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How the Jordan River quenches the heat of Middle East water wars

Posted by Mr. Hachis | On: Oct 24 2010

For centuries, Middle East water wars have raged over the Jordan River, from its northern headwater gushing at Mount Hermon, down its 200 mile stretch to where it empties as a brown syrup into the Red Sea. Prior to the modern era, tribes fought along the Jordan for riverbank access for their tribes and herds. Agricultural communities sprang up along the river to divert its water into their fields. Water has always been a precious commodity in the dry land of the Middle East, worth fighting and dying for. Today, Middle East water wars still continue on the Jordan, with occasional skirmishes between contending states. Wanderers may be blown to pieces by the mines that lie along the riverbanks. Of late, however, the fight is cooling down, especially along the lower Jordan; the river has been polluted, nearly beyond repair. Ironically, the river's pollution is now uniting some long time enemies.

At Mount Hermon, the water is frothy in the river's tributaries; about 10 miles further south of Mount Hermon, the Wazzani, Dan and Benlyus springs converge into the Jordan in the Hula Valley. In the 1950s, Israel and Syria fought a Middle East water war over the Jordan where it touches the Golan Heights, with Israel winning Golan and access to the water there. Draining the swamps along the Golan, Israel created prosperous farmlands in the Hula Valley. Although refuse still finds its way from the Hula Valley into the river, the water is not greatly polluted. In 1964, Israel completed the National Water Carrier, a canal that feeds water from the Sea of Galilee, down and across Israel, all the way to Tel Aviv. Building the canal caused contention with the Arab nations, particularly Jordan, and though the two countries are at a stable peace now, the NWC canal still accounts for much of existing animosity between the two countries. The canal is a major factor in the reduction of the rivers' flow, but Israel is not the only one to contribute to that reduction. The Yarmuk River, which runs into the Jordan from the borders of Syria and Jordan was dammed by both nations. The Yarmuk was diverted to fill the King Abdullah canal that parallels the Jordan all the way down to the Red Sea. Damming the flow of the Yarmuk River was a significant issue between Jordan and Israel, but was resolved so amicably that the resulting resolution inspired the 1994 peace agreement between the two nations. After Israel took the West Bank in 1967, another Middle East water war seemed ready to break out, but agreements between Israel and Jordan at the Oslo peace talks in 1994 eased the strain.

Even up to Nabulus, the Jordan is clean enough to host some freshwater animal species, but from there, down to the Red Sea, the Jordan serves as a sewage river. Here, the water is so polluted, few freshwater animals have survived. It is also the most thoroughly mined area along the Jordan and the riverbanks are heavily militarized. The degree of water pollution is apparent, as the Jordan trickles as a sludge into the Red Sea, a cesspool that justifies its alternate name, the Dead Sea.

Today, Middle East water wars are not fought over the lower Jordan and the Red Sea. Instead, environmentalists from both Israel and the Arab countries have joined together in an effort to bring the lower Jordan and the Red Sea back to health. Some don't believe it can be done, and building a canal like the NWC has been proposed. With this cooperation between old enemies, whatever the solution, the Jordan has called these people to work together for a common cause. Perhaps in time, the river might teach them to live in peace – at least as concerns the Middle East waters.

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