The Jordan River, rich in holiness, poor in water

Along the Jordan River.- Kristen Burckhartt felt overwhelmed. She needed time to reflect, to assimilate that she had just dipped her feet in the water where it is said that Jesus was baptized: in the Jordan River.

“It’s a deep thing,” said the 53-year-old visitor from Indiana, USA. “I have never walked where Jesus walked, to get started”.

Here, tourists come from near and far, many attracted by the faith to follow in the footsteps of Christ, to touch the water of the river and connect with biblical events.

Symbolically and spiritually, the river It has great meaning for many. Physically, today the lower Jordan River basin is much poorer than it is powerful.

By the time he gets to the place baptismits receding water looks slow, dull brownish green.

Its decline, due to a confluence of factors, is intertwined with the entanglements of the Arab-Israeli conflict decades old, and the rivalry for valuable water in a highly disputed Jordan Valley. And defend the cross-border revival of Jordan without getting into the density of the disputes that have fueled its deterioration can be a challenge.

One stretch of the river, for example, was a hostile border between Israel and Jordan, which were once at war. river water it also separates Jordan on its eastern shore from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, taken by Israel in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want for their state.

“It’s definitely a victim of the conflict. It’s a victim of the people, because it’s what we did as a people to the river, basically, and now, added to all of that, it’s a victim of climate change,” said Yana Abu Taleb, Jordanian director of EcoPaz Middle East, which brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists and lobbies for regional collaboration to save the river. “So he’s a victim in every way.”

Photo: AP

EcoPeace has said for years that the lower Jordan River, which flows south from the Sea of ​​Galilee, is particularly threatened by decades of diversion of the river and its tributaries for agriculture and other uses and by pollution. . Only a small fraction of its historical flow of water now ends in the Dead Sea, not far south of the baptismal site.

That is one of the reasons why the Dead Sea has shrunk.

Standing at ‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’ (also called ‘Transjordan Bethany Baptismal Site’), the Jordanian baptismal site, Burckhartt said the river water felt cool on the skin and offered respite from the sweltering heat that the surrounded. In the mix of emotions he wrestled with at the time, he too felt sadness at the diminishing flow of the river.

“I’m sure God in heaven is sad too.”

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River

The Bible says that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, but there is no consensus on the exact place where that happened.

Both the eastern and western banks of the river, in present-day Jordan, are home to baptismal sites where faith rituals take place, reflecting the river’s enduring religious, historical, and cultural appeal.

The river has additional significance as the scene of miracles in the Old Testament. After years of wandering in the desert, the ancient Israelites are said to have crossed the Jordan on dry land after the water was stopped for them to pass.

Recently, at the Jordanian baptismal site on the eastern shore, a woman dipped her feet in its murky waters and then scooped up some with her hands, rubbing it across her face and head. Others touched the river and crossed themselves or bent down to fill empty bottles.

Charlie Watts, a tourist from England, dipped a wooden cross—a gift and blessing to his Christian mother back home. “I took a video … so I could show him it was true,” Watts said.

Although he is not as religious as his mother, the 24-year-old considered his visit to the Jordanian site special: “What made it surreal is to think that this is what started the worldwide movement of Christianity.”

The Bible says that Jesus was baptized. Photo: AP

In an interview, Rustom Mkhjian, director general of the Baptismal Site Commission, Jordan, spoke passionately about the Jordanian site’s claim to authenticity and its preservation as it was in the time of Christ and John the Baptist—UNESCO declared it World Heritage “of immense religious importance to most denominations of Christian faith who have accepted this site as the place where Jesus” was baptized.

“Every year we celebrate interfaith harmony, and among the happiest days of my life are the days when I see Jews, Christians and Muslims visit the place and all three of them cry,” Mkhjian said. “The current place where we find ourselves is a place with a great and necessary message: let us build human bridges of love and peace.”

Both the Jordan and West Bank sites give visitors access to the river, where they come face to face with a narrow stretch of the body of water between them. An Israeli flag in Qasr al-Yahud in the West Bank serves as a reminder to those in Jordan that the river is a border that separates the two worlds.

That site is also considered the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized. Jordan and Israel compete for those people’s tourism dollars.

Several people in billowing white robes recently entered the water from the West Bank and formed a semicircle to pose for photos. Visitors in another group stood on the steps of the riverbank or in the water itself as two men in black, apparently in clerical garb, poured river water over their heads.

As a backdrop, some sang a hymn that was heard all the way to the Jordanian side:

“Oh, brothers, let’s go down… to the river to pray.”

Photo: AP

East Bank of the Jordan River

Those serene moments contrast with the military hostilities that have played out on the riverbank as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The history of the river and its waters has been as politically fraught as it is sacred, and for decades landmines have loomed large on riverbanks that were once a war zone.

On the eastern bank, demining of the area where the Jordanian baptismal site now stands began after a 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.

In the West Bank, a team from The HALO Trust, a British-American charity, has cleared mines around the Qasr al-Yahud site as late as 2020. The site itself had opened to the public years earlier, after Israel cleared a narrow path to the river, while the area of ​​the churches remained closed and frozen in time for decades.

Work to remove those mines began in 2018, but only after three years of building trust and getting everyone involved on board, from the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to various Christian denominations that own the churches and the land, said Ronen Shimoni, who was part of HALO’s demining effort.

Palestinians can no longer access or use the water from the Jordan River. Photo: AP

“Nothing is simple here in the West Bank,” Shimoni said.

Turbulent than EcoPaz Middle East

It is in that turbulent context that EcoPaz Middle East has urged regional collaboration on the Jordan between rivals who have long had every motivation to extract as much water as possible from the river or its tributaries.

“Any amount of fresh water left in the river would have been seen in the past as empowering the enemy. … You take as much as you can,” said Gidon Bromberg, the group’s Israeli director.

“There is a legitimate need for water…Water is scarce,” he said. “But the conflict creates an incentive to take everything.”

The result is that the annual discharge from the lower Jordan Basin into the Dead Sea is estimated to be between 20 million and 200 million cubic meters, compared to a historical amount of 1.3 billion cubic meters, according to a report published in 2013 by a UN commission and a German federal institute. Bromberg estimates the current figure at no more than 70 million cubic meters.

“Israel, from a historical perspective, has taken about half of the water, and Syria and Jordan have taken the other half,” Bromberg said. “The pollution that enters the river comes from the Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli sides, and a little bit from Syria as well.”

Palestinians can no longer access or use the water from the Jordan River itself, according to the UN-German report. Syria does not have access to the river, but has built dams in the Yarmouk River sub-basin, which is part of the Jordan River basin, it added.

For Palestinians in the West Bank, the only way to see the Jordan River is to visit the Israeli-run baptismal site there, said Nada Majdalani, the Palestinian director of EcoPaz.

“In the past, for the Palestinians, the Jordan River meant a means of subsistence and economic stability and growth,” he said. Now, he added, it has been reduced to “state ambition and sovereignty over water resources.”

Both the Jordan and West Bank sites provide visitors. Photo: AP

The decline of the river, he said, is especially disappointing for elderly Palestinians “who remember how the river looked… and how they used to go fishing, how they used to take a dip in the river.”

Bromberg said EcoPaz has documented the “lose-lose” nature of the river’s deterioration for everyone involved.

“In the Jewish tradition, you know, the river and its banks are a place of miracles,” he said. “Well, it doesn’t reflect a place of miracles in its current exhausted state.”

Rehabilitate Jordan River Basin

In late June, the Israeli government approved plans to rehabilitate a stretch of the lower Jordan Basin, a decision described by Tamar Zandberg, Minister of Environmental Protection, as “historic” and the beginning of a correction.

“For decades it was neglected, taking most of its water and effectively turning it into a sewage canal,” Zandberg said in a statement. “In an era of climate crisis and serious ecological crisis, the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and its return to nature, the public and hikers has a double meaning.”

In a phone conversation, Zanderg said the plan focuses on a stretch that runs into Israeli territory and reflects Israel’s improved water situation due to its desalination program, which has made it less dependent on water than it has been. using the Sea of ​​Galilee.

“Now, we’re actually more equipped to do it,” he said. “We have water.”

He added that he hopes the decision shows the potential of the river and paves the way for broader collaboration in the rest of Lower Jordan, as well as sending a signal to Jordan that “we are committed… to our mutual assets,” including the river.

“It can provide a success story in that segment and then it will enable more successful partnerships in the future.”

That is something that has not always been easy.

“Politics sometimes gets in the way and so do budget issues and trust … between the parties,” Zandberg said.

A regional rehabilitation and development master plan announced in 2015 by EcoPaz and others was adopted by the Jordanian government, but not by the Israelis or the Palestinians due to outstanding questions about the “final status” of the peace process, according to the group.

That plan said the lower Jordan River basin will require at least 400 million cubic meters of fresh water per year to reach “an acceptable level of rehabilitation.”

The creation of a trust fund to finance decontamination projects — an effort that EcoPaz had seen as less politically controversial — stalled after a 2017 diplomatic crisis between Israel and Jordan, and in the years of strained ties under the government of the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since then, there have been some signs of improvement.

However, not everyone in the region welcomes, or trusts, EcoPaz’s calls for cooperation.

“Our work is hard. Our messages are challenged,” said Abu Taleb, the group’s Jordanian director.

“You know, because of having the Israeli section, we are always being accused of being ‘normalizers,'” or having normal relations with Israel, Abu Taleb said. That is unpopular with many ordinary Arabs who cite factors such as Israeli land occupations and a lack of resolution of the Palestinian question. “Water knows no borders,” he said.

Bromberg said he has also drawn criticism from what he considered to be a vocal minority in Israel that “inappropriately” casts his advocacy as benefiting Jordanians and Palestinians at the expense of Israeli interests. “Unfortunately, there are people who think that if you work with the other side, you must be working exclusively for the other side,” he said.

Politics aside, pressure on some governments to meet domestic water demands complicates calls to add water to the river.

Jordan, for example, is one of the world’s most water-scarce nations, and its challenges are compounded by a growing population swollen by waves of refugees.

“We are under stress so we don’t have a surplus to add to the Jordan River and revive it despite the great importance it has for Jordanians,” said Khalil Al-Absi, a Jordanian official with the Jordan Valley Authority.

“Solutions require a concerted (regional) effort and help from the international community,” he said.

“We have many beautiful ideas for the Jordan River, but there are limitations.”

Climate change threatens to exacerbate these problems. “The impact of climate change is seriously affecting water resources,” Al-Absi said.

According to the World Bank, nations in the Middle East and North Africa face the greatest economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at between 6% and 14% of GDP by 2050.

Advocates like Bromberg acknowledge that climate change has made reviving the Jordan more difficult—but argue that restoring the river and its banks offers an economic incentive.

“The climate crisis brings out the urgency that river rehabilitation is perhaps the only way to prevent further instability in the valley,” Bromberg said, “because it can generate alternative income through tourism.”

Despite the river’s challenges, Al-Absi, the Jordanian official, said he remained optimistic. The alternative would be bleak.

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“If there is no water, people will not come despite (the presence of) religious places,” he said. “Water is life. Without water, there is no life.”