Israel plans to revive ailing Jordan river

KFAR RUPPIN, Israel Thu Jul 19, 2012 12:56pm EDT

1 of 4. Youths bathe in a stream at the Valley of Springs near the Jordan River July 16, 2012. The Biblical river, which has inspired countless spirituals and folk songs, is just a narrow stream in many parts - polluted and stagnant. But that's about to change. Thanks to desalination and wastewater recycling, there is more fresh water to go around and the Jordan will slowly be returned to its former glory. Picture taken July 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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KFAR RUPPIN, Israel (Reuters) - The River Jordan is neither deep nor wide these days.

The Biblical river, which has inspired countless spirituals and folk songs, is just a narrow stream in many parts - polluted and stagnant. But that's about to change.

Thanks to desalination and wastewater recycling, there is more fresh water to go around and the Jordan will slowly be returned to its former glory.

From a dusty overlook in 40 degree (104 degree farenheit) heat, Ramon Ben Ari, head of Israel's Southern Jordan Drainage Authority, pointed to a spot where, years ago, water once climbed hundreds of meters when the river overflowed.

It was at the southern Jordan river, the Bible says, that the people of Israel crossed into the Promised Land. And in its waters, Christians believe Jesus was baptized.

Today, as a result of years of overtaxing for irrigation and drinking water, it snakes irresolutely along the valley from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. As far as the eye can see, it is just a few meters wide.

"It's five percent of what once flowed," said Ben Ari, who is one of the rehabilitation project leaders. "You can easily walk across without getting your head wet."

Almost all the water that feeds the river is diverted by Syria, Jordan and Israel before it reaches the south, he explained.

But for the first time, Israel -- which is two-thirds arid and has battled drought since its establishment 64 years ago -- has a water surplus.

This follows decades of massive investment in the country's water infrastructure. It re-uses 75 percent of its wastewater, mostly for agriculture, and by next year, 85 percent of drinking water will come from desalination plants.

The Israeli government has chosen to use this bounty to rehabilitate the country's rivers. The Jordan tops the list.

An average of 150 million cubic meters of water will be returned each year, said Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau when he announced the plan a few weeks ago.

"That way in ten years, we will erase our debt (to nature)," he said.

TOURIST HOT-SPOT

One of the most immediate benefits of this project will be a boost in tourism, which is at an all-time high in Israel.

An average of about 300,000 visitors arrive each month and about half of them are Christian pilgrims, said Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov.

"These pilgrims build their trip in the Holy Land around water. When the Jordan river is rehabilitated, it will directly influence their movement," he told Reuters in an interview.

Christians from around the world still flock to the Jordan to repeat the baptism ritual. But they can only do so at two dedicated sites. Even the simple ceremony could be dangerous in the rest of the river that carries waste and refuse.

The government plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to clean the Jordan river valley and develop it into an even bigger tourist hotspot, with campgrounds and lodgings by its banks.

A major wastewater treatment facility is already being constructed at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee which, when opened in two years, will improve river water quality.

Another obstacle is that some areas on the bank of the southern river, which straddles the Israel-Jordan border, contain mines left over from years of hostility. After fighting two wars, the neighbors signed a peace treaty in 1994.

Clearing those areas, as well as turning the old military outposts into tourists sites, is part of the plan.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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