One of the founding myths of Zionism was that Israel’s pioneering generation had made “the deserts bloom,” that they had taken a “land without a people” and made it fit for habitation.In reality, the region has been cultivated for thousands of years, long before Jews or Arabs even existed. (Farming was invented in the Jordan valley, where human beings first cultivated wild wheat.) Rather than making the deserts bloom, what the early Zionists did was bring farming into dry, marginal lands and revolutionize a traditional industry for the needs of a proto-nation state.
The early Zionists were acting out of a western, 20th century attitude towards the natural world, which — according to their view — needed to be subjugated to human control, said Gidon Bromberg, the founder of Friends of the Earth Middle East — a joint Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian organization. “As if deserts don’t have an intrinsic value in of themselves,” he said on Monday, while taking me on a tour of the Jordan River valley. With the perfect vision that comes with hindsight, we can now see the damage those modern attitudes wrought on this ancient land, and the Jordan valley is one of the best places to do so.
Crossing the river Jordan is one of the great disappointments of a trip to the Middle East. Instead of a mighty torrent “deep and wide” as the gospel songs proclaim, the Jordan River for much of its run is a thin rivulet of brown slime largely obscured by reeds. “That’s it?” is a refrain I’ve often heard from American pilgrims when crossing the Jordan river at Allenby Bridge, the border checkpoint separating the Kingdom of Jordan on the river’s east bank and Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on the west bank. The Mighty Mississippi it ain’t.
But as Gidon pointed out, the health of the Jordan River is even worse than it appears. Almost all of the water that used to flow into the river is now diverted for human use. In the 1960’s, the Israeli government blocked off the Jordan river just a few kilometers after it leaves the Sea of Galilee, and later, the Jordanian government dammed the Jordan River’s other main source of water, the Yarmouk River. What now flows in between the Jordan’s banks is almost entirely human sewage, most of it untreated. The river where John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, a river so sacred it doesn’t need a priest’s blessing to be considered holy water, is now, for all intents and purposes, full of crap.
The decline of the Jordan River has had profound social and environmental consequences for the Jordan Valley. It has reduced habit for the millions of birds migrating each year from Europe to Africa for whom the Jordan is the last chance to fatten up before crossing the Sahara Desert. It is killing the Dead Sea, which, without replenishment from the Jordan, is dropping about a meter a year. And it is helping to decimate Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank – home to some of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities – which are slowly dying of thirst without access to the river and without the authority to dig their own wells.
But the plight of the Jordan valley is galvanizing a new generation of environmental activists in the region. For Palestinians, reviving the Jordan River is a necessary part of a national water system for a future Palestinian state. For many idealistic secular Israelis, learning to live with their dry country’s fragile ecosystem is helping them redefine Zionism. And for all the communities that live along the Jordan, sharing its blessings is an opportunity to nurture the region’s fragile peace.
The trick is to convince the national governments that use the Jordan’s water that it they would be better off returning the river to its natural course. For Bromberg, the future of water conservation in the Middle East lies in transforming rural economies. Right now the Israeli and Jordanian governments give precious water at subsidized prices to their agriculture industries – which consumes a majority of their water (about 50 percent in Israel and 70 percent in Jordan) but which contributes just a fraction of their GDP (two percent in Israel and three percent in Jordan.) Because they don’t pay the full price of their resources, farmers in the region grow water-hungry crops such as garden vegetables, fruits and flowers, most of which are shipped to Europe. “We are exporting our water,” said Bromberg. “Bananas are a tropical fruit. Why are we growing them in the desert?” While Israel needed its own farmers to feed the country in its early days, Israel can now import its food for less of an environmental and economic price than it is currently paying.
Both rural environments and communities would be better off if they developed as destinations for eco-tourism and outdoor activities. In particular, a healthy Jordan River – much of which is currently a restricted military zone on the Israeli side – could be a much bigger draw for pilgrims visiting holy sites. Friends of the Earth Middle East and architects from Yale University have developed a showcase eco-tourism project: a Peace Park on an island in the middle of the river, where Jordanians and Israelis could meet without passports or visas. The Peace Park would also be a concrete way of fighting the mistrust that push countries to grab as much water as they can. “War will not generate water,” said Nader Al-Khateeb, the Palestinian director of FoEME. “But peace can generate millions of cubic meters of water.”
–Andrew Lee Butters/Jordan Valley