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An Oasis of Experimentation in the Negev

An Oasis of Experimentation in the Negev

September 15, 2009

Desert & Water Research, Negev Development & Community Programs

Israeli scientists say they have found an oasis in the Negev desert and it’s not a grove of palm trees. It’s one of earth’s original organisms: algae.

Prof. Sammy Boussiba of the Microalgal Biotechnology Laboratory at BGU believes that algae introduced into the environment will be a biological salvation to an agriculturally challenged region. With its photosynthetic machinery, the slimy green organism can thrive on what the desert has in abundance: salty, brackish water and sunshine.

The goal is to replace agriculture with aquaculture and grow profitable products, which do not require fertile land.

I learned exactly how this theory holds water on a recent trip the University’s laboratory at the Sede Boqer campus. The organisms grow in plastic bags with a unit of air mixed in as light pours in from all sides and creates photosynthesis.

The process, a staple of elementary school science class, occurs when green plants use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water. “In normal conditions, this is just like the scum in a swimming pool,” said Prof. Avigad Vonshak, the director of the university’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research [of which Prof. Boussiba is a part].

But this slimy residue is far from garbage. When exposed to high salinity water and solar radiation, certain algae, for example, plump up and accumulate the pigment that is used to turn our supermarket salmon pink. Algae are also used by people as an effective anti-oxidant to promote health and reduce the effects of aging.

Driving down to the Arava valley at Kibbutz Ketura are magnificent red tubes more then 50 kilometers long, which are used to grow algae that produce antioxidants which sell for up to $10,000 a kilo.

What else do desert gardens grow? BGU scientists are also using algae to grow stocks of exotic fish in inland fisheries. In a tent-like greenhouse, there are large circular tanks where schools of florescent blue and orange fish whip around the salty water.

The algae provide the plump, exotic swimmers such as guppies and scalars with their vibrant colors, a feature that can fetch tidy sums abroad. Israel’s ornamental fish are one of the country biggest exports. But the fish farmers must remember to separate the big from the tiny ones, as they tend to eat each other up!

At another fish farm located on Kibbutz Mashie Sade, director Amit Zip breeds 200 tons of Australian Sea Bass and other fish using the geothermal water found in the region. The water is then reused for irrigating field crops and orchards that produce olives and jojoba oil used in the cosmetics industry.

The farms also grow water lilies and tasty sea vegetables that can be irrigated with seawater.

“Growing fish in the desert sounds like a crazy idea,” said Vonshak, “But in terms of water use efficiency, and how much money a farmer can make, this is something we have been able to convince people to do.”

Currently, there are 25 different inland fisheries in the Negev stretching from Beer-Sheva to Eilat. Their isolated location in the Negev helps in preventing diseases.

Creating sustainable aquaculture in an arid land is not just a science experiment. It’s also an environmental and social mission for these scientists.

They hope that by giving desert dwellers alternative livelihoods, they can help alleviate the serious problem of desertification around the globe. Nearly everywhere, desert inhabitants are degrading arid regions through overgrazing or depletion of groundwater to feed growing populations and build commercial developments.

In the Negev, the Bedouin population has tripled since the 1960s and with it, the demand for food and water. Overgrazing by Bedouins in the Sinai desert has also depleted the soil and lead to sandstorms.

Sweltering temperatures, brackish water and remote locations shouldn’t stymie innovation in other deserts around the world, they said. It’s just a matter of seeing a curse as a blessing.