The Jordan River: Another Disaster of Epic Proportions


Map of the Jordan River
and its Tributaries

Brace yourself for statistics overload. Please continue to read anyway: these are important statistics if you care at all about history, religion, water, people, animals, plants, war … have I left anyone out besides followers of Ayn Rand (boo … hiss!)?

Since 1980, there have been 37 military conflicts over water; of those, 32 were in the Middle East and 30 involved Israel. Most countries in the Middle East fall well below the world water poverty line, so every last drop of water is accounted for. The problems arise because a number of water bodies form or spill across political boundaries. Some notable bodies include the Disi Aquifer, underlying Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the Yarmouk River separating Syria from Jordan; and the Jordan River, which separates Israel and the West Bank from Jordan. Each of these countries wants a say over how these resources are distributed, and they have gone to war to have that say.

Historically speaking, the Jordan River has been associated with Moses and Elijah; Jesus was supposedly baptized in the Jordan River; and four companions to Muhammed are reported to be buried on the eastern banks of the river. Prior to World War II, the annual flow down the  Jordan River was 1.3 billion cubic meters (344 billion gallons) per year. In 1964 Israel constructed the Israeli National Water Carrier, which was designed to divert water from the Jordan River for the sole use of Israel. In 1966, Jordan constructed the King Abdullah Canal, which diverted water from the Yarmouk River, one of the main tributaries to the Jordan River. Then in 2007, Jordan and Syria completed the Unity Dam, capturing the majority of the Yarmouk River.

Sewage Being Pumped into the Jordan River

Today, the annual flow through the Jordan River is approximately 25 million cubic meters (6.6 billion gallons) per year, or 2% of what it once was. Most of this flow comes from raw or partially treated sewage that Israel discharges to the river south of the Sea of Galilee, and from saline water that Israel diverts from the Sea of Galilee. Of the annual flows that should enter the Jordan River, Israel diverts 46.5%, Syria diverts 25.2%, Jordan diverts 23.2%, and Palestine diverts 5.1%.

The river was once also important to wildlife, and was a main stopping point for 500 million migrating birds. Today there is no aquatic life and 50% of the overall biodiversity has disappeared.

Jordan River Today:
Much of the Riverbed is Now Vegetation

Also contributing to the death of the Jordan River is the fact that is almost completely surrounded by a demilitarized zone; the average person has no easy access to the river. The Jordan River has become a government dumping ground and there is no public outcry because few people know about it.

A study completed by the Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian scientists and engineers, determined that returning 400-600 million cubic meters would go a long way to restoring the Jordan River. Israel has plans to build sewage plants to treat the water that currently flows into the Jordan River, as well as plans to supplement their water supply with desalinated water, thereby enabling them to return some of the diverted flow to the Jordan River. As yet, none of these plans have been recognized.