Christians Explore How Ecological Work on Restoring the Jordan River Can Build Peace and Support the Gospel in the Holy Land

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The first time Joel Kelling saw the Jordan River, on a 2010 Oxford Brookes University field trip, he was stunned. He was one of only two Christians in his group, and his traveling companions were unimpressed by the puny, polluted river.

“It didn’t have the wonder I anticipated,” he said. “It’s small, it’s low, it’s brown, and it’s unrecognizable from what we might imagine the great River Jordan to be.”

As a Christian, Kelling felt “a strange sense of responsibility” for the state of the river. “You think we should have been the ones protecting this resource.”

Now an Anglican missionary serving in Jordan with his wife, Fiona, Kelling hopes to work with EcoPeace, a local environmental NGO, to bring the Jordan’s plight to his community’s attention. “A lot of people locally don’t even know what state [the river] is in,” he said. But between political turmoil, the refugee crisis, and other local conflicts, Christians living in the Holy Land have many things vying for their attention.

Before the 1960s, the Jordan looked much like it did at the time of Christ. Its annual flow hovered around 1.3 billion cubic meters. “It used to be a powerful river,” said Theodore Varaklas, a tour guide based in Jerusalem. “It was dangerous to cross.” Today, the Jordan’s waters have been reduced to 20 to 30 million cubic meters—a mere trickle of their former flow. The river is now so narrow that in some places you can hop from one bank to the other.

It is an exercise in cognitive dissonance to stand on this river’s polluted shores and believe that it is the Jordan referenced 186 times in Scripture. This river, whose banks were once dotted with landmines, is where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land (Josh. 3:1–17). This river, which has lost half of its biodiversity since 1950, is where Elijah and Elisha walked over the parted waters (2 Kings 2:7–8). This river, now polluted with raw sewage, is where Christ was baptized by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:13–17). Prince Louis of Cambridge was recently christened in water from this river—but the water had to be carefully cleaned and sterilized before being used in the royal ceremony, as fecal coliforms, chemicals, and other pollutants are commonly found.

Varaklas, who estimates he has toured 15,000 people through the Holy Land since 1992, was baptized in the Jordan as a child, before the river was closed off during the Six-Day War in 1967. Control of water resources factored heavily in the war, and the resulting displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees exploded Jordan’s population from 450,000 in 1947 to 2 million in 1975. This population increase led to greater reliance on irrigated agriculture in the Lower Jordan River Basin, putting further strain on the river itself. Almost all of the Jordan’s waters (96%) are currently being diverted for human use.

Today, the nation’s population is around 9.5 million, and it is yet again bursting with refugees—this time from Syria and Iraq. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that Jordan has “the second highest share of refugees compared to its population in the world, 89 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.” It is second only to Lebanon, which has 173 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. Like Kelling and his family (and 83 percent of Jordan’s population), many of these refugees live in the basin, where the water shortage is severe.

This shortage is expected to worsen. The International Water Management Institute says that while water projects in the lower basin have historically been funded by local governments and international aid, these funding sources will not be sustainable long-term. Climate change and increasing aridity are predicted to further exacerbate the valley’s fragile condition, and humans aren’t the only ones relying on the river. The valley provides a vital stopping point for 500 million migrating birds, many of whom are endangered. The river was also once a critical water source for the Dead Sea, but thanks to the diminished flow, the Dead Sea’s water levels are also sinking every year.

Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s Israeli director, said in a Yale 360 article that the only thing keeping the river from drying up altogether “has been the agricultural runoff, raw human sewage, diverted saline spring water, and contaminated wastes from fish farms that have been pumped into it.” Recognizing the tremendous influence that congregations can have on their local communities, EcoPeace recently launched an initiative to recruit pastors and other faith leaders in raising awareness about the river’s health. Eco-
Peace gets weekly visits from both local and international church tour groups, where staff introduce the Jordan’s crisis and what can be done about it.

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Source: Christianity Today