The river of legend, Bible passages, hymns, and popular song is seeing its existence challenged not as an inspiration but as a going, flowing entity. Today, according to the National Geographic, “The great biblical waterway is now little more than a shallow, unimposing trickle of sludge, a murky body of water that is in danger of withering into nothingness.”
“Everybody’s been taking water from the Upper Jordan because everybody needs it,” said Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at Israel’s Arava Institute, and one of a number of water experts alarmed by the decline of a river that was never particularly substantial in the first place.
What remains of the Jordan springs from its source high in the Lebanese mountains, before it passes near the Syrian border and along the Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian frontiers.
It’s one of the most complicated and conflict-ridden regions on Earth, and that goes some way toward explaining the Jordan River’s current predicament.
The river is another victim of the regional conflict between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. For a water source so vital to the people of the region, almost 70 years of fighting, distrust, and animus leave the waterway hostage to a lack of cooperation among the stakeholders. Each side accuses the other of misappropriating water from the Jordan River, challenging the ability to join together to achieve some agreement on managing the usage going forward.
Now add the impact of the Syrian civil war, with 600,000 refugees fleeing to Jordan, and the demand on the river’s resources had become stretched almost beyond the breaking point.
Environmental issues have understandably been a very distant second to humanitarian concerns, but the ongoing chaos and fast-increasing mass of refugees needing water have stretched the Jordan River’s already desperately meager flow to a trickle.
A newly tapped aquifer near the Saudi border should help lighten the load on the river and the northern aquifers, but there’s no contending with the region’s breakneck population growth.
A UN study suggests Jordan’s population will peak at 11.5 million by 2050, but that doesn’t include refugees. On the other side of the river, Israel’s population increased by 56 percent and that of the Palestinian territories grew by 106 percent during the same period.
More people means an increased demand for food, leading to greater demands on existing water sheds. About 65 percent of the water Jordan takes from the river goes toward agriculture. Israel uses even more of its allotment for agriculture.
Israel’s national water system diverts water from the Jordan’s flow as it passes through the Sea of Galilee in the north of Israel, and redistributes it to the country’s densely populated core and arid, largely previously uninhabitable south.
Historically it’s drawn heavily on groundwater, but seven years of drought have drastically lowered the lake’s level and forced the country to reduce its consumption of the Jordan River’s water.
The rapid development of high-tech desalinization plants along Israel’s Mediterranean coast has greatly diminished the country’s dependence on freshwater sources. Half of Israel’s drinking water is now desalinated, a figure the government hopes to increase to around 70 percent, or 700 mcm, by 2020.
In 2007, the World Monuments Fund listed the lower Jordan in the top 100 most “endangered cultural heritage sites”. In support, a regional environmental organization, Friends of the Earth Middle East, said: “The region’s current policies treat the river as a backyard dumping ground.”