A symbol of failure: The unholy state of the River Jordan

Kasr Al-Yahud is believed to mark the point where Jesus was baptised. But today these once-raging waters are a polluted trickle, a victim of the Middle East stalemate. By Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online

There can be few more tranquil or atmospheric places in the Holy Land, when the late afternoon sun is warming Jericho and the Judaean desert behind you, than Kasr Al-Yahud on the west bank of the Jordan, where the river meanders through the tamarix trees and tall reeds towards the Dead Sea, some four miles to the south.

A mere 100m away on the other bank is the handsome new stone church built by Jordanian Christians to mark the point in the river where popular tradition has long held that John the Baptist took his name by immersing Jesus in the water. On this side a sign in Hebrew records the legend that it was here, too, that Joshua led the Israelites across the river towards the Promised Land.

The only feature of the scene that jars, besides this easily traversable border between the occupied West Bank and Jordan being a closed military zone, is the water itself, an opaque, brown, sluggish apology, perhaps 4m wide, for the fast-flowing and mighty river revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, that it was up to the middle of the 20th century.

A freshwater river worthy of the name which the Book of Job describes as "raging" and which routinely , from biblical times, burst its banks every year and flooded the surrounding plains. A mere century and half ago - a blink of the eye in the millennias of history of this river which occupies a numinous place in the imagination even of those millions of adherents of the three great monotheistic religions who will never see it - US Admiral Lynch led an intrepid expedition down the river. He recorded seeing a pilgrim being swept away by the currents; one of his boats broke up in the rapids.

Today, when the Israeli military opens up Kasr al Yahud on the great Christian festivals a few times a year, pilgrims are sensibly forbidden to plunge into the water. Any danger of being swept away has long gone; the main risk now is an unpleasant rash from the raw sewage and fish-farm waste which accounts for so much of its sadly depleted volume. For the Jordan, the "one more river to cross" in the great black American spiritual, is fast becoming an environmental disaster.

Just how much of a disaster we know thanks to the results published yesterday - World Water Monitoring Day - after joint testing by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority and Friends of the Earth of Middle East which shows oxygen levels are almost half of what they should be. " Conductivity" - thanks to the abnormally high level of salts - is three times as high as the Galilee waters from which it comes. In laymen's terms, says Hillel Glazman of the Parks Authority: "These results reflect the untreated sewage and salt water from springs diverted from the Sea of Galilee being dumped into the river."

This pollution has long ago damaged the ecosystem of the river. The flora and fauna inherent in freshwater rivers are nowhere to be found." What has made this even worse, since Israel started sucking out the waters of the Jordan for the water carrier it built in the 1960s, is the man-created depletion of the river which has reduced it from a level of 1.3bn cubic metres a year to what is by comparison a trickle of some 100 million cubic metres.

Even that pitifully low volume is threatened with further dramatric reduction - of up to 70m cubic metres - by the reported completion of the "Unity Dam", a joint Syrian-Jordanian project inside Syrian territory on the Yarmuk river, the biggest tributary of the Jordan, which will catch the winter floodwaters that flow into the river on its way to the Dead Sea.

The depletion,as well as the systematic pollution of the river ,is the major factor in the catastrophic reduction in the level of the Dead Sea. It is threatening the extinction of an already vulnerable wildlife population, from gazelles and the now- rare leopards that historically roamed the Jordan valley to the birds which stop here on their way to and from Africa and Europe.

For the Jordan itself it means, in the blunt words of Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director of FoE Middle East, that the famous river has become little more than a "mere sewage canal". To understand why, you have to drive some 100 km north by road - "the lower Jordan itself, the crookedest river that ever was," Admiral Lynch called it - to the low Israeli earth-dam at Alumot, where the river as history has known it simply stops, 3km south of the Sea of Galilee.

To the north, the waters are low - thanks to the huge green pipes sucking out what the neighbouring kibbutzes and moshavs to irrigate their farming land - but crystal clear. A few metres to the south, one open pipe is illegally pumping out from the banks brown, frothing raw sewage totalling around three million cubic metres a year; and a larger pipe still is pumping out some 20 million cubic metres a year of concentrated salt waters diverted from the springs feeding the Galilee which should never have flowed undiluted into the river in the first place.

Israel, Syria, and Jordan and even the Palestinian Authority are all to blame for this unfolding catastrophe. First cause is an agricultural industry which scarcely breaks even in Israel but which drinks up water - at subsidised prices massively below the market level - in a region where it is the most precious resource of all. Looking out of the car window on our journey in the Israeli sector of the Jordan Valley, Mr Bromberg points to the endless banana plantations. "We are growing tropical crops here, in what has always been desert, like bananas, mangoes and avocados."

Here Mr Bromberg cites the heavy price exacted by the old - and in his view now obsolete - 19th- and 20th-century Zionist dreams of "making the desert bloom" and "man conquering nature". He says: "To give you an example, to produce a kilo of bananas you need 400 litres of water. To produce a kilo of tomatoes you need only 40 litres of water." In Jordan, says Mr Brom-berg, a crazy 70 per cent of fresh water from the river supplies agriculture, often operated by the clans especially to loyal to Jordan's royal family, at an even more crazily subsidised price of one US cent per cubic metre (compared with 11 to 15 cents in Israel or the market cost of about 57 cents).

Mr Bromberg points out that Jordan and Israel haveignored their pledge in the 1994 treaty to rehabilitate the waters of the river. And he is equally scathing about the Unity Dam which he fears will now mean that in summer the Jordan river-bed will actually be dry for long stretches.

"We could go to court to stop the sewage being pumped into the river; but the irony is that we may become dependent on it to keep the river flowing at all," he says grimly. Though sworn enemies, Israel and Syria are effectively, in Bromberg's view operating a tacit deal where both countries extract water from respectively the Jordan and its biggest freshwater tributary, the Yarmuk, with the resultant "destruction" of the former.

Yet Mr Bromberg believes the solution may be less painful than many people realise. Yes, he would like to see local agriculture much more dependent on indigenous desert crops such as dates, olives, grapes and pome-granates But he adds: "We aren't asking for the whole 1.3bn cm to come back into the river, only 300m cubic metres to save the ecosystem and make the river viable."

He strongly believes the local kibbutzes and moshavs would support a corresponding reduction in agriculture that is overreliant on wasteful irrigation, if they could see another return. And just such a return he believes, would result from the tourism opportunitie, in hiking, cycle trails, bird-watching, and pilgrimages that could result from a " healthier river".

He points out that a recent study by the University of Haifa showed that the tourism opportunities afforded by rehabilitation of the river would actually outweigh the loss to agriculture of rehabilitating the river. In this he has a powerful new ally in Professor Dun Zazlavski, the first former head of the Water Commission to come out in favour of putting water back into the river. Professor Zazlavski has pointed out that the energy needed to draw up water from the Galilee basin, 200 metres below sea level is actually less than that required for a desalination plant on the Mediterranean coast.

Mr Bromberg says his demand is put in perspective by the fact that a new desalination plant on the coast at Ashkelon has a capacity to produce 110m cm of fresh water a year. "The whole region has to act but Israel should take the lead because it has taken out 60 per cent of the water and because it has the economic power to do so," he says.

That will require a political will which has so far been lacking. Both the agriculture and the environment ministries are sympathetic, he says, but the all important infrastructure ministry has so far taken against such an Israeli intitiative. Which is why Mr Bromberg, who is planning to invite leading environmental scientisis and informers on a cross border water tour in December, will not be giving up his campaign. Just north of Alumot, at Yardenit, a group of Orthodox Christian pilgrims from Romania were yesterday immersing themselves in what is now the only three kilometres - out of more than 200 - of clear lower Jordan river water before coming out and being anointed by a priest, to the low chanting of a hymn celebrating the January feast of the Baptism.

True, no one is certain exactly where Jesus was baptised. But everyone is certain that it was not here, the one place where it is convenient for pilgrims to undergo the ritual all the year around. "This a symbolic thing," said Gabriel Gardan, a priest and a doctor of theology. " It's the right river and it doesn't matter if it's not the exact place."

Maybe. But Mr Bromberg, for one, will not be satisfied until the waters down at Kasr al-Yahud are flowing more strongly, and clearer, again.