How could a river holy to half humanity turn into little more than a sewer? Cross-border conflict has led to the demise of the Jordan and caused severe loss of biodiversity. Yet hope exists: initiatives are building awareness among local communities and bring together the mayors of bordering cities for a symbolic act of collective belonging – jumping together into the Jordan. And as local leaders take steps towards increased collaboration, the river is showing the first signs of a rebirth.
We are at the Jordan River, just a few kilometers south of the Sea of Galilee. Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian mayors are getting ready to make a big splash – they are going to literally jump into the river together for an event called the ‘Big Jump into the Jordan’.
If the event was being held along the Rhine or Mississippi rivers, in Europe or the US respectively, local mayors jumping into a river that they share would hardly make the news. In the Middle East though, the ‘Big Jump into the Jordan’ is covered by CNN and the BBC as well as many local media outlets. What is clearly unique here is the fact that despite their continuing political conflict, often with much loss of life, the participating Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians have identified an issue of such high common concern that they are willing to take united action.
But why the fuss over the Jordan? Aren’t the mayors at risk of being called traitors by their own communities for daring to make a common statement of concern?
“Understanding the river and its cross border meandering makes it obvious that cooperation is not about doing a favor to the other side, but a necessity, and a matter of self-interest.”
If you cross the Jordan over the famous Allenby Bridge and blink, you will miss seeing a river at all. In a semi-arid area, water is scarce and communities need that water for drinking, farming and industry. Water diversion is therefore to be expected. But when coupled with conflict, the result is total demise. In fact, since the 1960s, the River Jordan has become little more than an open sewer. 95% of its fresh waters have been diverted under Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian government policies. The river just south of the Sea of Galilee is the border between Israel and Jordan, and further south, between the West Bank and Jordan. The river is either fenced off, with mine fields along its banks, or surrounded by military check points preventing access from both west and east sides. As a border, the river is also a ‘danger area’, and thus became the backyard dumping ground for Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian sewage. Effluents have replaced the fresh water that once flowed, killing off an estimated 50% of the biodiversity that used to live in a once healthy, fast-flowing river.
So, what has empowered these mayors to take joint action when the facts on the ground are so bleak?
For over a decade, a program called ‘Good Water Neighbors’ has been running in the region. The program started in local schools, where youth, teachers and parents learned about the history of the river, considering both its human and natural heritage. One question was asked: how could a river Holy to half of humanity be turned into a sewage canal? Walking trails were developed, taking local residents to see the demise, and asking them, where is my water coming from? Where does my sewage go? The trails get as close as they can to the border, so participants can look beyond the fence, and ask about the water situation on the other side.
Great efforts have also been invested in research. Respected professionals investigating the same questions as participants in the Good Water Neighbors program have produced reports that calculate environmental and economic loss from the demise of the river, and its impact on nearby communities. On this basis, an integrated master plan was prepared with European Union financial support. The plan estimates that a rehabilitated Jordan River and Valley could reverse not only the demise of the river but turn an area with much poverty – where pockets of up to 50% youth unemployment prevail – into a space of prosperity and shared wealth. There is one critical condition, however: cooperation.
The combination of ‘bottom up’ community education and ‘top down’ advocacy has created a constituency to support this vision. Though not a majority yet, there is now a vocal group of residents, municipal officials and mayors who see the cleaning up of the river and investment in the valley as their best hope for a better future. Understanding the river and its cross border meandering makes it obvious that cooperation is not about doing a favor to the other side, but a necessity, and a matter of self-interest. It is therefore no coincidence that the mayors of municipalities bordering the Jordan River have demonstrated leadership, while national governments have started to respond with some fresh water released back to the river and some of the sewage removed. Though much more needs to be done, the act of the mayors who, literally, got wet together, has come to symbolize hope in a region where not only water is scarce.