As they stood at the edge of the river, the Jordanian students waited to join their Palestinian-Israeli counterparts. Not physically, for an opaque stretch of water, further underlined by a national border, stood in their path. They waited, instead, to join their colleagues in song. And then it came – all six boys, some of whom were men, lifted their arms and arrived on the downbeat in a victorious clap. “We will, we will change it . . .” they sang. Neighbor and neighbor, divided only by allegiance and the river, echoed the unifying chant.
Day two in Jordan and I was already witnessing a bit of the dynamic on the Jordanian-Israeli border as part of an office site visit. We went to the baptism site – where John the Baptist baptized Jesus – to document a Jordanian and Israeli youth trustee cross-border interaction as part of EcoPeace Middle East’s Good Water Neighbors (GWN) Project. This project works to unite cross-border communities in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan around shared water problems. Through collaborating on sustainable water management, they build trust and arrive at common solutions that make way for peace and understanding, even during times of conflict.
During our commute, the projects coordinator gave us some background on the GWN initiative. Since 2001, GWN has worked with communities on either side of the border to create mutually agreed upon solutions to common water problems. The project encourages cross-border dialogue and information sharing. Youth trustees, as pictured above, are at the heart of the project’s design. The project engages school communities to come up with creative methods for more efficient water use and designs outreach education and awareness programs. It also invites alumni of the project to teach younger students about sustainable living and the ecology of the Jordan River Valley.
Upon reaching the baptism parking lot, we were joined by the youth trustees. They gathered under the veranda, large-lettered signs in hand, to discuss the logistics of the day. They were interrupted by the arrival of our tour bus, which would take us to the holy site.
The sun was hot and blinding after the curtain-shaded drive. As we walked along the path to the site, my colleagues snapped photos of the participants in green shirts against the arid background. The students chatted with us in English, asking us about our studies and the American election.
We followed a trickling stream to the UNESCO World Heritage Site - Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Here, some 2,000 years ago, John the Baptist baptized Jesus. After Jesus’ death, Roman and Byzantine churches were constructed on the land by hermits who wanted to live close to the site. Today, this sacred land is visited by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
After a short walk, we paused at the Greek Orthodox Church of John the Baptist on the bank of the Jordan River. Tourists from all over the world come to visit this holy place, for good reason, as the Jordan River is mentioned no less than 200 times in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Due to the historical and religious significance of the River, EcoPeace invites leaders of all faiths to learn about the ecology of the Lower Jordan River and share their knowledge with their communities. Being in this place - one that holds so much significance to so many people of different faiths - illustrates vital importance of unity in environmental stewardship.
I descended the slick stone steps that led to the wooden planks at the river’s edge. Across the river, less than 15 feet away, the Israeli flag danced in the breeze and armed guards stood resolutely. Tourists in white robes waded into the murky water to be baptized. Mohammed, one of the alumni of the project, advised me not to enter the water. Once a mighty river, 96% of the freshwater tributaries that once fed the waterway have been diverted for domestic and agricultural use by Syria, Jordan, and Israel. For nearly 50 years, communities in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel have discharged their untreated sewage water directly into the river and allowed agricultural runoff to contaminate its waters. Climate change threatens the already unstable ecosystem, in which the biodiversity has been diminished by a staggering 50% since the 1970s.
This is the reason we were here. On both sides of the river, the youth trustees proudly stood for a simple message: water has no borders. They were there to insist that the Jordanian and Israeli governments invest in the rehabilitation of the river. The Palestinian-Israeli youth began the song, with a verse in Hebrew, and then, all at once, the Jordanian students joined in. “We will, we will change it.”