Who Is Waterkeeper: Gidon Bromberg, Jordan River Waterkeeper - Waterkeeper

Who Is Waterkeeper: Gidon Bromberg, Jordan River Waterkeeper

By: Thomas Hynes

Gidon Bromberg, Jordan River Waterkeeper

The Jordan River runs for about 100 kilometers, from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, serving as a border between Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians. Odds are these places sound familiar as the Jordan River Valley is a seriously sacred place to about half the world’s population. The area is also often in the news, and not necessarily in a good way. Protracted conflict for about as long as anyone can remember has led the Jordan River into a tragic decline. Wanton pollution and aggressive water diversions have also contributed to the waterways demise. Increasingly, so under climate change. 

Suffice to say, the challenges are many, and the odds of success seem long. Luckily, Gidon Bromberg, Jordan River Waterkeeper in Israel and co-founder of EcoPeace Middle East is a diehard optimist. 

Some have called Gidon foolish. In fact, when EcoPeace first announced producing a master plan for the Jordan River rehabilitation in 2010, water authorities approached him and said, ‘Show me your palm. When hair grows on your palm, that is when fresh water will flow again in the Jordan River.’ 

Admittedly, there would be good reasons to be skeptical about the river’s rebound. For one, the Jordan River flows in an arid desert, and the Jordan River is a key source of water in the region. 

Gidon, a self described history buff, says that water is power in the Middle East. Each side has long aimed to divert as much water as they could to serve their constituents. However, the decades of the Israeli-Arab conflict have only heightened this situation further as all sides attempt to capture water not just to help themselves, but also to weaken their enemies.

The historical flow of the Jordan River into the Dead Sea (which Gidon points out is actually a lake) used to be 1.3 billion  cubic meters annually. Today, that number ranges anywhere between 30-70 million cubic meters annually, or roughly a 95% drop, which has cut biodiversity nearly in half along the river. Sadly, what water is left in the river is often very polluted by agricultural runoff or untreated sewage. The Israeli side of the river now treats their raw sewage, but that’s only been true for about a decade. 

Nonetheless, Gidon sees many reasons to fight for the river’s recovery. Chief among them is the river’s iconic history and the crucial role it has played for humanity. 

“The Jordan River Valley is at the crossroads of three continents, the crossroads of biodiversity, and the crossroads of the development of humankind,” says Gidon. “It’s also a drama. The landscape is dramatic. In the 100km stretch from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea the riiver falls from minus 200 to minus 440 below sea level and mountains rise to 1000 meters above sea level to the east and west. The Jordan River itself is in the middle of this drama of the Rift Valley. It’s where humanity leaves Africa to spread out to Asia and Europe. It’s the cradle of civilization. It’s where wheat was first cultivated. It is the most westerly range of Asian biodiversity, the most northern range of African trees, and the most southern location of European biodiversity. It is the site according to Jewish tradition of miracles, where for Christians, Jesus was baptized, and for Muslims, where four companions to the prophet Muhammed are buried.”

Gidon was born in Israel, but grew up in Australia. It was there that he first got involved in environmental activism. As a teenager, he participated in a very important effort to stop a dam from being constructed in Tasmania. It left a powerful mark on him, revealing how both activism and the use of the law can help both empower people and change government policies. 

Gidon found his way back to Israel and co-founded EcoPeace, Jordan River Waterkeeper’s parent organization. The Jordan River and its terminal lake, the Dead Sea, was the immediate focus of his attention. Since the river is a border, he needed to work across the river with Jordanian and Palestinian stakeholders.  

“You can only rehabilitate the river,” says Gidon, “if all sides are active.”

In the early years, Gidon’s focus was on building awareness and educating the broader public in Israel of the loss, about why the Jordan River was in such a poor state, and, ultimately, to try and build local support for its rehabilitation. One problem is that there isn’t that much access to the river, due in large part to the conflict. 

“We can’t get to our river. It’s mined, it’s fenced. There are military patrols on both sides,” says Gidon. “The demise of the Jordan River is largely out of sight to the public.”

Gidon has worked together with his co-directors from Jordan and Palestine to bring groups down to the river so they can witness the river’s state for themselves. (And when getting to the river isn’t possible, Gidon and Jordan River Waterkeeper have utilized virtual reality to get a better look at the river.) One particularly successful excursion included mayors from all three sides. They brought the local politicians to a clean stretch of the river just above the diversions and somehow convinced the mayors to jump into the water together

The mayors are not exactly best friends. The conflict continues. The animosity continues. But the mayors jumping into the river together represents a common state of hope. 

“They have come to understand that they are all losers in this current situation,” says Gidon. “ Deciding to divert the water, to turn the river into a sewage canal, to deny access on security grounds has been at the expense of their communities and against the interest of their communities.” 

Close to three decades of activism has resulted in the governments of Israel and Jordan to sign a memorandum of understanding at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) calling for the rehabilitation of the Israeli/Jordanian stretch of the river. Separately, over $100 million in investments have been made on all sides to start treating raw sewage, otherwise dumped into the river. What’s more, even the skeptics from the water authorities no longer doubt Gidon. In fact, many are now supporters. 

In March 2023, Gidon spoke at the United Nations Water Conference about one of his expertise: transboundary rivers. He suggested that innovative finance requires that stakeholders stop looking at projects through a single lens, but rather through multiple benefits. Investments in sanitation projects must capture not only the reuse opportunities for agriculture but the value a clean river presents for biodiversity, nature and tourism.

In many ways, the United Nations was a particularly perfect audience for Gidon’s message. After all, if these three countries can work together on remediating their river, the rest of the world has no excuse but to do the same.