IN ISRAEL, not far from the place where Jesus is said to have walked on water and fed thousands with just five loaves of bread and two fish, government engineers have performed a miracle of their own — they’ve made a river disappear. The Jordan River leaves the Sea of Galilee on its way to the Dead Sea in a slow laze past a series of campsites to a concrete complex, beside which white-robed pilgrims submerge themselves in its waters. From there, it pushes onward, winding through olive groves, farmers’ fields, and patches of brushwoods. Then, suddenly, it stops. At a pumping station less than three kilometers from the river’s source, five broad green pipes dip like elephant trunks to suck the water out. Beyond this point, the river has been reduced to less than 2 percent of its original flow.
The disappearance of the Jordan River, much like the area’s dropping aquifers, is a symptom of the struggle for water that has shaped the modern Middle East. The flow of a river that once irrigated the fields of the West Bank has been channeled through pipes, pumps, and canals to gush from the taps in Tel Aviv, and to “make the desert bloom” in the Negev. This diversion of water may be a technical marvel, but it’s emptying rivers and leaving critical aquifers dangerously susceptible to the intrusion of salt water and raw sewage.
Many, including Israel’s former prime minister Ariel Sharon, have described the 1967 Six-Day War as the first modern water war, escalating as it did from clashes between Israel, Jordan, and Syria over competing claims to the flow of the river. The war’s outcome treated the region’s water as a spoil to be divvied up among contestants, with the lion’s share going to the victor. Trace your finger along a map of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria, and you’ll encircle the entire Jordan River basin. And beneath the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan, lies the country’s most important aquifer.
Meanwhile, on the losers’ side of the borders, Jordan and Syria set about snatching up what they could by building dams, digging wells, and diverting as much water as possible. In the decades since the fighting, each nation has secured the water in the areas they control. The 1994 peace treaty between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan included provisions for managing shared water resources — but it left little for the rivers, and the Palestinians who live beside them.
Once the Jordan River reaches the pumping station, the celebrated waterway quickly loses any hint of its biblical glory and hardly resembles a baptizing site. What’s left of its flow is soon soiled with sewage that enters the river as a thin, frothy, brown rivulet, widened by the addition of brackish discharge from springs unfit for drinking or irrigation. This fetid mixture meanders for another half-dozen kilometers inside Israeli territory to the border with the Kingdom of Jordan, where it is joined by the river’s largest tributary, the Yarmouk River, another waterway that has been robbed of its former glory as the region’s rivals — mostly Jordan and Syria — rush to suck up as much as they can. The Yarmouk used to power a hulking hydropower plant that still straddles the once-powerful tributary’s banks. “Today, the river couldn’t even turn a mouse wheel,” says Mira Edelstein of Friends of the Earth, which is campaigning for the river’s restoration.
To follow the river onward you have to leave its banks and drive south, parallel to its course, where, after a short stretch of farmland, a military checkpoint marks the entrance to the West Bank. Up until this point, the war over the Jordan River’s water has been a cold one, with the damage having mostly been done. But for the rest of its length, the Jordan slips through land where water conflict is still smoldering.
Once inside the Palestinian territories, the landscape undergoes a transformation. Most of the fields are yellow and barren, and shredded plastic sheets flutter on what were once greenhouses. Although out of view, the water’s presence is tauntingly clear if you look at the Jordanian side of the valley. On land the color of spinach, greenhouses line up like city blocks, a testament to what the soil can produce when properly irrigated.
Just before reaching the city of Jericho, one passes through the Palestinian village of Al-Auja. As recently as ten years ago, the village farmers were famed for their bananas, a tropical fruit they managed to grow in desertlike conditions. The village was founded in the flatlands below a mountain spring, which was carefully divided among the various families in the village. In the winter, the fields would sprout with wheat. In the spring, they’d produce vegetables. In the summer, when the rippling heat prevented the cultivation of most crops, the farmers would channel the spring’s abundant flow into their banana plantations.
But recently, production has been disrupted. Al-Auja’s farmers blame Israeli wells, which tap deep into the aquifer, for causing the spring to stutter — first the spring drops dramatically, and then, especially during the summer months, it stops altogether. The Israeli wells in Al-Auja were sunk near the springhead in order to regulate water in the deeper parts of the aquifer, pumping it out when it’s full, and allowing it to slowly replenish when it drops. The water that the wells produce enter the national system, where it’s rationed and sold to Israeli settlers and Palestinians alike. But as long as the water in Al-Auja is sold at market prices, the Israeli settlers — with superior capital, expertise, and access to the markets — are able to outbid their impoverished neighbors. The surrounding stretch of the Jordan River Valley is home to several Israeli settlements that boast orchards, vineyards, and farms. And while many of the crops are irrigated with recycled wastewater, at least some of the water is from the wells that villagers blame for drying up their spring.
Jerusalem controls 80 percent of the groundwater under the West Bank, much of which it accesses from springs inside Israel proper. To prevent overuse of the aquifer, Israel has placed heavy restrictions on the drilling of new wells — effectively freezing water consumption at dramatically unequal levels. As a result, the average Israeli consumes four times as much water as the average Palestinian, who receives well under the hundred liters a day the World Health Organization recommends as a minimum.
Contributing to the tension is the way the two populations think about water. To Israel, it is a resource to be captured, controlled, and carefully doled out — a common good, best managed by the state. For most Palestinian farmers, it’s nature’s bounty — to be divvied up in the way of their forefathers. One culture invented drip irrigation; the other relies heavily on flood agriculture. One is investing billions in state-of-the-art desalination plants; the other can barely keep its government together.
The region’s water scarcity is so severe that it makes reaching a final peace accord between the two sides presumably even more remote. Meanwhile, as both sides dither, there’s no longer enough water flowing into the Dead Sea, where the Jordan River ends its journey, to keep up with evaporation. The once mighty river simply peters out as a weak trickle into the sea’s northern tip, which is 422 meters below sea level and dropping. Combine that with a persistent drought — a worrisome foretaste of the long droughts that scientists expect from climate change — and the result is that the lowest place on earth is losing roughly one meter of water a year. At the Ein Gedi Spa, where tourists line up for mud baths and saltwater treatments, visitors now reach the sea by shuttle — a full kilometer from where the waves once lapped.