Pilgrims might think twice about baptism in the brackish waters after walking in the footsteps of Jesus down to the Jordan River.
The stream that watered "the garden of the Lord," where Moses led the Jewish people to the Promised Land, is a sickly trickle through a closed military zone, kept alive by sewage water.
A dying resource
Visible from space, the meandering course it has carved along the floor of the Great Rift Valley leads from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. At ground level, the Jordan slouches along through the stupefying heat of summer behind Israeli army fences that run the length of the West Bank-Jordan border.
"The state of the Jordan is indeed a catastrophe," says Gidon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, "There are places where you struggle to see a river."
The Israeli army allowed Reuters on Thursday to visit the baptismal site on its west bank near the old city of Jericho. It lies a few thousand meters inside the border zone fence, down a dirt road with "Danger-Mines" warnings on both sides.
As Pope Benedict saw in May when he visited the spot where Christians believe Jesus was baptized, the Jordan resembles a stagnant irrigation ditch of dull green water.
Workers on the West Bank wade chest deep, extending the hardwood steps that lead down to the water from a baptismal reception center for the busloads of Christians who can come here by appointment.
On the Jordanian side a few pilgrims, from Italy and Russia, dip their fingers in and wet their heads. The stream disappears into slow bends overhung with thick reeds.
A third summer of severe drought, with rainfall at a 40-year low, is deepening the region’s water crisis. But even Biblical rains could not immediately revive the Jordan because 90 percent of its water is diverted for human use.
None of this is news. Assessments over the past two or three years speak of a river "low in quality and low in quantity," low in oxygen, low in biodiversity and high in salts.
Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan all draw water from the catchment area feeding the Jordan and Sea of Galilee, from the snows of Mount Hermon to the streams east of the Golan Heights.
Attempts by Syria to divert tributaries sparked clashes over water rights that became one cause of the 1967 Middle East war.
Today, below Israel’s Alumot dam south of the Sea of Galilee and another popular baptism site, the lower Jordan takes in sewage water from a pipe as it flows on into the West Bank.
"Pumping sewage from the (Israeli) city of Tiberias into the Jordan has turned the holy river into a sewage ditch," says Palestinian water Authority Chief Shaddad Attili.
Saline water and agricultural runoff thicken the sluggish mix. "There’s next to no fresh water going in, only a little in winter," says Bromberg.
A World Bank report says the Palestinians have little power to do much for the Jordan due to their "complete dependence" on water resources "largely controlled by Israel."
Israelis have access to approximately four times as much fresh water per capita, the April 2009 report states. The Palestinian water infrastructure, by contrast, is very basic.
At the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, head of stream monitoring Hillel Glassman acknowledges decades of excessive use have created a huge "overdraft" in Israel’s water account.
Overpumping has depressed the water table to below the level of natural flow, Glassman explains, so streams in some northern nature reserves have all but dried up over the last 10 years.
"We’re only just entering the era of desalination to solve our water problem," he says. Meanwhile, record low rainfall means "nature is paying a very high price during this crisis.
To prevent aquatic ecosystems drying out, Glassman’s unit is drawing "SOS allocations" of fresh water from Israel’s jealously metered resources to "give streams a survival minimum."
The Jordan, however, gets no direct benefit from the scheme.
In their 1994 peace treaty, Israel and Jordan pledged to rehabilitate the river but "they’ve both gone backwards," says Bromberg. The Syrian-Jordanian Unity Dam, opened in 2006, may have dealt the river a death blow, he says, by trapping the waters of the Yarmuk, a major Jordan tributary.
"It’s a multinational problem," Glitzman agrees. "We don’t try to hide it. But we really do hope for better days for the Jordan" as Israel replans its entire national water system.
In two to three years treatment plants will recycle water for the Jordan Valley and, in three to four years, two coastal plants will desalinate enough water to meet Israeli demand that now exceeds the rainfall provision by a third.
But with each year that passes, the rescue grows more urgent. By the time it has flowed 300 km from the mountains of Lebanon to the Dead Sea, diversion and evaporation have reduced the Jordan to a turbid stream.
The level of the Dead Sea, which it has fed for millennia, is dropping up to one meter every year.