This story was written for Newhouse: 10 Days in Israel, a project in collaboration with the Jerusalem Press Club as part of an international reporting class. To view this story on the project website, click here.
Adam Waddell gazed at the lush, green fields surrounding Nahayarim, a small strip of land on the northern part of the Israeli-Jordanian border.
He looked down from the hill he stood on and pointed to a sliver of water that snaked through the fields. It was an opaque, brown shade, a sharp contrast to the rest of the rural scenery.
“This is probably the most water you’ll see here,” said Waddell, a tour guide from the nearby Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov.
That sliver was a portion of what was once known as the mighty Jordan River, a 156-mile-long body of water that runs through the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea’s arid valley.
The Jordan River is an important natural resource shared mainly between three entities: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. It’s also revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians across the world, considered as a sacred site in all three religions and its holy scriptures.
But the river is shrinking ever year, putting it at risk.
Its annual flow dropped from around 1,300 million cubic meters (mcm) of water to just between 20 and 200 mcm depending on the season in the last 50 years.
Israel and Jordan diverted nearly 95% of its freshwater for agriculture and domestic use, while Syria dammed its largest tributary, the Yarmouk River.
The problems don’t end there. The Jordan River’s quality is severely deteriorating as untreated wastewater and runoff from nearby communities and mining industries continue to flow into the valley. Meanwhile, the Dead sea is drying up because there isn’t enough water flowing in from the Jordan River.
There hasn’t been a sustainable solution to these problems.
The river runs through a region riddled with political and religious conflict between the entities that share it, making it difficult to implement a long-term plan that appeases everyone.
“It’s very sad to see the current situation,” said Suleiman Halasah, a Jordanian researcher at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies Center for Transboundary Water Management. “I’m sure peace will come, but I don’t think this will change the situation of the river.”
Fighting Over Water
Plans to address the region’s water management issues and maintain transboundary cooperation aren’t new. They just haven’t worked for everyone involved.
Take the Johnston Plan, for instance. It was developed in 1953 by Eric Johnston, a special convoy sent by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to mediate disputes over water resources between Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, then known as the Arab League.
The plan was to build two dams on the Yarmouk River and fairly distribute water from the Jordan River between the four countries.
Waddell said it was probably the most significant attempt to create a shared water plan in the region, but the Arab League rejected it for political reasons, including fear that it would solidify Israel’s existence as a nation-state.
Shaddad Attili, the former Palestinian Authority water minister, said the Johnston Plan failure led Israel to establish its own plan.
“There is no water in the south, so they started diverting the Jordan River to make water there,” Attili said.
Israel needed water for the influx of Jewish immigrants moving into the region, he said. Israel then opened the National Water Carrier in 1964 to divert water from the Jordan River valley using a system of aqueducts, tunnels, reservoirs and pumping stations.
The Arab League also developed its own plan to divert water from Hasbani and Banias, the Jordan River’s headwaters, which decreased the amount of water that went to Israel.
Attili said these clashes over water became one of the factors that led to the 1967 Six Day War. Israel won and gained the Gaza Strip, Sinai Desert, Golan Heights, West Bank and East Jerusalem, he said.
Water negotiations between Israel and Jordan remained after the Johnston Plan.
“The only ones who were to accept it de facto were Israel and Jordan,” Waddell said. “This set up the infrastructure that would be built to help both the Israelis and the Jordanians separately.”
These negotiations were part of the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. Israel agreed to supply Jordan approximately 75 mcm of water annually in exchange for its water allocation rights in the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers.
Daniella Gefen, an Israeli tour guide from Jerusalem, said these negotiations are vital today, especially for Jordan. In the last decade, around one million Syrian refugees moved into the country, increasing its need for water, she said.
“Jordan needs a large amount of water which Israel supplies from the Sea of Galilee ever since 1994,” Gefen said.
Jordan’s water crisis isn’t getting any better. Climate change has resulted in decreasing rainfall levels and increasing temperatures in the country.
Yet water is already a scarce commodity in the drought-ridden region.
Water Is Life
Seventy-five miles south from Nahayarim, Noam Bedein remembered the first time he saw the northern part of the Dead Sea three years ago.
Bedein, an Israeli photojournalist, was mapping out environmental areas to photograph when he heard about a man from a local kibbutz who owned the only boat permitted to go on the salt lake.
He contacted the man and toured the natural portion of the Dead Sea, known for being the lowest point on earth. The area he visited has been closed off for years because of the sinkholes that formed along the coastline, Bedein said.
Five months later, he went on his second boat ride. Bedein said he found a salt formation he photographed from his first boat ride, but this time, it was no longer underwater.
That’s when he saw firsthand how the Dead Sea was receding.
“I did not recognize the places I went to because everything changed dramatically,” Bedein said. “It hit me personally.
Since then, he’s been documenting the Dead Sea, which is quickly receding at a rate of 4 feet each year. This drop in water levels leads to inevitable sinkholes. Currently, there are over 6,000 in the area, Bedein said.
Bedein said the main reason why the Dead Sea is shrinking is because there isn’t enough water flowing in from the Jordan River, its main source.
“The historical flow of the Dead Sea has been dried out almost completely because of the lack of management or because of Middle East politics,” he said.
Ben Julius, founder and CEO of Tourist Israel, said the Dead Sea’s environmental problems are concerning for Israel’s tourism industry.
“The continued damage is very, very detrimental,” Julius said. “Aside from the fact that you’re ruining a natural treasure, it’s also never going to be recreated.”
The Dead Sea region is the second most popular destination for tourists in Israel, according to a report from the Israel Ministry of Tourism. In 2017, 94.5% of tourists who visited the country went to the Dead Sea.
Julius said tourists may not realize there’s an environmental problem if they only go to the southern end of the Dead Sea, which is where hotels and stores are located.
He said that areas like Ein Bokek, a hotel and resort district by the Dead Sea’s shores, are not part of the real Dead Sea. These areas are made up of evaporation pools created for the mineral industry in the late 1970s.
Meanwhile, Bedein said the Dead Sea crisis is devastating for locals in nearby communities such as Kibbutz Ein Gedi.
“We have people who have to leave the area because they have no work whatsoever because you have beaches that were closed down,” Bedein said. “Also, people can’t rely on any kind of infrastructure – if it’s hotels or agriculture – because you have the sinkholes.
The Dead Sea isn’t the only thing affected by the Jordan River’s shrinkage.
Suleiman Halasah, the researcher at Arava Institute, said that farming communities in Jordan are at risk because of water issue.
“Farmers have access to highly subsidized water for irrigation, but they can’t grow certain crops, mainly crops that need a larger amount of water,” Halasah said. “For example, if a farmer decides to grow bananas, he will not receive his subsidized share of water.”
Rana Qamari, educational program manager at non-profit EcoPeace Middle East’s Palestinian branch in Ramallah, West Bank, said agricultural areas in the Jordan River valley – the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian sides – are all affected. Farmers are pushed to leave their homes and move into the city to find new careers, she said.
“If you drove from the north to the south of the valley, you’ll find a very green area around the river where people used to plant so many crops and earn money from this,” Qamari said. “But there is no more water, no more crops, no more money.”
Qamari said she is also concerned about how the Jordan River is shared. Currently, Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have direct access to the river because Israel controls their water, she said.
Even visiting the Jordan River, as well as the Dead Sea, is difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank, Qamari said. Many Palestinian Christians want to visit those sites for baptisms.
“It’s open for them, but they don’t have control over it,” Qamari said. “You have to arrange with the Israeli military there. The security will be around you there. It’s not comfortable.”
Qamari said she longs for a solution to the region’s water crisis, which is why she’s working to educate people through environmental awareness campaigns at EcoPeace.
“We need to learn that if we cooperate, if we work together, we can save this resource of water,” she said.
Israel and Jordan came up with a plan to save the Dead Sea and increase the region’s water supply almost 30 years ago.
The $361 million plan, called Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, is to build a 112-mile-long pipeline in Jordan that would transfer water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea. This transfer would also generate hydroelectricity for a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan that would produce potable water for Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.
“It becomes like a swap,” said Nasser Alkhatib, former project engineer at Water and Environmental Development Organization, a Palestinian non-profit. “Israel gets water from Jordan in the south [Aqaba], and in return, Jordan gets water from Israel in the north [Sea of Galilee]. For the Palestinians, Israel is willing to sell them more water.”
Alkhatib was in Johannesburg, South Africa when the “Red-Dead Canal” plan was discussed and approved at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002.
He said that while it was an interesting transboundary plan for the three entities, the situation is more complicated.
For example, transferring water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea could be harmful because the two bodies of water have different characteristics, Alkhatib said. It could change the Dead Sea’s composition, leading to algae growth and calcium sulfate formations.
These findings came from a five-year feasibility study and environmental impact report conducted by the World Bank in 2008, he said.
Also, the Palestinians get the short end of the stick. Palestinians in the West Bank don’t have direct access to the Jordan River because it’s controlled by Israel, Alkhatib said, and buying water from Israel is already expensive.
“We buy water from the Israeli authority, but they don’t give us water every day,” said Mustafa al Araj, a Palestinian tour guide from Bethlehem, West Bank.
Araj said his family has to store water in tanks on their roofs to make it last for the entire month. He said it costs him $200 every two months to fill up two water tanks for him and his wife.
The “Red-Dead Canal” project hasn’t gone into effect.
It’s been delayed despite a final approval from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian authority in 2013, partly because of the environmental concerns, the costs and the region’s instability.
Back in Nahayarim, Waddell said the project might not be of immediate importance for the Israeli government. He said Jordan needs it more because of its water crisis.
For the most part, Israel has solved its water through desalination, Waddell said. Currently, Israel gets 70% of its drinking water from desalination plants.
Meanwhile, Alkhatib said that at this point, he doesn’t see a future for the project unless a real cooperation between the three entities takes place.
He described this cooperation as “ending the occupation and having the two-state solution” that would give Palestinians its own country.
Yet time is ticking.
Some, like Noam Bedein, the Israeli photojournalist, are afraid of the looming consequences if nothing gets resolved soon.
Bedein said his first-born son was born right after he started documenting the Dead Sea. Seeing the dramatic environmental changes of the salt lake in his photographs makes him fear that his son might not get to experience it in his adulthood.
“All this beauty that we’re seeing can be lost very fast one day,” Bedein said.