west, turning, in the short space of half an hour, to every quarter of the compass, seeming as if desirous to prolong its luxuriant meanderings in the calm and silent valley, and reluctant to pour its sweet and sacred waters into the accursed bosom of the bitter sea.”
Today, barely a drop of water reaches that bitter sea. Salty and surreal, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, and the final reservoir for water in the Jordan River Basin. According to research by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a regional NGO, Israel, Jordan and Syria divert more than 98 percent of the Jordan River for agricultural and domestic purposes. The result is that the flow of the Lower Jordan River has declined from its historic level of around 1.3 billion cubic meters per year in the 1930s to a mere 20-30 million cubic meters in 2009. This has in turn led to a 33-meter drop in the level of the Dead Sea, reducing its historic surface area by a third.
Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israeli director, fears that “the Jordan River will run dry by the end of 2011” if the five countries of the Jordan River Basin—Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine – do not take immediate action.
“It is a dream to restore the environmental flow of the Jordan River, but we don’t have water,” said Abraham Tenne, the head of desalination policy at the Israeli Water Authority. “Each and every drop is used.” In order to restore the river, he said, “we will have to negotiate”.
However, ongoing regional conflict has stymied all diplomatic efforts to negotiate an equitable water-sharing agreement between the five countries of the Jordan River, let alone a solution to the environmental tragedy unfolding in the Jordan Valley.
Israel, Syria and Lebanon are still formally in a state of war. Israel has maintained unilateral control over the water resources in the Golan Heights and the West Bank since the conclusion of the Six-Day War in 1967. Jordanian citizens must secure permits from Jordanian security services in order to access the river, while Palestinians have not had access to it since 1967 when Israel declared the west bank of the Jordan River a closed military zone.
Hostage to the conflict
Water resources have paid the highest price in this regional stalemate, according to Nader al-Khateeb, the Palestinian director of FoEME. “The environment has been a hostage of the whole conflict,” he said. “Our problems cannot be tackled by one country. Directing our efforts towards resource allocation, rather than military operations, may open more doors for regional cooperation. We cannot wait until there is peace to reach a final agreement over water.”
But it is precisely the absence of a final agreement that has allowed Israel, Jordan and Syria to develop large-scale diversion schemes over the past 60 years, gradually siphoning off the entire flow of the Jordan River.
In 1951, Jordan announced a plan to divert 160 million cubic meters per year of the Yarmouk River, the Jordan River’s largest tributary, via the King Abdullah Canal to irrigate the Jordan Valley. At about the same time, Syria began the construction of a series of dams along the Yarmouk as part of a water control and irrigation scheme, reducing its flow by an additional 315 million cubic meters per year. In 1964, Israel completed its National Water Carrier, an extensive water diversion scheme that pipes water west from the Sea of Galilee and then south to the Negev Desert, as part of a national plan to “make the desert bloom”. Successive diversions and the completion of an additional Syrian-Jordanian dam on the Yarmouk in 2007 have further reduced the flow of the Jordan River.
Today, the Lower Jordan River has practically run dry. What Lynch once described as “the music of the river, gushing with a sound like that of shawms and cymbals”, can now be detected only in the silent sluice of water slipping under control gates along the King Abdullah Canal, or over the shallow stones in the Lower Jordan. The waterfalls, cascades and rapids that Lynch described have completely vanished and with them hundreds of endemic species. According to Bromberg, alterations to the local environment have contributed to a 50 percent reduction in local biodiversity over the past 50 years.
“The scarlet anemone, the yellow marigold, and the occasional water lily” that Lynch observed on the river’s banks have all but disappeared. Once a haven for tens of thousands of birds migrating between Europe and Africa, “the cliff swallow [that] wheeled over the falls; the storks tucked into thickets of oleander, and the wild fowl feeding in the marsh grass” have been laid to rest with Commander Lynch.
The water that Lynch once described as “clear and sweet” is now sodden and brown. A report published in 2009 by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) estimated that 30 million cubic meters of raw sewage is released into the Lower Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee each year.
“The Jordan River doesn’t flow anymore,” said Abed Sultan, the deputy director of FoEME in Amman, Jordan. “What flows in the river is pure run-off. This is sad for nature, sad for religion. We are lying to Christians when we say that this is holy water. The Jordan River is actually a sewage canal.”
The river’s reduced flow has also had disastrous effects on the Dead Sea. The level of the sea has fallen over 30 meters in the last century and continues to decline at a rate of one meter per year, causing the shoreline to recede by one kilometer in places. Today, tourists visiting the few seafront hotels and spa resorts that remain open on the Israeli shores tumble to the sea in a make-shift shuttle, carting between the indoor hot springs at their hotel and the muddy shore of the Dead Sea in an open-air wagon.
The rapid decline of the Dead Sea’s water level has also triggered the creation of over 1,000 sinkholes along the shoreline of the Dead Sea. Sinkholes can reach 10 meters in depth and 25 meters in width, jeopardizing the safety of the local population. Several campsites near Kibbutz Ein Gedi on the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea have been closed down after a worker fell into a sinkhole, while parts of date plantations have subsided and new sinkholes threaten the integrity of roads and other infrastructure along the sea’s shore.
Experts believe that the sea will never disappear entirely and that it will eventually stabilize at 100-130 meters beneath its current level of – 428 meters thanks to the presence of underground springs. The sea’s continued shrinking will, however, have disastrous effects on the local tourist industry and agricultural activity. Already today, all development plans have been frozen and many agricultural areas deliberately abandoned for fear of future sinkholes.
The threat of climate change looming over the region further exacerbates fears of water scarcity. “Climate change is going to affect us,” said Khateeb. “We cannot really ignore it. This year, we had less than 70 percent of the average annual rainfall. Water tables are dropping and it is going to become worse and worse for Palestinian communities that rely on springs for drinking water: the springs are dry.” Khateeb believes that such changes in the weather pattern are “a sign to decision-makers that we need a plan to face regional climate change”.
Experts in Israel, Jordan and Palestine agree that the current water crisis in the Jordan River Basin must be addressed in a regional context. However, different countries and stakeholders have different priorities. Does the solution lie in large-scale engineering projects, or in less invasive changes in regional policy and water allocation? Securing water for the demands of a growing population is a clear priority, but what does that mean for the Jordan River itself?
Former Israeli Ambassador Ram Aviram, who has worked extensively on cross-border water issues, says all parties – except for the Palestinians who have no access to the Jordan River or its tributaries – are worried that discussing the future of shared water resources in the Jordan River Basin would mean giving up on some of these water resources. “We need to move past this zero-sum game and explore the alternatives,” he said.
Aviram sees desalination as the ultimate solution. “It is a mental game-changer. For the first time in the history of mankind, water is not a limited resource. The very basic perception is changing: instead of dealing with whether or not you have water, you are dealing with whether or not you have money to desalinate.”
For Israel, with its 273-kilometer coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, desalination is indeed an ideal solution, but for Jordan, the world’s third most water-scarce country with a 24-kilometer coastline along the Red Sea, the situation is more complicated.
“The problem of the Jordan River cannot be solved until all five countries are at the same table,” said Fayez Batanieh, the general secretary at Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation. He admits, however, that this is unlikely to happen until key aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict have been addressed, most notably the Palestinian call for statehood.
In the meantime, Jordan urgently needs to address its water deficit, which amounts to 500 million cubic meters per year. “Our first priority now is to bring water to the people,” said Batanieh, who is markedly unsentimental about the Jordan River and its demise.
“The Lower Jordan River is no longer potable, nor is it a source of water for agriculture because it has become too saline,” he said. “If it is not providing Jordan with any socio-economic benefits, then why should we dedicate effort to rehabilitating the river?”
Jordan is currently building a pipeline to transport water from the Disi aquifer in the south of the country to the capital Amman. However, if the population growth rate remains at its current level of 2.3 percent, the Disi aquifer – a non-renewable aquifer that will eventually run dry – will only support Jordan’s water demands for 40 years.
In the long term, Batanieh believes that the ambitious regional Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit Project is the only option for Jordan. “This will solve two problems at once: water supply and the shrinkage of the Dead Sea,” said Batanieh, who is also in charge of plans for the Project at the ministry.
The proposed conduit would pump an annual 2 billion cubic meters of seawater over a distance of 207 kilometers from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. From here, and after desalination, a second pipeline would transport desalinated water 55 kilometers from the Dead Sea to Amman. The remaining 1.1 billion cubic meters of brine water – the bi-product of desalination – would be released into the Dead Sea, matching the current rate of evaporation.
Barring the formation of gypsum, or other marked changes to the natural environment, Tenne at the Israeli Water Authority is hopeful that the bi-products of a large-scale desalination project could help stabilize the level of the Dead Sea and prevent the formation of sinkholes.
Project engineers also believe that the 400-meter drop to the Dead Sea could be used to generate hydropower, which could fuel the desalination plant on the shores of the Dead Sea. When operating at full capacity, this plant would generate 800 million cubic meters of desalinated water per year. Jordan would receive approximately 650-700 million cubic meters of this water, fulfilling national water demands for 20 to 30 years. The remaining 100-150 million cubic meters would be pumped to Israel or the West Bank, further alleviating regional water stress.
Boost efficiency first
Although the project has supporters in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, it remains extremely controversial – not just because of its estimated $5 billion price tag, but also because of the potential environmental consequences to the Dead Sea.
Critics also remain skeptical about the cost of water transportation. “Water will still be expensive,” said Khateeb. “You need to pump the water from the Dead Sea which is 423 meters below sea level all the way up to Amman at 900 meters above sea level.”
Others say Jordan – and the region – should address its inefficient water use practices before developing mega-projects like the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit. “We lose 40 to 60 percent of the water in our network,” said FoEME’s Sultan. “We should first make sure that efficiency is optimized – that there are no illegal networks and that there are no leaks.”
Sultan also argues that Jordan should re-examine the allocation of water resources between different sectors. Seventy percent of the country’s scarce water resources go to agriculture, yet the sector only contributes 4 percent to Jordan’s national GDP.
Just in the past year, the Jordan Valley Authority has raised the price of water, hoping to encourage efficient water-use practices in the agricultural sector. Surprisingly, farmers have welcomed the change and admit that they are “trying to save every drop of water because we know the future we are facing”.
The results of a World Bank feasibility study to be published next month should provide more clarity about the viability of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit Project. However, environmental experts point out that such a mega-project will do nothing to restore the flow and ecology of the Lower Jordan River.
Friends of the Earth Middle East has for the past five years tried to raise awareness of the state of the Lower Jordan River and campaigned for its rehabilitation. “The Jordan River is the cornerstone of the three Abrahamic religions”, FoEME’s Khateeb said, adding that the Jordan River’s cultural, ecological and economic value warranted its restoration.
Regional water plan
The prospects for the Jordan River Basin are bleak. Rapid population growth – the basin’s population is predicted to grow from 41 million in 2008 to 70 million in 2050 – coupled with a 2 to 3°C increase in regional temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, will continue to strain water resources. By 2020, demand for water is expected to outstrip renewable supplies by 130 percent in Israel, 120 percent in Jordan and 150 percent in Palestine, according to the IISD.
With water resources dwindling and limited time to reverse regional environmental damage, it is clear that the five countries of the Jordan River Basin must work together to develop a regional water plan that may include mega-projects like the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit Project as long-term solutions to water scarcity.
For the Jordan River itself, however, there is little hope. Reduced to just 2 percent of its historic flow, it is unlikely to ever return to a place of “solemn beauty, with plenitudes of fish and fierce rapids catapulting into cauldrons of foam” that Lynch once described.
Yosra Albakkar is a Jordanian graduate student who is currently establishing the Green Earth NGO in Jordan.
Catherine Brown is an American undergraduate student at Middlebury College, pursuing a joint degree in Political Science and Environmental Studies.
Yosra and Catherine worked on this article as part of an independent study project under the supervision of Dr. Clive Lipchin at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Francesca de Châtel at Revolve Magazine.