Free flow: Israel lifts 49-year blockage of Jordan River

Free flow: Israel lifts 49-year blockage of Jordan River
In a bid to rehabilitate the diminished Lower Jordan River, Israel has begun releasing water from the Sea of Galilee almost 50 years after stopping the flow. The diversion of Jordan Basin freshwater in the 1960s sparked major conflict in the Middle East.

Israel plans to replenish the Lower Jordan, which flows from the Sea of Galilee south to the Dead Sea, with 30 million cubic meters annually, when the rehabilitation project gets into full swing in two years. During the initial stage launched on Sunday approximately 1,000 cubic meters of water are being discharged per hour.

At the same time the organizations involved will clean the riverbed and treat water to remove pollution and reduce salinity of the river. Earlier Israeli military conducted an effort to sweep for land mines along the river left there decades ago after the Six-Day War in 1967. The Lower Jordan serves as the border between the nation of Jordan in the east and Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the west.

The plan is to restore the natural environment of the Lower Jordan River and make it attractive to tourists. One site has particular significance for Christians, because John the Baptist is thought to have baptized Jesus there. Pilgrims flock to the nearby town of Jericho in the West Bank every year to visit the revered site.

A Christian pilgrim washes himself during a ceremony on the banks of the Jordan River near the West Bank city. (Reuters / Nir Elias)

Lower Jordan was damaged greatly by decades of excessive water diversion upstream. Israel relied heavily on water taken from the Sea of Galilee to provide for its agricultural and drinking needs. Water flow from the lake into Jordan was cut after the establishment of the Deganya Dam in 1964, as the Jewish states sought to provide for the arriving immigrants.

But Israel’s move to divert water via its National Water Carrier project irritated the country’s neighbors. The Headwater Diversion Plan by Lebanon was launched in 1964 by Syria and Jordan, which wanted to undermine Israel’s effort by curbing water supply to the Upper Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee it feeds.

Israel responded with military attacks culminating with airstrikes on Syria in April 1967. The water dispute and the hostilities over the diversion of the precious resource were a major factor behind the 1967 War, which started two months after the raid.

The renewal of water release comes after improvements in technology and water conservation, Alexander Kushnir, Israeli Water Authority Commissioner, said.

“We have established a system of desalination plants, water purification and waste water reuse facilities, along with optimizing the use and conservation of citizens – which has enabled the Water Authority to significantly increase the amount of water allocated to nature, along with the ever-increasing restoration of natural water resources,” he explained as cited by the Jerusalem Post.

Combined with increased rainfalls after years of draught, those allowed the Sea of Galilee to raise to 209.96 meters below sea level, which is close to the maximum capacity of 208.8 meters below sea level, the body reports.

Water measurement scales are seen on August 24, 2008 at the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, which has seen a big decrease of its water level. (AFP Photo / Yehuda Raizner)

The move was also hailed by the Jordanian contributors to the rehabilitation effort. But environmental activists, who generally favor the effort to help the Jordan River, criticized Israeli authorities over the small scale and the lack of transparency of the project.

The target of 30 million cubic meters per year is “not anywhere near the 220 million cubic meters that we have identified is necessary – our concern relates to the process,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East. He added that the Water Authority had never done an independent assessment of the plan.

“We cannot accept the process that is currently moving forward because it is moving forward in a non-transparent manner that prevents public debate, which is actually needed for the ecological rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan,” he said.