The Lower Jordan River is extremely important to many people around the world. But the once powerful river has decreased – a result of conflict, competition, and a changing climate over many years.
Importance and history
Visitors come to the river from all over the world. Many are driven by religious beliefs to touch the river’s water.
The Bible says Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.
But the river has also been the center of conflict.
Part of the river was once a dividing line between Israel and Jordan when they fought each other. River water separates Jordan from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, seized by Israel in a 1967 war.
Yana Abu Taleb is the Jordanian director of EcoPeace Middle East, an environmental group that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli activists.
Abu Taleb said this about the river: “It’s a victim of the conflict, definitely. It’s a victim of people, because it’s what we did as people to the river...and now adding to all this it’s a victim of climate change...it’s a victim in every way.”
EcoPeace has said that the Lower Jordan River, which runs south from the Sea of Galilee, is threatened by many years of water diversions for agriculture and development , as well as pollution.
Only a small percentage of its historical water flow now reaches the Dead Sea to the south. That is one reason the Dead Sea has been shrinking.
The river’s eastern bank, modern-day Jordan, and its western one both have holy places, where religious events take place.
The river holds further importance as the scene of miracles in the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible.
Rustom Mkhjian is director general of the Baptism Site Commission in Jordan. In a talk with the Associated Press, he said: “Every year we celebrate interfaith harmony, and among my happiest days in my life is days when I see Jews, Christians and Muslims visit the site and the three of them cry.”
Efforts and difficulties
EcoPeace Middle East has been urging cooperation between sides that have reasons to get as much water from the river as possible.
Gidon Bromberg is the group’s Israeli director.
He said, “Any fresh water left in the river would have in the past been seen as empowering the enemy. ... You take everything that you can.” Bromberg added, “There’s legitimate need for the water…But the conflict creates an incentive to take everything.”
The result is that the Lower Jordan’s yearly flow into the Dead Sea was estimated at 20 million to 200 million cubic meters. That is much less than the historic amount of 1.3 billion cubic meters. That information comes from a report published in 2013 by a U.N. commission and a German federal institute. Bromberg puts the current number at no more than 70 million cubic meters.
“Israel, from a historical perspective, has taken about half the water, and Syria and Jordan have taken the other half,” Bromberg said. He added, “The pollution that’s coming into the river is coming from Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli sides and a little bit also from Syria.”
Water use in the Jordan River basin is unevenly developed, the U.N.-German report said, adding that the Palestinians can no longer access or use water from the Jordan River itself. Syria does not have access to the river but has built dams in the Yarmouk River sub-basin, which is part of the Jordan River basin, it said.
For Palestinians in the West Bank, the only way to see the Jordan River is to visit the Israeli-run baptismal site there, said Nada Majdalani, EcoPeace’s Palestinian director.
“The Jordan River in the past, for Palestinians, meant livelihoods and economic stability and growth,” she said. The river’s decline, she added, is especially disappointing to elderly Palestinians “who remember how the river looked ... and how they used to go fishing, how they used to have a dip in the river.”
Bromberg said EcoPeace has been documenting the river’s condition.
“From a Jewish tradition, you know, the river and its banks are a place of miracles,” he said. “Well, it doesn’t reflect a place of miracles in its current…state.”
I’m John Russell.
Mariam Fam reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
baptize – v. to perform a Christian ceremony involving water which is meant to represent rebirth into a new life
diversion – n. the act of changing the direction or use of something : the act of diverting something
miracle – n. a very amazing or unusual event, thing, or achievement
interfaith – adj. involving people of different religions
harmony – n. a pleasing combination or arrangement of different things
legitimate – adj. fair or reasonable; allowed according to rules or laws
incentive – n. something that encourages a person to do something or to work harder
perspective – n. a way of thinking about and understanding something (such as a particular issue or life in general)
stability –n. a state or quality of not being easily changed