As we start the new year, we complete the cycle of reading from the Torah. The last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, is Moses’s instructions to the people of Israel before entering the land of Israel. What is considered the land of Israel here? Everything across the Jordan. So in honor of this entrance, here is a bit about the Jordan.
The Jordan is the body of water mentioned most times in the Biblical Text. In the Tanach (Jewish Bible), the Jordan is mentioned over 170 times. So central is The Jordan to the narrative, that it is never called by any other name than “The Jordan”. It is not a nahal (loosely translated as a stream) and not a nahar (loosely translated as a river).
The first thing which makes The Jordan special in the history of the Land of Israel is its size. It is the longest flowing body of water in the area. The headwaters of The Jordan come from the area around Mt. Hermon. Three streams feed into the Jordan north of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) – Nahal Hermon, Nahal Dan, and Nahal Snir. Up until the draining of the Hula Lake in 1954, the Jordan fed into the Sea of Galilee and emptied out the other side. Now, in the area of the Hula, the Jordan is fed into irrigation channels on the east and west sides of the valley to continually water the peat soil and the crops which grow within it.
After passing through the Hula Valley, the channels of the Jordan are reunited and continue through the Corazin heights. This part of the Jordan is called the Mountainous Jordan as the power of the water cuts a deep channel through the raised plain of basalt rock. Long ago, at the northern end of the Mounainous Jordan existed a huge waterfall (300 m high!). The power of the water serving to further cut away at the hard basalt. The Jordan empties into the Sea of Galilee. It is from this lake/sea that Israel gets most of its non-reclaimed/desalinated water.
But after this point is where the Jordan gets really interesting. The Jordan then transverses the next 100 linear kilometers by meandering for over 200 kilometers through the Jordan Valley. And sometimes the course of the Jordan changes. By international agreement, the border between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan along this stretch is determined by the mid-point of the Jordan. So, our border with the neighboring country is not a steady, GPS-able line, but a line which is dictated by nature – how much rain there is, how many rainy days we have, etc.
After meandering through the Jordan Valley, the waters flow into the Dead Sea. In antiquity, it is estimated that 1.3 billion cubes of water entered the Dead Sea in the average year, most of that from the Jordan. The Jordan today is a shadow of its former self with only about 100 million cubic meters of water entering the Dead Sea. The building of the dam at Deganya by Pinchas Rottenberg in the 1930’s attempted to control the flow of water into this section of the Jordan. After the dam was out of commission in 1947, however, the Deganya dam was used to concentrate the waters of the Upper Jordan in the Sea of Galilee for Israel’s new engineering project, the National Water Carrier. Today, because of extended drought, the Deganya dam is never opened, cutting off the major source of water to the section of the Jordan in the Jordan valley (and ultimately to the Dead Sea).
Syria and Jordan also prevent water from entering the system by overtaxing the water aquifers surrounding the Jordan valley and diverting other streams in the area, especially the Yarmuk Stream which historically provided 400 million cubic meters of water a year to the system.
Israel has made a pledge to transfer 30 million cubes of water into the Jordan valley between the Kinneret and the Dead Sea. It is a drop in the bucket but shows a willingness to start to deal with rehabilitating the Jordan and the Dead Sea. We are waiting for others in our neighborhood to show the same committment to natural habitat.
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