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Rachel Havrelock

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Christian Pilgrimage and Middle Eastern Water Scarcity

Posted: 01/31/2012 12:11 pm

At today's Jordan River, the long history of Christian pilgrimage intersects with religious tourism. For many Christians, baptism in the Jordan provides the opportunity for a second baptism or a rebirth experience. Christian pilgrims cannot help but experience the Jordan as a border if they seek baptism near Jericho where Jordan and Israel have established competing baptism parks directly across from one another. If not intimated by the Jordanian and Israeli soldiers watching from the riverbanks, a pilgrim could easily swim -- in fact float -- to the other country. What most pilgrims don't seem to realize is that they are immersing themselves in an agricultural runoff and wastewater. These contemporary baptisms function as initiations of sorts into a state of globalized pollution for which nations, not to mention industry, refuse to accept responsibility.

In the current climate of political contest and a reduced Jordan River, currently conveying 2 percent of its historic flow, it is worth thinking anew about the importance of the Jordan, borders and water. In place of reactionary territorial claims justified through religious precedent, perhaps the time has come to acknowledge biblical depictions of regional societies in which local economies and resource availability provide the basis of coexistence. Neither ancient nor modern claims will matter when the water sources run dry.

Water scarcity in the Middle East may lead to more internecine violence or to the actual demise of large, poor families. Every Middle Eastern government with a coastline looks to solve the problem through large de-salination projects without regard for the saline byproducts, the enormous energy costs and the need for global capital investment. While global capital finds it way into most local infrastructure projects these days, it causes particular concern to think of global capital setting water prices in situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which the state (or proto state) encourages families to expand in the name of winning the demographic war. Yet the diminishing water table may be the very agent of political transformation.

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), an environmental organization based in Amman, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv proposes to transform the relationship of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, as well as Christian pilgrims, archeology buffs, and eco-tourists, to the Jordan River by creating a transborder peace park. Through a "flood event," FOEME plans to flush pollutants through the waterway, and by reallocating water, the organization intends to restore the flow of the Jordan. The peace park will create a space for contact among traditionally hostile groups as well as a place for enjoyment of the river. The FOEME peace park promises to transform the political situation through a collective water conservation project.

The project has begun through the creation of smaller ecoparks, which anyone can visit in Ein Gedi, Israel; Auja, Palestine; or Sharhabil Bin Hassneh, Jordan. The ecoparks function as laboratories for sustainability projects and regional organizations. Young Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis gather at the ecoparks to learn about resource availability and conservation. The mayors and officials of Jordan River Valley towns, with FOEME's help, have begun to collectively address water use, wastewater treatment and water conservation. No matter their religious or political leanings, the members of these organizations recognize that their water use effects one another and that everyone will lose should the central water system in a dry region disappear. The Jordan River Peace Park will enact these trends on a larger, transnational scale.

Faced with the bleak alternatives, FOEME offers a very concrete form of hope. Those with knowledge of the Bible might remark how close the proposal comes to traditions of the Jordan River as a place of connection and transformation. Skeptics might do well to remember that, in many of these same traditions, the Jordan is the gateway to heaven.

 
 
 
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