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 is about to change.
Thanks to desalination and wastewater recycling, there is more fresh water to go around and the River Jordan will slowly be returned to its former glory.
From a dusty overlook in 40C degree heat, Ramon Ben Ari, head of Israel’s Southern Jordan Drainage Authority, pointed to a spot where, years ago, water once climbed hundreds of metres 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 metres 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% of its wastewater, mostly for agriculture, and by next year, 85% 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 metres 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.
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 said.
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.
A leading travel magazine has ranked Tel Aviv as one of the world’s 10 best cities for architecture lovers.
“Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tel Aviv’s “White City” contains 4,000 International Style buildings, many of which were built in the 1930s and 1940s,” CondeNast’s website noted.
“To accommodate the influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe, German Bauhaus-trained architects integrated the modern style’s affordable and functional building techniques with curved lines and a color well-suited for the Mediterranean climate to create a habitable city by the sea.”
Tel Aviv has also made it to the Australian vacation rentals Airnb website’s top 10 travel destinations for 2012. It was ranked below London and above Sidney and Barcelona.
These recent achievements join a long line of titles Tel Aviv has won in various international magazines over the past few months. Last month, Yahoo! Travel ranked the city’s Gordon-Frishman beach in its top 10 best urban beaches in the world.
Earlier, Tel Aviv was ranked fifth in Mastercard’s 10 most toured cities in the Middle East and Africa. In January, it was voted the world’s best gay tourist destination earning 43% of the votes.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said in response to the latest honor, “The founders of Tel Aviv entrusted us with a large treasure of 4,000 Bauhaus and international style buildings. Thanks to them we were able to apply for and be recognized as a world heritage site. This move entailed great effort and the conservation process is ongoing.”