Israel, Palestine, and the Jordan River Water Crisis

the Ziglab Dam on the Jordan River in Israel

A visit to the holy land of Israel is a dream shared worldwide by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The nightmare of political upheaval in the region sickens us all to the depths of our souls. While this nightmare continues to claim our attention, another nightmare goes unnoticed, suffering sadly from our lack of attention. The water of the Jordan River is now so badly polluted that Christian visitors wishing to be baptized in the river are often being turned away.

Discovered in the Wadi Kharrar, archaeologists have determined that this is the area believed to be the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. The baptism site on the Jordan side of the river is one of the more important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, excavations began here in 1996.

Image note: Jesus’ baptism site, River Jordan. By Jan Smith, 2010

Testing at Jesus’ Baptismal Site Finds Dangerous Sewage And Chemicals

This site is believed to be where John the Baptist lived and baptized Jesus (God’s blessings be upon them both) a little over 2,000 years ago. More than 20 churches, caves, and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods have been uncovered here. It is also believed that the Jewish Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven from here (God’s blessings be upon him). Visited by approximately 100,000 people each year, this is the third most important Christian site in the Holy Land. However, the ministry of health in Israel has warned that the river is dangerously polluted.

After testing showed high levels of sewage and agricultural chemicals, the site was closed to the public. Only on special occasions has the Israeli army opened it to pilgrims under pressure from the ministry of tourism. However, the water is often little more than a dirty stream, and sewage from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories has replaced what once was fresh water.

The environmental group, “Friends of the Earth” launched a campaign to stop people entering the dangerously polluted water. A statement from the organization read, “Sadly, the lower Jordan River has long suffered from severe mismanagement with the diversion of 98 percent of its fresh water by Israel, Syria and Jordan and the discharge of untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, saline water and fish pond effluent in its place.”


“The Situation Is Dire”

“The Israeli Palestinian Joint Water Committee is broken beyond repair. The Committee has not officially met for over two years, resulting in a situation where most projects, including those that Israel has a strong interest to advance, are stuck.” These are the disheartening words of a recent report by Friends of the Earth – Middle East, entitled, 10 Reasons Why – for Israelis – Water and Environment Solutions Can No Longer Wait.

“In Gaza,” Friends of the Earth reports, “the situation is dire: salinity levels have now risen well beyond the World Health Organization’s recommendation for drinking water, further compounded by untreated sewage infiltrating the aquifer, also reaching the Mediterranean, making its way north to Israeli shores. Gaza residents are already drinking unhealthy water, and if no alternative solutions are advanced, they are about to run out of potable water completely.”

Citizens of Israel, Palestine, And Jordan Are “Friends Of The Earth”

Friends of the Earth – Middle East (FoEME) previously operated under the name of EcoPeace. For twenty years, this interfaith, transnational organization has been dedicated to preserving the environment in the region of shared boundaries between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. The looming effects of climate change are worsening the regions’ lengthy droughts, and pollution in the Jordan river is not being addressed by government officials.

Nader Khateeb, FoEME’s Palestinian Director says “It is imperative to replace the failed existing water management structure (the Joint Water Committee) with a new structure that provides Palestinians with a rightful share of shared waters, and leads to rapid investments in sanitation solutions that are currently responsible for polluting scarce Palestinian and Israeli sources of natural water.”

FoEME’s Israeli Director, Gidon Bromberg, explains that “today, the higher availability of water resources in Israel, due to good practices in waste water reuse and new desalination plants in the country, means that the Israeli water economy has excess water. Therefore, solving the Israeli/ Palestinian water issues comes at a low political cost to Israelis and with high political gain to Palestinians.”


Water And Environmental Solutions in Israel and Palestine Can Not Wait

The following situations are highlighted within FoEME’s 10 reasons why it is in the best interest of Israel to solve water and environmental issues. These situations clearly illustrate the water crisis in Palestine and Israel today:

• National environmental treasures such as the Dead Sea and the Jordan River cannot be managed unilaterally. The lack of regional environmental cooperation is leading to their further demise every day.

• Transboundary streams can’t be rehabilitated without wastewater solutions in the West Bank. Streams that flow in the vicinity of Haifa, Hadera, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and Bersheva are polluted by sewage flowing from the West Bank.

• Shared groundwater resources require a shared solution. Groundwater is being polluted by an estimated 65 million cubic meters of untreated or poorly treated sewage annually being released from both Palestinian and Israeli controlled areas in the West Bank.

• Industrial pollution havens directly threaten our public health. Where environmental regulations are nonexistent or not enforced, industrial pollution havens spring up, such as the Hebron industrial area or the Mesilot Tulkarem Settlement industrial area.

• Unilateral environmental measures have failed. Despite Israeli citizen action, sewage treatment facilities built to treat waste water flowing across the Green Line have consistently broken down and failed. No treatment plant can stop pollution without managing the different types of domestic and industrial sewage disposed of upstream.

• The Israeli Palestinian Joint Water Committee is broken beyond repair. The structure established by Oslo II 20 years ago to manage shared water resources in the West Bank has collapsed. The failed management structure has resulted in a collapse of trust. The Committee has not officially met for over two years, resulting in a situation where most projects, including those that Israel has a strong interest to advance, are stuck.

FoEME Presents Solutions at World Water Week in Stockholm

Not content to merely list the problems, Friends of the Earth proposes solutions to the water pollution problems. Last week they brought their proposals to World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden. World Water Week is organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). Every year, SIWI provides a platform for over 200 collaborating organizations to convene events about water and development issues. It is also an opportunity for individuals from around the globe to present their findings at the scientific workshops.


Palestinian Director Nader Khateeb presented, “Water and Energy as a Catalyst for Middle East Peace” on Wednesday, September 3. His presentation was part of the integrated water and energy policy and governance workshop. In it, Khateeb highlighted how interdependent water and energy resource management can serve as a catalyst to reconstruction, rehabilitation and peacemaking between the parties in the region.

Cross-border Environmental Cooperation Is Environmental Peacemaking

The ingenious concept of environmental peacemaking is explained by Friends of the Earth:

“Environmental Peacemaking is based on the principle that our common dependency on natural resources and a healthy environment facilitates cooperation between societies and nations and can therefore foster the process of peacemaking in conflict regions.

“The concept of environmental peacemaking (or environmental peacebuilding) draws upon the three pillars of sustainable development: Economic sustainability, socio-cultural sustainability and ecological sustainability.

“Cross-border environmental cooperation integrates the processes of economic and socio-cultural development and societies benefit mutually from the common management of shared resources.

“Furthermore, cooperation between societies offers a platform for ongoing intercultural dialogue, enables a process of trust building and fosters the establishment of peaceful cross-border societal linkages.”

Regular Winners of International Awards

Friends of the Earth was listed in Global Journals’s Top 100 NGO List for 2013, their latest in a long list of prestigious international awards. Their unique style of cross-border cooperation inspires respect from their next-door neighbors, to their internet neighbors all the way around the globe. Our respect glows with amazement because they are working tirelessly in a region where just thinking about all the troubles is paralyzing.

Friends of the Earth’s final reason why it’s in the best interest of Israel to address solutions to the shared water crisis is encouraging and heart-warming. These tireless heroes are working to restore the land beloved of us and beloved of our prophets. They are offering us all a renewed hope for peace in a region to which our very souls are connected:

“Our shared waters and environment can also serve as a catalyst for regional trust building. As demonstrated by Friends of the Earth Middle East’s Good Water Neighbors project, winner of the TIME Magazine Environmental Heroes award, involving tens of thousands of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian residents, our shared environment can be a strong source for trust building, advancing the self-interest of each side to deal with their environmental priorities and advancing cross-border mutual gains.”

May God join our prayers to their efforts, strengthening these inspiring environmental heroes with further success, and may He guide us all to peace in the Holy Land!


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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.