By Greta Scharnweber, New York University
The Dead Sea is dying. One of the most unique natural sites on Earth, famous for its buoyancy and lofty salt and mineral contents, the Dead Sea is on most world travelers’ checklists. Yet many of the Dead Sea’s visitors are unaware that this amazing body of water is in dire environmental crisis.
Indeed, the water level in the sea is shrinking at the shocking rate of about a meter every year. This has led to a dramatically receding water line and the appearance of dangerous sink holes on the banks of the sea, among myriad other drastic environmental effects. In and of itself, this is a major story and indeed most of the people that live near the sea in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, are aware of its rapid decline. However, few are aware of the root source of the sea’s demise that lies just to the sea’s north—a small but vital ecosystem that might be more famous than the Dead Sea itself. I am of course referring to the Jordan River, which holds great religious significance for the Abrahamic faiths and for many Christians in particular. The mere mention of its name conjures up images of the baptism of Jesus and a sense of the sacred. Its connection to the Sea of Galilee and the other holy sites (including Mt. Nebo) that pepper the banks of the river valley are a testament to the ecosystem’s religio-cultural heritage. Yet many pilgrims would be surprised to learn that except for a few meters at the mouth of the Sea of Galilee, no clean water flows through the lower Jordan. Indeed, visitors to the historical baptism sites, when they immerse themselves in the water of the Jordan, are likely unaware of the fact that they are bathing in industrial wastewater and sewage. Ironically, this flow of pollutants is the only thing keeping the riverbed of the lower Jordan alive during dry months.
How does something like this happen? About 95 percent of the Jordan’s water flow (and its associated springs and aquifers) has been diverted, the lion’s share of which goes to support subsidized unsustainable agriculture in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. In other words, to play on a commonly touted phrase in Israel, much of the water goes to “making the desert bloom.” Hence a domino effect is created; since the river is no longer flowing into the Dead Sea, its water level shrinks. The communities that reside near the river and its feeder springs are polluted and experience water scarcity. The Jordan river also happens to be a protected border zone—a so-called “natural border” between Jordan and Israel/West Bank. While we can certainly contest the “natural-ness” of this border (long historical evidence proves centuries-long interaction among communities on both sides of the river), the fact that it currently serves as a border means the general population does not have access to the river and therefore does not understand the extent of its ruin. As such, there is no public outcry, allowing the situation to perpetuate itself. Most significantly, because fresh water is already so scarce throughout the region, the social, political, and economic costs of rehabilitating the river seem too high for the governments concerned to bear.
This story is a sad but familiar tale with echoes in many river systems throughout the world. However, what makes this particular story so special is that its rehabilitation has become an opportunity to connect ordinary communities across the borders of Palestine, Israel and Jordan (the geographic heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) to enact what might be called environmental peacemaking. It is this point of intersection that makes this story invaluable to us as educators and teachers of Middle Eastern history and society. As good students of science, we know that the environment knows no borders. And it is on this point where we can take a lesson from the river and not only open our minds to understanding this piece of land and water as something larger than nation states and disputed territories, but also view the conflict in new ways. We begin to see what might have looked like a battle over religion and culture as a struggle to control valuable and scarce natural resources, both water and land. The story of the Jordan River is one that can help your students understand the myriad dimensions of the conflict in a way that introduces new information rather than inciting the flash points of religion and ethnicity that seem to bubble just beneath the surface for most Americans when it comes to this topic. Looking through this lens, the practicalities of daily life in this region also come into view, as few things in life can be accomplished without water.
Last year, a group of teachers from the Friends Seminary in New York City traveled to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea with New York University’s Middle East Studies outreach program under the leadership of a pioneering organization called EcoPeace--Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME). Like the teachers from Friends, many of you will find the work of FOEME inspiring and their findings useful for the classroom for a variety of disciplines. With offices in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and Amman, and project sites and local advocates along the Jordan River valley, FOEME is an example of a rare cross-border collaboration. They connect communities that likely would never have come in contact with one another (because they are separated by the border/river) in order to solve local environmental problems, advocate for the river’s rehabilitation, and educate the general public about environmental issues in the region. By working together in this distinct way, they forge the challenging path of getting ordinary Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians to work together and respect one another on a very practical level. While it remains to be seen whether or not their work will reverse the colossal damage that has been done to the river and the Dead Sea, it is evident that they have affected the lives of the people they work with. Perhaps their story can be equally effective in inspiring your students. And who knows—maybe these collective efforts can someday bring the Dead Sea and the Jordan River back to life.
For teacher reflections on the Jordan River, see: www.friendsseminary.org/politicsofwater.
glossary of water terms
Freshwater: water for drinking, hygiene, agriculture and industry, and comprises only 3% of the world’s water. Freshwater includes: precipitation (rain, snow); mountain glaciers (ice, permanent snow); wetlands (marsh, swamp); surface water(streams, lakes, rivers); groundwater (springs, aquifers, water table).
Aquifer: a wet underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, or silt) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well.
Water table: the planar, underground surface beneath which earth materials, as soil or rock, are saturated with water.
Virtual water: refers, in the context of trade, to the water used in the production of a good or service. Tony Allan, the creator of the term/concept stated: “The water is said to be virtual because once the [crop] is grown, the real water used to grow it is no longer actually contained in the [crop]…. In semi-arid and arid areas, knowing the virtual water value of a good or service can be useful towards determining how best to use the scarce water available.”
Evapo-transpiration: an important part of the water cycle. Describes water loss by evaporation as well as transpiration (the water appetite of plants). Evaporation accounts for the movement of water to the air from sources such as the soil, canopy interception, and waterbodies. Transpiration accounts for the movement of water within a plant and the subsequent loss of water as vapor through stomata in its leaves.
Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Resource: water is a renewable material when carefully controlled usage, treatment, and release protocol are followed. If not, it would become a non-renewable resource. For example, groundwater is usually removed from an aquifer at a rate much greater than its very slow natural recharge, and so groundwater is considered non-renewable. Removal of water from the pore spaces also may cause permanent compaction (subsidence) that cannot be renewed.
Fossil Water: groundwater that has remained sealed in an aquifer for a long period of time. Fossil water is non-renewable. Water can rest underground in “fossil aquifers” for thousands or even millions of years.
resources on water issues
In the face of increasing water scarcity, and the dominance of agricultural water use, FAO Water is seeks to enhance global agricultural performance while promoting the sustainability of water use for food production.
AQUASTAT is FAO’s global information system on water and agriculture, developed by the Land and Water Division. Users can find comprehensive and regularly updated information at global, regional, and national levels.
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
USGS collects hydrologic and water-quality information and provides access to water data, publications, and maps.
Pacific Institute: The World’s Water
Provides information and resources to help protect and preserve freshwater around the globe. This site is a companion to the biennial book, The World’s Water, and also provides links to a wide range of water resources.
International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Targets water and land management challenges faced by poor communities in the developing world.
World Water Forum
Every three years, the World Water Forum convenes stakeholders to keep water sustainability high on the international agenda. Convenes March 2012.
UN Water is an inter-agency group for information-sharing between UN agencies and outside partners.
Friends of the Earth Middle East
A unique organization that brings together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists.