Jordan Times
Monday, June 18, 2007

Jordan River among world’s 100 most endangered sites

A lack of cooperation and political will among regional states is hampering efforts to address the worsening ecological condition of the Jordan River, environmentalists said on Sunday.

According to Friends of the Earth Middle East, a regional environmental organisation of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, poor regional water management has led to the complete demise of one of the world’s most famous rivers.

The comments came in response to the lower Jordan River’s inclusion last week in the top 100 most “Endangered Cultural Heritage Sites” by a leading international watchdog.

Announced every two years, the World Monuments Fund’s list aims to galvanise international public attention on threatened cultural sites across the globe.

“The watch list of the World Monuments Fund is now sounding the alarm bell loud and clear to all those who care about the River Jordan,” Mira Edelstein, the organisation’s Tel Aviv campaigner for the rehabilitation of the river said in a press statement.

According to the organisation, “90 per cent of the river’s natural flow has been diverted by Israel, Jordan and Syria for domestic and agricultural use, with sewage flowing in its place. The region’s current policies treat the river as a backyard dumping ground.”

Munqeth Mehyar, the organisation’s chairperson and Jordanian director, described the river’s inclusion in the list as “expected”.

“We have been campaigning for a long time now on this issue and we welcome this news. It is good publicity for our cause and may help us finally focus the attention of the world on the gravity of the situation.”

The activist said past efforts to lobby the respective governments had proved fruitless, despite the fact that both Israel and Jordan have signed agreements to preserve the environment along their shared border.

Under Article 18 of the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty, both parties pledged to cooperate to conserve natural resources and protect biodiversity, including the “ecological rehabilitation of the Jordan River” and the environmental protection of water resources.

But Mehyar said the reality is that both governments are happy to shift the blame.

“When we talk to Jordanian officials they tell us if the Israeli side gives the go ahead, then we will follow suit and vice versa — meanwhile, nothing is done and the two countries continue to dump their waste into the river and divert water for agriculture.”

No one at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation was available to comment.

Mehyar said a comprehensive regional solution is now needed which encourages farmers to grow less water-intensive crops while focusing more efforts on exploiting the region’s tourism potential.

“The governments should have programmes in place to educate farmers on the benefits of growing drought-resistant crops like dates instead of continuing to use huge amounts of water growing citrus, tomatoes and bananas,” he said.

Despite the economic disadvantages, regional governments continue to subsidise farmers who grow water intensive crops.

Israel currently uses 65 per cent of its freshwater supplies for agriculture, which accounts for just 2 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, he said.

Similarly, Jordan’s agricultural sector contributes a mere 8 per cent to its GDP but uses 70 per cent of available water resources.

Mehyar said in cases where Jordanian farmers had diversified their crops, they had not only significantly reduced water usage but had increased revenues.

“We have a clear model to follow here, but sadly, officials have failed to convince other farmers to follow suit.”

After years of receiving no response from the concerned governments, two weeks ago the organisation sent a joint letter to the ministries of water and irrigation in both Jordan and Israel but have so far received no response.

The environmental organisation now hopes the inclusion of the river on the World Monuments Fund’s 100 most endangered sites will spur regional states into taking action.

“It is sad that only through international pressure will our governments act to rehabilitate this valley of cultural and natural heritage,” said Edelstein.

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