Israelis relax by the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River and supplies a third of Israel's fresh water. Since 1967 Israel has blocked Syria's access to the lake's shoreline.
Israelis relax by the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River and supplies a third of Israel's fresh water. Since 1967 Israel has blocked Syria's access to the lake's shoreline.

Parting the Waters

A source of conflict between Israel and its neighbors for decades, the Jordan River is now depleted by drought, pollution, and overuse. Could the fight to save it forge a path toward peace?

For a biblical stream whose name evokes divine tranquillity, the Jordan River is nobody's idea of peace on Earth. From its rowdy headwaters near the war-scarred slopes of Mount Hermon to the foamy, coffee-colored sludge at the Dead Sea some 200 miles downstream, the Jordan is fighting for survival in a tough neighborhood—the kind of place where nations might spike the riverbank with land mines, or go to war over a sandbar. Water has always been precious in this arid region, but a six-year drought and expanding population conspire to make it a fresh source of conflict among the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians vying for the river's life-giving supply.

All of which makes the scene one morning last July all the more remarkable. Accompanied by military escort, three scientists—an Israeli, a Palestinian, and a Jordanian—are standing knee-deep in the Jordan River. They are nearly 40 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, under the precarious ruins of a bridge that was bombed during the Six Day War of June 1967. The scientists are surveying the river for Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a regional NGO dedicated to building peace through environmental stewardship. It's a scorching hot day in a former war zone, but if these men are concerned about the danger of heat stroke, getting clonked by a chunk of falling concrete, or stepping on a mine washed downstream by a flood, they're hiding it well.

"Hey, Samer," says Sarig Gafny, an Israeli ecologist in a floppy, green hat, "check this little fellow out." Samer Talozi, a tall, self-possessed young environmental engineer from Jordan, peers over his shoulder at the tiny invertebrate his Israeli colleague has scooped into a glass sample jar. "It lives!" he says with a laugh. "That is one tough crustacean!" A few yards away, Banan Al Sheikh, a stout, good-natured botanist from the West Bank, is absentmindedly wading upstream while focusing his camera on a flowering tree amid the tall reeds and other riparian species along the riverbank. "Watch your step, my friend," Gafny calls out after him, "and whatever you do, don't step on a bleeping mine."

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