||REGIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL COOPERATION|
|Chapter 4: Nature Conservation|
1.1 The Jordan River
The River Jordan is one of the most striking symbols of the Land of the Bible, and deeply permeates the history and cultures of the region. As John McCregor described in the end of the 19th century: " There is no other river whose name can be found on the tongues of so many, over solong a time period and geographic breadth, as the River Jordan". Hiswords accurately expressed the feelings of many who view the river as the most important and famous river in the world. These sayings are, in fact, reflected in the bedrock of the collective western consciousness: The People of Israel crossed over the River Jordan upon entering the promised land; and the covenant signed with its waters and banks symbolize their transition and entry into the Holy land. Christianity chose the Jordan River as the site for baptismal and purification ceremonies. In light of the river’s profound religious, historical andcultural heritage, it seems a natural and optimal focal-point for cooperation between Israel, the PA and Jordan along their northern defined by the river’s waterway.
1.2 The present situation
The River Jordan has always served as a meeting point between nations and countries. During the years of relative calm along the border, wide expanses of land were made into agricultural lands on both sides of its banks. Due to the regional political tension, the area remained a highly sensitive security zone, which was in fact declared off-limits to the public – including the local public on both banks and international visitors.
Practically speaking, the river’s inaccessibility to the public during the recent decades impacted favorably on the river banks, leaving them relatively immune to the intense development projects initiated within Israel and Jordan. In addition, most of the agricultural development which wascarried out in the region can be identified as ‘low-pressure’ or secondary development, which will accommodate future re designation of the areas.
1.3 The landscape
The River Jordan in its described section – from Naharayim till the Bet She’an Valley – flows through approximately thirty kilometers. The Jordan Valley is divided into two longitudinal landscape units: The upper level termed Kikar Ha-Yarden, or Ghur and the lower level – the Gaon Ha-Yarden, or Zore through which the riverbed winds. The two levels are separated by a range of marl slopes (El-Katara), of about 60 meters high. In the lower level on the western side of the river, several thousand of dunams are cultivated agricultural lands. The remaining area is covered with indigenous flora which has not yet undergone cutting, or has been felled in the past and has renewed itself. The flora in the lower section forms a habitat unique to the region, because of its special conditions: the abundance of water, humidity and heat. The overgrowth on the lower level includes the Poplar (populas eurphratica), and Tamarisc (tamaracis nilotica), common reeds, willows, orleander and saline plants.
The lower level spans approximately 1,000 meters, but the river meanders along its enclosing banks, lapping at the hill-cliffs and creating upright walls at increasing distances from the water-line. The hills of marl do not support any growth, and thereby form a stark contrast to the abundant growth and agriculture found in the upper and lower levels of the Jordan valley.
The unique landscape of the winding riverbed in the lower level, together with the surrounding hills of limestone – comprise the areas prescribed by the proposed program.
1.4 The potential
The Jordan River geomorphic characteristics are unique amongst the world’s rivers, as its course traces the Syrian-African Rift until laying claim to the title of the world’s lowest river, upon reaching its outlet at the Dead Sea.
The special serpentine route and marl slopes separating the two sections of the river valley have given rise to natural and landscape values that are unique to the area. The flora and fauna of the lower level were known in the distant past for their pristine nature.
The area’s charm and the mystery enveloping the river’s course served in present and past times as a background for countless pilgrimages and places of abode carved out by people seeking a life of solitude and asceticism within monasteries and hidden sites alongside the riverbank and its surroundings. The features inherent in the area bind the unique natural, historical and cultural heritage of the area together with the emerging reality and future development plans. The area’s potential can be realized through cooperation of Israel and Jordan, and the resident inhabitants on both sides of the river.
1.5 Proposed project
The River Jordan, flowing along the common borders of Israel, the PA and Jordan, will be designated as a ‘special multi-purpose planning zone’ (SMPZ), combining nature and landscape units, cultural and historical heritage and present-day human activities. The unique landscape area characterizing the Jordan will be renovated and restored; including the flora and fauna of the lower river valley, and the riverbanks and marl slopes. Wild animals residing in the indigenous undergrowth will be protected . Water quality will be improved, based on adequate standards agreed upon by all parties concerned. Treated or fresh waters will be returned to the river, to ensure a steady and non-polluted flow. Agricultural areas will continue to be cultivated in the upper river valley and in monitored sections in the lower level, combining and contingent upon natural and landscape features. The River’s water-flow can be utilized for farming or other uses before reaching the Dead Sea.
Convenient access to the river and recreational activities will be ensured. Plans will be considered to enable row-boating and small steam-powered crafts along the river, to allow for possible reconstruction of historic voyages along the river course (such as the Lynch and Costigen voyages).
Sacred sites serving as baptismal points along the river and its environs will be restored to enable renewed pilgrims-travel. Necessary infrastructure for tourism will be built according to the original characteristics of the area. A network of hiking paths enabling access to the waterways and view-points of the area’s flora and fauna, will be constructed; including the reconstruction of archaeological sites and other attractive sites in the Beit Shean region and north of the JRV, as part of a comprehensive plan for tourism in the area. The existing economic framework, wherein the valley’s eastern and western residential populations rely mainly on agriculture, will be remodeled, to include regional tourist activities.
1.6 Planning principles
- The defined area
The section of the river outlined in this project includes the one beginning from Naharayim till the Beit She’an Valley. The designated area will include all the lands from the lower river valley; including its agricultural lands and areas of undergrowth and natural forest, as well as the marl hills, and the slopes descending from the upper to lower sections of the river.
These borders – the ridge connecting the marl slopes with the upper and lower river valley – define the heartland of the proposed special planning zone. The associated areas and sites of interest beyond these lines along the Jordan Valley, and the Beit She’an Valley will be referred to as well, to the extent necessary for assuring the plan’s coherence.
- Human – environment habitats
The Jordan River Special Planning Zone will incorporate reserve areas and regulations to ensure the protection of natural and historical and cultural values, while combining and facilitating existing population patterns, and particularly resident agriculture. The communities on both sides of the Jordan will both support and be supported by the designated ‘special Jordan River planning zone’, as an economic, agricultural, and tourist resource, which will be managed by way of a harmonious balance of the interests of the human and natural environments. Tourism access to the river and its accompanying sites will also be negotiated along these lines, accenting the exposure and presentation of the area’s values, while ensuring minimal damage to these resources.
- The water
The essence of the river evolves around the flow of water through its banks. At present, effluents from Israel’s national saline water carrier, as well as waste waters, are directed to the waters. The River Jordan is thus primarily composed of flood-waters and the described effluents. Due to the flow of sewage and saline waters, the water quality in most sections is very poor, to the extent that it is unable to sustain agriculture.
The restoration of the Jordan River will entail the allocation of water for a variety of uses, such as agriculture, nature and tourist activities; by ensuring a steady flow of water – whether pure or treated – along its course. The waters channeled through the Jordan can be utilized for agricultural purposes, prior to their discharge into the Dead Sea.
- Pilgrims and tourism
The baptising of Jesus Christ in the Jordan waters is the basis for the baptismal ceremony in Christianity. The River Jordan has deep religious relevance as a symbol for purification and solitude, and has always drawn pilgrims to it – from the Byzantine period, during which the monasteries at the ‘baptismal site’ in the vicinity of Jericho were constructed, until present times. The described section of the river can be developed by Israel, the PA and Jordan to serve the needs of pilgrims to the area.
- Tourism, nature and the environment
The river’s unique geomorphic, biological and landscape values serve, in and of themselves, a focal point of attraction for ecotourism, from both resident and international populations.
The development of the area’s tourism potential must be facilitated through the construction of access-paths, parking lots, and appropriate road-signs, which observe and protect the interests and requirements of the environment’s values. The river’s attractiveness will also be enhanced by it being an axis for bird migration along its winding course through the Jordan Valley; which would include the construction of several bird-watching sites. Another potential inherent in the river involves possible crossing-points, which would either entail renovating existing bridges in keeping with the style and nature of the area; or be embarked upon at convenient low points of the river. These bridges would undoubtedly emphasize and fortify the renewed connection and cooperation between Israel , the PA and Jordan.
- International status
The Jordan River is a border of peace and should become a focal-point for international cooperation – including Israel, the PA and Jordan. The project in its entirety will serve a powerful financial interest, involving the interests of tourism, water and land resources, and nature and environmental values – which are both part of the respective countries’ common heritage; and also serve as a source of obligation prevailing upon the parties to cooperate in order to protect these interests.
In order to further advance the project, the following steps are suggested:
Establishment of a joint working group to promote the project and take the necessary steps for the project’s implementation, including:
- Elaboration and approval of a conceptual program for the project;
- Preparation of Terms of Reference (TOR) for planning;
- Financing sources;
- Data gathering on the inventory, status and the potential of the region’s resources;
- Selection of planning-team;
- Act as steering committee for the project.
2. Cooperation in Fauna Conservation
2.1 Protecting endangered species
Countries in the region share conservation problems and concerns, and regional cooperation could make a vital contribution to addressing these issues. Many avenues for cooperation exist, from animal exchanges for genetic management to bi- and multi-lateral conservation projects.
Leopards. Though leopards once ranged through much of the Middle East, today they are extinct throughout most of their former range, and survive only in small, fragmented populations in their few remaining habitats. In Israel probably no more that 15 exist in the wild, and there is concern about the future viability of this population.
There appears to be similar concern for the future of this species in other countries of the Middle East and much could be gained from sharing data and opinions by interested parties.
Cooperation in conservation of this animal could be achieved by enhancing the leopards’ genetic viability through the capture and exchange of males who naturally live only a few score kilometers apart but who are artificially separated by national borders.
Lappet-faced vulture. This vulture once thrived in Israel, but today only two pair survive in the Negev. The species is distributed throughout neighboring countries, and cooperation with other countries could serve to enhance the conservation of the species in Israel and throughout its entire range.
Houbara bustard. Recognized world-wide as a seriously endangered species, the bustards thrive in Israel where a fairly good wild population exists
and where the species has been successfully bred for reintroduction. Here too information exchange and cooperation could serve to enhance the populations in neighboring countries.
Ungulate conservation. Israel supports an excellent population of several ungulates which number in tens of thousands (Dorcas gazelles – 1,800; Nubian ibex – 1,300). In several neighboring countries these animals are either extinct or critically endangered. Joint conservation projects could entail the live capture of some of these animals and their translocation to neighboring countries which have appropriate protected habitats within the former ranges of these species. Working together, it will be possible to re-establish these species.
Reintroductions. Israel has suffered local extinctions of wild species, and an on-going program exists for the acquisition, breeding, rehabilitation and reintroduction of species such as the white oryx, Asian wild ass, Persian fallow deer and ostrich. Considerable experience has been accumulated in the restoration and reintroduction of depleted species such as griffon vultures.
Ecological data base. A regional ecological data base for long term monitoring, conservation planning and evaluation should be constructed, so that efficient conservation in the Middle East/ East Mediterranean region may be achieved.
The Middle East is a giant funnel twice a year, when many millions of birds migrate back and forth between nesting grounds across Eurasia to wintering sites in Africa. The stork, white pelican, lesser spotted eagel and the Levant sparrowhawk are among the many species traversing the Jordan Rift Valley. The reason these birds fly overland is that many cannot migrate over large expanses of water. Raptors, for example, require thermals for long flight, and thermals are created only over land. Various other species require fresh water night time resting sites, and other resources found only on land routes. Thus the Middle East experiences one of the world’s most concentrated passages of birds twice yearly.
Israel is committed to the various international agreements and regulations protecting migrating birds and participates in the internationally-coordinated census of water fowl.
2.2.1 International Center for the study of bird migration
The peace process provides the setting for promoting the subject of bird migration in the Middle East. To this end, it is proposed to establish an International Center for the Study of Bird Migration to serve as regional academic institute in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan to conduct inter-disciplinary research on bird migration. The data will be applied to protecting the birds and conserving the habitats they occupy throughout the year. It will also be instrumental in solving problems in the fields of civil and military aviation and can be applied towards the development of eco-tourism in the region.
The aim of the proposed institute is to bring together researchers from the Middle East, from the countries in Europe and West Asia where the birds are nesting, and from the birds’ wintering countries in Africa.
A network of weather and bird radar systems will be set up at key points throughout the Middle East, and will feed information into a central database at the Center. These collaborative efforts will further the understanding of bird migration and enable experts to follow the movement of concentrations of birds in real time and facilitate warning systems of impending birdstrikes to military and civilian air traffic controllers. In addition, the radar facilities can be used for weather forecasting and for real-time data centers for birdwatchers. Porposed sites for an eight-radar network include:
- Upper Galilee
- Adjacent to Amman
- The Negev Desert
- The Northern Gulf of Aqaba
- The Northern Gulf of Suez
- Sharm el-Sheikh
- Bab el Mandeb in Yemen
The institute will be headed by an international scientific body and staffed by regional and foreign zoologists, ecologists and aviation specialists. Representatives from three academic institutions in Israel as well as from the Society for the Protection of nature have already expressed interest in establishing an center of this sort at Latroun.
In addition to tracking activities, relevant research topics include:
- The rate of migration between wintering and breeding areas and variations based on season, gender and age of the birds;
- The dependence of migration on changing climatic factors;
- The population size of birds migrating over the Jordan Rift Valley;
- Comparative bird physiology prior to and following penetration of the desert area;
- The physics of flight for selected species.
The Center can also coordinate educational programs and special collaborative projects, such as the educational project presented below. Communication and information exchange between schoolchildren via the computers tracking birds in their various countries along the migration routes. Summer camps, student exchanges and weekends can be organized using facilities at the Field Study Center at Latroun.
It will also serve eco-tourism in the region. Over 13 million birdwatchers belong to organizations throughout the world. Through the creation of an information center and real-time radar tracking, birdwatchers could receive information on the best locations to observe migration. The Center, or stations connected with the Center could also organize lectures and exhibits.
The cornerstone for such a Center was recently laid at Latroun, adjacent to Ben Gurion airport and the West Bank. it is located at the heart of the western migration route, which stretches the length of the foothills of the mountain ranges bordering the Jordan Rift Valley. The complex will be located on a hill well suited for field studies with radar, bird ringing and tracking by ground observers. It is less than a hour away from many important historical and cultural tourist attractions, and is directly off the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Proposed birdwatching stations in Israel include: the Hula Valley Swamp, Kibbutz Kfar Rupin in the Beit Shean Valley, Field Study Center Ma’agan Michael on the coastal road, Jerusalem’s Rose Garden near the Knesset, the Ein Gedi Field Study Center at the Dead Sea, the Hatzeva Field Study Center in the northern Arava Valley, the Sde Boqer Desert Field Study Center in the Negev Desert and the International Birdwatching Center in Eilat. This network of stations can be expanded to sites in Jordan and Egypt.
2.2.2 Educational project for following migrating birds
The availability of satellite telemetry for biological research and recent advances in miniaturizing transmitters now make it possible to follow individual migrating birds, especially large soaring birds such as pelicans, storks and birds of prey. Transmitters have been attached to 17 White Storks, which are tracked daily along their migration route over the globe.
The tracking of these birds can become part of an environmental educational systems appropriate for all age levels. Such a program can provide a platform for developing communication between students in Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. The project has recently been recognized as part of the "Globe" international environmental education program initiated by U.S. Vice President, Al Gore.
In this project students will:
- learn to gather, analyze and process scientific data;
- communicate with other students in the region on a common environmental subject;
- create learning materials and work with other students;
- acquire communication and writing skills and improve English;
- participate in field trips;
- enhance environmental consciousness and awareness of interactive natural processes.
The program is intended to be implemented on a pilot basis for student populations of all ages and will be of interest to even those possessing little or no prior knowledge of birds. It is suggested that the program be initially designed for the junior high school level and later be adapted for primary and high school student groups. The direct communication between students in the various countries and territories will familiarize students with places once known only through atlases and books. Teachers will be trained to deal with various advanced technological techniques of data gathering and analysis.
Students participating in the program will broaden their knowledge of recent research in migration biology and its interaction with physical factors such as global weather and climate systems. The project emphasizes the application of computer communications and advanced technologies in the study of the Middle East and East Mediterranean regions. Communication between the partner schools will be conducted through the "Internet".
As an interdisciplinary program, the project on bird migration incorporates biology and ecology, physical geography, physics and social sciences. Research questions will focus on why birds migrate, from and to which destinations, what is the duration of the migratory process, where are stopovers located, etc.
Participating students and teachers will be exposed to data gathering techniques employing the use of data banks and direct observations. They will learn how to analyze and present data and how to draw scientific conclusions. Some of the data gathering techniques used include:
- satellite tracking systems providing direct "lines" to migrating birds;
- computer systems providing data on weather conditions in the school area;
- data bases in which relevant data will be compiled and stored;
- map digitization to gather geographical data;
- international computer-mediated communications systems for the exchange of data between students in the various participating schools.
Proposed stages of program include:
- Development and instruction of background courses in geography, the natural sciences and computer sciences.
- Establishment of a system to measure weather conditions in the school. Students will be exposed to measuring techniques and instrumentation.
- Establishment of a computer communications network between students and migrating storks, between participant schools in the various countries and between the schools and local and international data banks.
Funding for selected schools and development of programming in Israel has been provided by Israel’s Ministry of Education. A team of five biologists, geographers and meterorologists are developing the program which will soon be implemented in the formal educational system. Funding for Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian partner schools and programming is still required. The team coordinating the project will be comprised of experts from the participating parties.
The Israeli educational contribution to the project comes to approximately $330,000. The estimated cost for completion of the multilateral project is $1.1 million, including the involvement of Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestiniani partners, ppublication of materials, acquisition of radio transmitters and satellite time – to the Latroun Center.
* Based on material contributed by Dr. Yossi Leshem.