Raw Sewage Taints Sacred Jordan River

The Associated Press
Sunday, September 10, 2006; 11:45 PM

KIBBUTZ KINNERET, Israel -- 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.

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.

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