All of which makes the scene one morning last July all the more remarkable. Accompanied by military escort, three scientists—an Israeli, a Palestinian, and a Jordanian—are standing knee-deep in the Jordan River. They are nearly 40 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, under the precarious ruins of a bridge that was bombed during the Six Day War of June 1967. The scientists are surveying the river for Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a regional NGO dedicated to building peace through environmental stewardship. It's a scorching hot day in a former war zone, but if these men are concerned about the danger of heat stroke, getting clonked by a chunk of falling concrete, or stepping on a mine washed downstream by a flood, they're hiding it well.
"Hey, Samer," says Sarig Gafny, an Israeli ecologist in a floppy, green hat, "check this little fellow out." Samer Talozi, a tall, self-possessed young environmental engineer from Jordan, peers over his shoulder at the tiny invertebrate his Israeli colleague has scooped into a glass sample jar. "It lives!" he says with a laugh. "That is one tough crustacean!" A few yards away, Banan Al Sheikh, a stout, good-natured botanist from the West Bank, is absentmindedly wading upstream while focusing his camera on a flowering tree amid the tall reeds and other riparian species along the riverbank. "Watch your step, my friend," Gafny calls out after him, "and whatever you do, don't step on a bleeping mine."
Besides lethal munitions, this stretch of the Jordan River—perhaps 25 feet wide and a few feet deep—is so polluted that any sign of aquatic life is worth celebrating. Part of the reason is water scarcity: In the past five decades the Jordan has lost more than 90 percent of its normal flow. Upstream, at the Sea of Galilee, the river's fresh waters are diverted via Israel's National Water Carrier to the cities and farms of Israel, while dams built by Jordan and Syria claim a share of the river's tributaries, mostly for agriculture. So today the lower Jordan is practically devoid of clean water, bearing instead a toxic brew of saline water and liquid waste that ranges from raw sewage to agricultural runoff, fed into the river's vein like some murky infusion of tainted blood.
The fight over the Jordan illustrates the potential for conflict over water that exists throughout the world. We live on a planet where neighbors have been clubbing each other over rivers for thousands of years. (The word "rival," from the Latin rivalis, originally described competitors for a river or stream.) Worldwide, a long list of watersheds brims with potential clashes: between India and Pakistan over the Indus; Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile; Turkey and Syria over the Euphrates; Botswana and Namibia over the Okavango. Yet according to researchers at Oregon State University, of the 37 actual military conflicts over water since 1950, 32 took place in the Middle East; 30 of them involved Israel and its Arab neighbors. Of those, practically all were over the Jordan River and its tributaries, which supply millions of people with water for drinking, bathing, and farming.