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|A cow crosses the Jordan River near Kibbutz Karkom in northern Israel. Symbolically and spiritually, the Jordan is of mighty significance to many as the place where Jesus is said to have been baptized. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Mariam Fam (AP) In late July the Israeli government approved plans to rehabilitate a stretch of the Lower Jordan, a decision described by Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg as “historic” and the beginning of a correction.
“For decades it was neglected and most of its waters were taken, and it effectively turned into a sewage canal,” Zandberg said in a statement. “In an era of climate crisis and a serious ecological crisis, there is double significance to rehabilitating the River Jordan and returning it to nature, the public, and hikers.”
Speaking by phone, Zandberg said the plan focuses on a stretch that runs in Israeli territory and reflects Israel’s improved water situation given its desalination program, which has left it much less reliant on water it has been using from the Sea of Galilee.
“Now, we’re actually more equipped to do it,” she said. “We have water.”
She added she hopes the decision would showcase the river’s potential and pave the way for broader collaboration on the rest of the Lower Jordan as well as send a signal to Jordan that “we are committed … to our mutual assets,” including the river.
“It can provide a success story on that segment, and then it will enable more successful partnerships in the future.”
That’s something that hasn’t always come easily.
“Politics, sometimes, interferes and also budget issues and the trust… between the parties,” Zandberg said.
A regional rehabilitation and development master plan announced in 2015 by EcoPeace and others was adopted by the Jordanian government but not by the Israelis or Palestinians due to outstanding “final-status” peace process issues, according to the group.
That plan said the lower part of the Jordan River will require at least 400 million cubic meters of freshwater per year to reach “an acceptable rehabilitation level.”
Creation of a trust fund to finance de-pollution projects — an effort that EcoPeace had viewed as less politically controversial — stalled after a 2017 diplomatic crisis between Israel and Jordan and amid years of strained ties under the government of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There have been signs of improved ties since.
Not everyone in the region welcomes, or trusts, EcoPeace’s calls for cooperation.
“Our job is tough. Our messages are challenged,” said Abu Taleb, the group’s Jordanian director.
“Because of having that, you know, Israeli chapter, we’re always accused of being ‘normalizers,’” or having normal relations with Israel, Abu Taleb said. That is a contentious topic, unpopular among many ordinary Arabs, citing factors such as Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands it captured in 1967 and a lack of a resolution to the Palestinian issue. “The water knows no borders,” Abu Taleb said.
Bromberg said he, too, has run into criticism from what he said was a vocal minority in Israel “inappropriately” branding their work as benefiting Jordanians and Palestinians at the expense of Israeli interests. “Sadly, there are people who think that if you’re working with the other side, you must be working for the other side exclusively,” he said.
Politics aside, the strain on some governments to meet water needs complicates calls to add water to the river.
Jordan, for instance, is one of the world’s most water-scarce nations, and its challenges are compounded by a growing population swelled by waves of refugees.
“We are under stress, so we don’t have a surplus to add to the Jordan River and to revive it despite the great importance of this to the Jordanians,” said Khalil Al-Absi, an official with the Jordan Valley Authority.
“Solutions require concerted (regional) effort and the international community’s” help, the Jordanian official said.
“We have many beautiful ideas for the Jordan River but there are limitations.”
According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa region faces the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6% to 14% of GDP by 2050.
Advocates, like Bromberg, acknowledge that climate change makes a Jordan revival harder– but argue that restoring the river and its banks offers economic incentives.
“The climate crisis brings home the issue of urgency that rehabilitating the river is perhaps the only way to prevent further instability in the valley,” Bromberg said, “because it can create alternative revenues through tourism.”
For all the river’s challenges, Al-Absi, the Jordanian official, said he remained optimistic. The alternative could be grim.
“If there is no water, people won’t come despite (the presence) of religious sites,” he said. “Water is life. Without water, there is no life.”