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Notes from the Field: From the Chesapeake to the Jordan

A Roman bridge built over the Jordan River. Photo by Adam Wickline/CBF Staff.

The idea of summer school usually implies a remedial tone: “Johnny, you failed algebra. You’re going to summer school!” However, this July I had the extraordinary opportunity to learn how another region of the world is dealing with complex environmental issues. Through a State Department grant and a Dickinson College/Arava Institute of Environmental Sciences (AIES) partnership, I participated in the Across Borders Summer Fellowship in the Middle East to study trans-boundary resource issues in the region. Along with 16 fellow professionals from all over the United States, I traveled, explored, and discussed the major resource challenges facing Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. The fellowship will continue next summer with 17 environmental professionals from the Middle East coming to the Chesapeake Bay region to study our efforts to work together across state lines in reducing pollution running into our waters. 

Not surprisingly, water was the resource that took center stage. Though I could speak for days detailing the myriad of water issues facing the region, there was one problem that intrigued me the most: the degradation of the Jordan River. 

The Jordan River runs north to south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and forms a large part of the border between Israel and Jordan. It is both culturally and ecologically important. The site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is a key stop for the numerous pilgrims who visit the region each year. The river valley is also an extremely important flyway for birds migrating from Europe to Africa and back to escape winter. Though this river is small in comparison to the rivers we have in the Chesapeake watershed, it provides a large portion of freshwater to both countries. So much so that every cubic meter of water in the river is allocated for human use, whether it be domestic use in the home or use in the numerous agricultural fields on both sides of the river. And there’s the rub. By the time the Jordan River reaches the Dead Sea, it is nothing more than a small trickle comprised mostly of wastewater put back into the river after people have used it.  Sadly, the Jordan is one of the most degraded waterways I have ever encountered and its overuse has impacted the environment and people. Bird populations that once thrived in the Jordan River valley have decreased in the past few decades. Furthermore, we were concerned that people could very possibly be developing a “baptism rash” of some sort while being purified in the not-so-clean Jordan River!

Fortunately, there is work being done to rehabilitate and restore this unique world treasure. An active organization called the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) has worked tirelessly on both sides of the river to create a plan to allow more water to flow in the river, create proper sewage treatment for wastewater, and connect people to the river to increase awareness. Just like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Bay-wide pollution diet, FOEME has an actionable plan based in science that can save the Jordan River. Unfortunately, their plan has not been implemented by any of the involved governments. But when I spoke with Gidon Bromberg, the Director of FOEME’s Israeli office, he exuded sincere optimism and confidence that expressed hope for the future of both the river and the region, against all odds. This was certainly an inspiration to take with me back to the Chesapeake, and to discuss with next year’s fellows.

IMG_0184 The not-so-clean water at the Baptism site in the Jordan River. Photo by Adam Wickline/CBF Staff.

Now that I have returned to Maryland and CBF, I cannot help but constantly compare the struggle of our Bay to the struggle of the Jordan River. Even though things seem bad here, we are still lucky in many ways. For example, the Chesapeake is one of the most studied bodies of water in the world and we have incredible data to show for it. This is a key advantage when you consider the Jordan, whose data are either nonexistent or in disagreement with another nation’s research. In addition, we as watershed citizens have INCREDIBLE access to our streams, rivers, and Chesapeake. We are out there fishing, boating, hunting, and keeping an eye on the health of our water. The Jordan River lies between two countries that were at war as recently as 1973. It is choked off from its people by barbed wire, military borders, and landmines. Until FOEME made concerted efforts to get people to go to the few access points there are on the river, no one really knew the problems at hand or moved to make government protect this natural treasure.   

So, let’s use all these advantages that we have here in the Chesapeake. We have an enforceable plan to reduce pollution (the TMDL, or “pollution diet”). We have the power to contact our elected officials and voice our opinion. And finally—and perhaps most importantly—we have numerous opportunities to truly experience the magic that our Bay and its watershed still hold. And we have a duty to keep an eye out for egregious violations against our waters and to keep them clean.    

—Adam Wickline


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