The Politics of Developing and Transforming the Jordan

The river that runs between the two sites has also become a more complex and layered space since the 1950s. Its image as a holy river has been overshadowed by infrastructural development, which approached the river as a utilitarian water resource system harnessed to meet the demands of a growing population in the region.

After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it was drawn into the regional conflict as a contested resource. Israel forcefully imposed the construction and operation of its National Water Carrier – a 200-kilometer conduit that conveys more than 300 MCM of water annually from Lake Tiberias to cities along the Israeli coast and further south to the Negev – prevented Jordanian, Lebanese, and Syrian attempts to develop the river, and entirely barred Palestinians from accessing it.

Meanwhile Syria, which lost access to the Upper Jordan River and Lake Tiberias with Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967, turned to the development of the Yarmouk River and its tributaries, where it built 38 dams in the following decades.

Jordan also started diverting water from the Yarmouk and Zarqa Rivers into the King Abdullah Canal. Unsurprisingly, the first victim of these unilateral development strategies was the Lower Jordan River itself, which has been reduced to around 2% of its historic flow.

In addition, water quality in this part of the river south of the Alumot Dam has been severely impaired, with saline flows, agricultural runoff, water from fishponds, and poorly treated sewage being released by all communities along the river so that its water is unsuitable for use in any sector. The degradation of the Jordan River has also caused a 50% reduction in biodiversity.

Raw sewage being released in the Lower Jordan River at the Alumot Dam, Israel. Source: Francesca de Châtel, 2013.


The Lower Jordan River below the Alumot Dam. Source: Francesca de Châtel, 2013.

FoEME has drawn attention to the severe degradation of the Lower Jordan River through several detailed studies and a wide-reaching international campaign to rehabilitate it.

In 2010, the organization also warned that organic pollution posed a serious public health threat at the southern baptism sites, which led to a flurry of media coverage over whether the river was safe for immersion at the baptism site in the West Bank.

The Israeli authorities subsequently issued statements declaring that the water was regularly monitored and safe for immersion. But as neither the Israelis nor the Jordanians make comprehensive long-term data publicly available, it is easy to speculate about the degree of pollution and whether it poses a public health threat.

The Yardenit Baptismal Site in Israel is far removed from such unsettling reports of polluted holy water and the history of conflict and shifting borderlines. Situated just south of Lake Tiberias before the Alumot Dam, Yardenit gives a bucolic impression of the Jordan River as a free-flowing, tree-lined river.

The Lower Jordan River flowing south seen from the Degania Dam and above the Alumot Dam, Israel. Source: Francesca de Châtel, 2013.

According to the Yardenit website, this is one of the only places along the Jordan River where the river still flows naturally. In fact, from a hydraulic point of view, the river here is an artificial reservoir, regulated by the upstream Degania Dam that controls inflow from Lake Tiberias, and the Alumot Dam, 1.5 km downstream. The water at Yardenit is essentially the same as that in Lake Tiberias and therefore close to drinking-water quality.

In this “pristine” setting, the site presents a bright and uncomplicated story that merges spirituality, tourism and consumerism into a seamless modern-day religious-retail experience. The visitors’ center, designed in the shape of a church’s nave, includes a large gift shop selling everything from bibles and olivewood crucifixes to holy water (125 ml, $6) and “I Was Baptized in the Jordan River” T-shirts.

Across from the gift shop, the Manna Restaurant serves “biblical food,” including St. Peter’s Fish and dates produced at the nearby Kibbutz Kinneret. Outside near the baptismal pools, visitors can pick up a video recording of their own baptism ceremony and buy empty plastic bottles and jerry cans to fill up with water from the Jordan River.

The Yardenit Baptismal Site, Israel. Source: Francesca de Châtel, 2013.


Holy water in the Yardenit gift shop, Israel. Source: Francesca de Châtel, 2013.

As Yardenit is more than 100 kilometers from the two southern sites, there is less need to legitimize it as the authentic site of Jesus’ baptism – tourists who visit as part of a day tour may not even be aware that there are any other sites.

Yet, by omitting any biblical references to Bethany Beyond the Jordan and emphasizing the “scenic landscapes [described in the Bible…] that have been preserved to this day,” the site’s tourist brochure implicitly suggests that this is the authentic site of baptism, or at least the place where it can be relived most authentically.

Billed as “the perfect combination of the [sic] Christian heritage, the exciting sights of the Holy Land and the history of civilization,” the Yardenit Site – like the two southern sites – also weaves in subtle political narratives, firmly rooting the story of baptism into ancient – and, implicitly, more recent – Jewish history in the Holy Land.

The site’s location on the grounds of Kibbutz Kinneret, the second kibbutz founded in Mandate Palestine, ties the biblical event of the baptism of Jesus into Zionist narratives.

Thus while the three baptism sites present themselves as religious sites that focus on biblical history and offer a space for spiritual reflection, each also represents particular political, nationalist, and economic interests, while at the same time glossing over the profound changes to the holy river itself.

Pilgrims who visit these sites appear unconcerned by or unaware of the physical changes to the river, which in their view do not affect its spiritual qualities.

Msgr. Maroun Lahham, the Latin Patriarch Vicar General of Jordan, appeared indifferent to the state of the river, considering its physicality to be almost irrelevant. “From a religious perspective it does not matter whether the water is dense or light, clear or cloudy, polluted or not polluted,” he said. “This does not touch upon the aspect of faith. Pollution is a Western concern, it is Cartesian. Descartes’ influence stopped on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.”

The physical and spiritual realms continue to exist separately, allowing the image of the holy Jordan River to persist independently of the altered physical river. An official at Al Maghtas in Jordan said that the river’s holy qualities are unchangeable. “We don’t like the word ‘pollution,’” he said.

“The water quality has been impaired by return flow of fertilizer, pesticides, saline water and treated and untreated sewage water along the whole river course. All this does not affect the spiritual quality of the river though: the Jordan is the Jordan. It is a holy river.”

Reviving the Jordan River

Despite the continued zero-sum struggle for the river’s water, efforts are being made to revive the Jordan River. FoEME has developed a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the Lower Jordan River based on extensive research in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.

The plan outlines concrete steps to remove pollutants from the river, return fresh water flow to it, and ensure Palestinian rights to a share of the river’s water are honored. It highlights the crucial importance of cross-border cooperation and of treating the river basin as a single interconnected ecosystem that transcends political boundaries and disputes.

Partly as a result of FoEMe’s advocacy efforts, Israel started releasing 1,000 m3/hour of fresh water from the Alumot Dam into the Lower Jordan River in May 2013, with a commitment to increase this amount to an annual 30 MCM.

Israel started releasing fresh water into the Lower Jordan River in May 2013. Source: Francesca de Châtel, 2013.

The Israeli Ministry of Environment has also outlined a master plan for the upper part of the Lower Jordan River up to the Bezeq Stream, the border with the Palestinian West Bank.

In addition, the operation of a new sewage treatment plant near the Alumot Dam by 2015 will remove sewage from the river. If Jordanian and Palestinian plans to build wastewater treatments plants in their part of the watershed are realized, half a century of using the Jordan as a sewage canal could be put to an end, according to FoEME.

However, the removal of the various effluents discharged by Israel, Jordan and Palestine could cause the drying up of the river. FoEME therefore recommends that 400-600 MCM/year of fresh water be returned to the river and that the river be allowed to flood once a year in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

While critics argue that none of the riparians are willing or able to give up their acquired share of the river, FoEME says it has identified over 1 billion cubic meters of water that can be saved in Israel, Jordan, and Syria.

The organization is advocating for the establishment of an international commission to manage the Lower Jordan River basin and is currently developing a cross-border master plan. It is also working towards the creation of a transboundary ecological peace park on the border between Israel and Jordan.

FoEME’s broad-ranging Jordan River Rehabilitation Project also seeks to engage and involve Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders both in the region and internationally in an effort to raise awareness of the importance of preserving the Jordan River Valley as a site of shared religious and cultural-historical heritage.

In November 2013, the organization published a series of Faith-Based Toolkits (Christian, Jewish, Muslim), which religious leaders are encouraged to use in their sermons and activities to engage faith communities in the region and beyond.

Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders from Israel, Jordan, and Palestine also gathered at a regional conference on the Dead Sea in Jordan in November 2013 where they endorsed the Covenant for the Jordan River drawn up by FoEME. The document calls upon regional governments to work towards the rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan Valley, which “must be counted as part of the heritage of humankind.”

Thus, against all odds, the first steps towards reviving the Lower Jordan River have been taken. And while the Jordan River will never return to its natural state, it could again becoming a living river and a carrier of holy water that is not only worshipped in a religious context but also revered and respected as the key to life and livelihood in this arid region.