Originally posted June 2008

The Jordan Valley is a lush, wetland ecosystem that is the biological heart of the Middle East region at large. As the meeting point of the Asian, African, and European continents, the valley is at the crossroads of biodiversity. In addition to the unique flora and fauna, the valley is one of the world’s most important migratory pathways for birds. Over 500 million birds migrate from Europe to Africa twice a year, dependent on the Jordan Valley as a stopping ground on their long journey.

The great explorers of the 19th century were attracted to the Jordan River. US Navy officer William Lynch described the river as "the crookedest river that was" losing one of his boats on the journey to the power of the river with its many waterfalls. In the 1930s a Jewish Russian immigrant to Palestine, Pincus Rotenberg, decided to harness the strength of the river at its confluence with the Yarmuk River to build a hydro-electric power station that, until it was destroyed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, produced 40% of the electricity of Mandatory Palestine.

Sadly, today the lower Jordan River is almost dry. There is not enough water left in the river to turn a hamster wheel let alone an electric turbine. Of the 1.3 billion cubic meters of water that historically would annually flow down the river to replenish the Dead Sea, as little as 70,000 to 100,000 cubic meters is all that is left. The river has seen over 90% of its water sources diverted by Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Since the 1950s the waters of the Jordan River have been diverted largely to support large-scale irrigated agriculture. Competition for scarce water resources in the midst of conflict allowed little room to think about the needs of the river. Economic needs and the cultural belief in “making the desert bloom” and thereby conquering nature was the prevalent ideology on both banks of the Jordan. In place of fresh water, Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian sewage, diverted saline springs, and agricultural runoff are most of what is left to flow. Since 1948, the river valley is a military/border zone, off-limits to the public. Until recently, too few people even knew that a problem existed.

Over the last decade, awareness of the demise of the river has slowly grown; recently, there have been resounding calls for its restoration. Since 2001 EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East, (FoEME) has been working at the community level with youth, adult residents, and mayors of nine of the most important Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli communities along the valley. The project, Good Water Neighbors, has helped create cooperative efforts, generated from within the local communities, in support of the rehabilitation of the Jordan River.

In each community, a FoEME staff person and local resident has worked in close partnership with youth and adults to create awareness of their own and their neighboring community’s water reality and to begin building the sense of all being residents of the same valley. In each community, water-saving devices were installed and schools transformed into water-saving model buildings. Regular tours took place to the river, having gained the cooperation of the Israeli and Jordanian military. Awareness has led to petitions, with thousands of signatures collected and circulated to local and international journalists who have written about the demise of the river. Having gained the trust of residents, the project was able to focus on policy level changes by involving municipal leaders. Mayors saw that local residents were active — and with the new media interest, local mayors were willing to be vocal and even jump into the river together, in a common call for its rehabilitation. Mayors from both banks of the river — Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian — have signed Memoranda of Understanding committing themselves to work together to strike a fairer balance for the river.

In January 2007, Jordanian and Israeli municipalities agreed to create a peace park at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers. The park is planned to include a bird sanctuary, visitor's center, eco-lodges and nature and cultural heritage trails. The chosen area is where the bombed-out power station still stands. The plan for the park would convert the infrastructure in place to something productive that would generate tourist dollars for the local communities based on a healthy ecosystem. Creation of the park would be the first concrete step towards rehabilitating the river valley as a whole.

Most recently, FoEME has developed neighbor's trails or paths that tour each one of the nine project communities in the valley, highlighting the natural and cultural heritage sites but also the threats facing the River Jordan. Several thousand local residents from the respective communities and the population at large have already undertaken these tours. Each tour ends at the Jordan River — witnessing the demise of the river and discussing the water issues of the other side. The first regional tour bringing foreign tourists from Europe, Africa, and North America took place in February 2008. A study of environmental water flows, needed to sustain a healthy Jordan will soon begin as well as an international design event — a collaborative charrette, involving architecture faculty and students from Yale University, together with local Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli architects to further conceptualize what a peace park on the Jordan River could look like.

The fact that the river still flows full of sewage is evidence of how much work still needs to be done. At the national governmental level in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, the revival of the Jordan River receives little more then lip service. Grand technological projects like a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea gain ministerial support with ease. The incremental policy measures of demand management, water conservation, pricing reform, and removal of subsidies are unlikely to attract media attention and therefore gain high level political support. Conflict, competition and cultural arrogance have been responsible for the demise of the Jordan. Cooperation based on principles of sustainability is what FoEME believes will revive the Jordan and bring real peace for the residents of the troubled Middle East.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.