Jordan valley withers in wilderness of Mideast politics


Jordan valley withers in wilderness of Mideast politics

The Ein Gedi spa, built 40 years ago on the shore of the Dead Sea -- the lowest point on Earth -- now offers a tractor shuttle to carry bathers across the kilometre (more than half a mile) of salt flats that separate it from the water's edge. A few kilometres (a couple of miles) up the shore, a campsite that used to rent out cabins by the sea has been sucked underground by the opening of cavernous sinkholes, some more than 30 metres (yards) wide.

The first one burst open in 1998, swallowing a cabin and a cleaning woman. "The earth swallowed her up. She fell nearly 10 metres. They made everyone leave that day and closed the camp down," says Gundi Shahal, an Israeli environmentalist who came to Ein Gedi from Germany in 1979. "Since then it hasn't stopped. The whole campground looks like a moonscape," she says as she walks past the massive holes, one of which contains the rusted shell of a car.

Across the street are rows of dead trees, the remains of a date plantation that was closed because of the danger of the sinkholes. Scientists have documented some 2,500 such holes, with an average of 300 new ones opening up each year. As the Dead Sea shrinks, the level of groundwater drops and as it retreats under the surface it dissolves layers of salt, creating underground caverns that eventually collapse into the sinkholes.

The Dead Sea derives most of its water from the Jordan river, which over the past 50 years has virtually disappeared as a result of massive upstream water projects in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. For Mohammed Saida, a farmer in the Palestinian village of Al-Auja some 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Ein Gedi, the Jordan river vanished completely when Israel fenced it off after seizing the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. The land his family once owned along the river is now in a closed military zone and they have to rely on village wells and a seasonal underground spring. During the winter, the spring spouts up to 2,000 cubic metres (70,000 cubic feet) of water a day but in the summer and early autumn it is reduced to a squalid puddle. "This valley floods every year, but we have no dams so it all goes into the Jordan," Saida says. Israel restricts the building of dams and drilling of wells by Palestinians in the West Bank.

At the foot of the valley sits a water pump freshly painted blue and white like the Israeli flag. Inside an engine pumps water for Israeli settlers and Al-Auja residents. Per capita water consumption in the West Bank stands at 50 litres (around 13 gallons) a day, according to a World Bank report published this month, about two-thirds less than the target recommended by the World Health Organisation. Israel uses around 83 percent of the water originating in the occupied territory, with the rest going to the Palestinians, whose annual water extraction has dropped by around 10 percent in the past decade, according to the same report. "(The Israelis) took the entire river, their share and ours, they took the land, and now they are drilling wells to take our water," says Hussein Saida, Mohammed's cousin and a village councillor. "How can there be peace?"

Shahal and the Saidas belong to Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a group of environmentalists from Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. They have long lobbied for a project to rejuvenate the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea by using desalinated water from the Mediterranean to meet upstream demands. But the idea getting the most attention, and dividing scientists and environmentalists, is the proposed construction of a massive canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.
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It is a human rights abuse to use water as a political weapon. All people have an inherent right to use water for farming and to live. This tactic used by the Israeli government against Palestinians in the West Bank is in my view one of the biggest yet untold reasons why there is no peace in this region. Any peace negotiations that have gone on should have addressed the subject of water and using it as a political weapon to come to a consensus and agreement on sharing this resource amicably. Is it no wonder that terrorism persists in this area with peace agreement after peace agreement falling apart? The lack of water breeds hunger which breeds famine which breeds death and resentment. When are people going to see this? And if they do, to care?

The answer to peace in this region is not war, it is water. And unfortunately, the Dead Sea is now really dead because of politics, hatred, greed, and the policies of those who fail to understand that peace cannot be attained unless common similarities are shared. Water is something all life on Earth requires to live. To deliberately withhold it as a political policy to break any people and hold them in perpetual poverty and servitude is a crime against humanity and the Democracy any country claims to support. I truly hope a consensus can be reached. It may well be the only way to peace. And hopefully without interjection by the World Bank in making stipulations for Palestinians to have their fair share of this water at a higher prorated price.

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