Oded Balilty  /  AP
Christians participate in a baptizing ceremony in the Jordan River at Kibbutz Kinneret, Israel. Christian evangelicals have teamed up with environmentalists to try to get the river cleaned up.
updated 9/11/2006 10:13:29 AM ET 2006-09-11T14:13:29

Wading into the Jordan River, the pastor blessed his flock, tapping the believers on the head before sending them into the hallowed waters to be baptized.

The faithful wet their faces and arms, shouting “amen” and “hallelujah” after each baptism, unaware that just downstream, raw sewage was flowing into the water.

That’s the split personality of one of the world’s most sacred rivers.

Small sections of the Jordan’s upper portion, near the Sea of Galilee, have been kept pristine for baptisms. But Israel, Jordan and Syria have siphoned off huge amounts of river water to meet their needs in this arid region, and pumped waste water back in.

Hardest hit is the 60-mile downstream stretch — a meandering stream from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.

Environmentalists say the practice has almost destroyed the river’s ecosystem.

World Heritage Site sought
Now Christian evangelicals have teamed up with environmentalists to save the Jordan. They want UNESCO to declare the entire Jordan Valley and river a World Heritage Site, hoping it will force all countries involved to work together to save it.

“If there’s irreversible damage done ... Israel’s going to have another PR battle on its hands,” said David Parsons, a spokesman for the evangelical Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has joined forces with Friends of the Earth Middle East, a green group.

Rescuing the river could take decades, environmentalists say.

The damage began in 1964, when Israel began operating a dam that diverts water from the Sea of Galilee, a major Jordan River water provider, to the national water carrier, said Hillel Glassman, a stream expert at Israel’s Parks Authority. At the same time, Jordan built a channel that diverted water from the Yarmouk River, another main tributary of the Jordan River.

Syria has also built reservoirs that catch the Yarmouk’s waters. In a year, the Yarmouk’s flow into the Jordan River will dwindle to a trickle, once Syria and Jordan begin operating a dam they jointly built, he added.

Environmentalists blame all three countries.

The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty contained provisions for rehabilitating the river, said Munqeth Mehyar, chairman of Friends of the Earth Middle East in Amman.

“They simply did not implement what came in the agreement,” he said. “The violation took place much before and not only by the Jordanians and the Israelis, but also the Syrians.”

'Dumping yard'
The three countries replenished the river with sewage water, agricultural runoff and salt water, Glassman said. The freshwater foliage that once flourished along the river’s banks has been replaced with saline vegetation.

“Almost no fresh water is flowing down the Jordan River anymore,” said Mira Edelstein, an expert on the Jordan Valley for Friends of the Earth Middle East. “It’s true there are springs along the way which replenish it a little bit, but unfortunately it has become the ... dumping yard of the countries.”

Oded Balilty  /  AP
Traces of water are seen where the Dead Sea once reached.
Overpumping and mineral extraction by Israeli and Jordanian companies are also drying up the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, with the shoreline receding three feet a year. The southern third of the lake is gone, and the experts doubt the famously salty lake can ever be rehabilitated.

Hadas Shamir, a masseuse at a spa in Ein Gedi, an Israeli resort on the Dead Sea, remembers that when she moved to the area from South Africa in 1978, the shoreline was just 30 feet from the road. Today, the spa has to drive its guests a mile to the water.

Visitors flock here to sightsee and bathe in mineral-rich waters. “People who believe the Dead Sea is good for them will still continue coming. I don’t know how much longer the sea will be there for them,” Shamir said.

Back at the baptismal site, Marilyn Spence, 54, of Plano, Texas, was disappointed to hear the river’s ecosystem had been ruined, but said it didn’t diminish the life-changing experience she had on her visit.

“To read about it is one thing, but to really be here and to be in the place that Jesus was baptized, it’s really an emotion that you can’t describe,” Spence said. “Saying yes to Jesus Christ is the ultimate, it’s just the ultimate.”

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