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In the Desert: Why Israel is a Model for Some of the World’s Driest Countries

In the Desert: Why Israel is a Model for Some of the World’s Driest Countries

August 8, 2008

Desert & Water Research, Negev Development & Community Programs

Why should people in Chicago care about desertification?


That’s a question I was asked several times at last November’s international conference, Deserts and Desertification: Challenges and Opportunities, held in Sde Boker, Israel, which I attended as a journalist.

The answer came clear to me during one “aha” moment at the conference. It was when Professor Avigad Vonshak, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, noted that after a season of severe dust storms in Africa, doctors found a 25 percent increase in eye infections among babies in Europe and the United States.

In other words, everything that happens everywhere on the planet affects what happens in other places on the planet-even Chicago.

That was one profound theme of the conference, which was momentous for the Jewish state in that it marked the first time a United Nations event was held there. The four-day conference was held under the joint auspices of the Blaustein Institutes and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and drew more than 200 participants from 33 countries to Ben-Gurion University’s Sde Boker campus, deep inside the Negev Desert region. (My trip was funded by AABGU.) Among the leading scientists, politicians and field workers in attendance were Nigeria’s minister of environment, activists from Burkina Faso and Mali, and diplomats from Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.

Aside from the presentations and scholarly papers on everything from “The importance of shrubs to biodiversity in arid and non-arid habitats” to “Wind breakers in the Gobi Desert of China,” the conference included a number of “field trips” to demonstrate to participants how Israel-considered for the most part a model of sustainability-dealt with its desert environment.

They ranged from a visit to a kibbutz that grows jojoba plants for export to Europe and America to a fish farm in the desert to an olive plantation to a desalination plant, all areas in which Israel has taken the lead in fulfilling David Ben-Gurion’s prophecy of “making the desert bloom.”

Reminders of the country’s founding prime minister, in fact, are everywhere in the Sde Boker area, where he lived on a remote kibbutz after he left public office, and where he is buried.

But first, conference organizers had to deal with more basic questions, at least for the journalists and lay people in attendance: What is desertification and is it a good or a bad thing?

Even more basically, what exactly is a desert?

This is where things get a little confusing for those who don’t make their living studying such phenomena. So let’s start with some definitions of terms.

Desertification refers,. most simply, to the change from productive land to desert-the encroachment of desert onto formerly arable lands, primarily because of human activity.

Alon Tal, a professor in the Blaustein Institute’s department of desert ecology and the organizer of the conference-and Israel’s best-known environmentalist-calls desertification “one of the planet’s most egregious ecological scourges” and “a global problem of enormous dimensions.” Where desertification occurs, he noted, poverty and all the problems associated with it inevitably follow.

Recognizing that that was the case, the U.N. declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, leading up to the conference.

The problem is particularly severe in Africa, Central Asia and South America, where poverty, famine and the reduction of habitable living space have been among the tragic consequences.

Israel is the only country in the world where the desert is receding, and a pre-conference statement from the U.N. Development Programme called the Jewish state “one of the driest, but agriculturally most successful, countries of the world. Israel’s knowledge of drylands agriculture could be of great value to some of the world’s poorest” people, the statement continued. In fact, discussions are under way for Israel to provide agricultural advice in Africa under U.N. auspices.

Vonshak, delivering the conference’s opening address, described its mission: “disseminating knowledge. If information and knowledge are not disseminated to other people of the world, our mission is not fulfilled,” he said, calling that mission “the dream of Sde Boker.”

A number of speakers took pains to make clear the distinction between deserts and drylands, and between deserts and desertification. Professor Uriel Safriel, of the National U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification Focal Point-Israel, defined “drylands” as “lands in which the limiting resource for primary production is soil moisture,” which is expressed by a complex ratio. Some 40 percent of the earth’s land mass is composed of drylands, with about a third of humans on earth living in those lands, he said. Desert drylands make up 24 percent of the earth’s land mass.

A U.N. background report put those figures into perspective: 344 million people live in the world’s deserts, but 1,765 million make their homes in non-desert drylands. And the World Bank’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the world’s drylands suffer from significant degradation.

Surprisingly, the report points out that “true deserts … are typically not the areas in which desertification takes place. Rather, it is in the semi-arid and subhumid drylands receiving modest rainfall that the relatively low land productivity may decline even further.”

Most of the world’s worst poverty-as indicated by infant mortality and hunger in children, among other signs-is in drylands and “follows the curve of desertification,” Safriel said.

Another speaker, Ambassador Gregoire de Kalbermatten, deputy secretary general of the UNCCD, asked, “Why should we care about desertification?”

His answer dealt with “the relationship between natural resources and the growth of civilization.” The disappearance of Egyptian and Mayan civilization, among others, was linked to climate change. “When the relationship with nature is upset, people will fight for natural resources,” he said. “Some say that in the 21st century, people will fight (wars) over water. Globalization means that everything that happens affects someone else.”

Dr. David Mouat, chair of the UNCCD Group of Experts-USA and an associate professor at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., noted that one problem in combating desertification is the difficulty of getting world leaders and decision-makers interested in it and similar topics. “Our policies tend to be reactionary, and they need to be proactive,” he said.

Possible future scenarios, he said, include a positive one-sustainable development-and a negative-marginalization of people in at-risk areas.

“It is a race to affect the future before it is too late,” he said, urging leaders to “develop strong science but also connect it to people.” Israel, he added, is “a good paradigm” in this area.

Indeed, in a statement prepared by the U.N. Development Program, de Kalbermatten said that “Israeli farmers have a well-deserved reputation for making harsh, dry and hot environments productive. … Israeli farmers have demonstrated that the first rule of farming in the drylands is to be a good farmer. They take great efforts to conserve the physical quality of the soil and control water flow … Israeli farmers have been remarkably successful in adopting and making technological advances.”

The “field trip” portion of the conference showed participants some of those advances.

During a desert architecture tour, architect Isaac Meir, chair of the university’s Department of Man in the Desert and its Desert Architecture and Urban Planning Unit, demonstrated how buildings could be half submerged in soil to preserve both warmth and coolness when needed. “In the desert, there are great temperature fluctuations, and most animals go underground,” he said. Humans could follow their lead. The sustainable houses also made use of solar energy and cooling towers.

Also on the tour was Kibbutz Netafim, just west of Beersheva, known as the place where drip irrigation started in the 1920s. More than 40 years later, a more complex version of the system-which involves “spoon-feeding” plants with water, nutrition and air targeted to their roots so none of the resources are wasted-is used in agriculture around the world. The kibbutz itself exports jojoba plants, among other crops, for use in Europe and the United States. Jojoba oil is used widely in the cosmetics industry and for lubrication.

Yet, Professor Eilon Adar, the tour leader, pointed out, only one-half of one percent of irrigation around the world uses the highly efficient drip system. “Farmers work according to their tradition and it is hard to get them to change,” he explained. It’s another area in which Israeli expertise could be useful to developing countries especially.

Also on the tour was a model fish farm where barramundi, a large, aggressive edible fish species originally from Australia, were being raised. Because the fish are so aggressive, they can’t be introduced into a natural ecosystem because they would destroy many other species. In the desert they are raised in ponds in brackish (salty) water-“They don’t drink water, they swim in it,” an employee said-which is then used to fertilize olive trees on the same farm. Olive trees thrive on the brackish water and, surprisingly, Israel now exports olive oil to some countries that have been closely associated with its manufacture, including Italy and Spain.

Other crops can also use brackish water, Adar said, including potatoes, tomatoes and pomegranates. Israel does a lively trade in raising these vegetables and exporting them to Russia; using brackish water without having to convert it to freshwater makes the process more ecologically sustainable.

On another farm in the small desert village of Kadesh Barnea, farmers use “screenhouses”-greenhouses with screens-to grow a number of crops, with 2000 acres devoted to cherry tomatoes. Each acre produces 20 tons a year, all of which are exported to Europe.

These and other farms demonstrated the truth of another of de Kalbermatten’s observations about another “important lesson … which is much less well understood: That is the importance of markets, and the importance of producing crops for specific markets,” he said in a statement. “Israeli farmers are experts at tailoring their production to the demands of the markets, and where markets have not existed locally, have traveled the lengths of the earth to develop new ones. … Without this access to markets, Israeli technology and innovation could not have been so successful. In addition to Israel’s technical agricultural knowledge, the developing world needs access to its marketing knowledge and skills,” he said.

Israel, while serving as an ecological model for many developing countries, has not been without its own problems. Tal noted in an article that when Israel first achieved independence, “the Negev desert extended up to Gedera, today a southern suburb of Tel Aviv. Due to centuries of overgrazing, deforestation and poor soil stewardship, the northern Negev … had largely turned into a wasteland.”

Beginning in 1948, “Israel set about to reclaim its desert heritage,” he wrote. The experiment was not without its mistakes: “For too long a paradigm of ‘conquering the desert’ rather than ‘living with the desert’ prevailed,” according to Tal. Eventually, though, he said, the process of reclaiming Israel’s degraded lands was made a national priority; the resulting mindset change is still a work in progress, he said.

The fact that Israelis-as well as interested environmentalists from other countries-still care very much about the development process in the Jewish state was made clear after a talk by Efrat Duvdevani, director of the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, who discussed plans for a $3.5 billion development plan in the region, dubbed Negev 2015. When Duvdevani left the conference without taking questions, other attendees, especially the Israelis, were in an uproar; some shouted out their concerns loudly.

Among the respondents, Professor Amotz Zahavi, a respected environmentalist who founded the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, called the desert “a fragile ecosystem where no rain erodes” the destruction caused by development. “The (Negev) desert was more beautiful 55 years ago-scarred, but still beautiful,” he said. “That is the best development, the best use of it.”

Another respondent, Dr. Ariel Novoplansky, opined that “sustainable development can’t be done. That’s a buzzword, but if we develop, we don’t leave the environment sustainable, especially in the desert.” Israel, he said, is “a treasure of diverse habitats, and the most vulnerable habitats are in the desert” where “a single Jeep passing by can leave marks that last for 100 years.” He suggested concentrating development in a few large settlements while reiterating his view that “development cannot be sustainable in the desert.”

Aliza Mayo, the director of Sababa: The Center for a Healthy Environment in the Arava at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, criticized the Negev plan vehemently, noting that in some areas of the world “sustainable development” had gone seriously wrong. “They sent people with allergies to Arizona, then planted all kinds of non-native vegetation there,” she said. Her conclusion: “For the Negev 2015 plan to be sustained, it must be more sustainable.”

Despite-or perhaps because of-occasional disagreements, the conference was deemed a success by two of its most important participants.

Tal, the conference organizer, noted in an e-mail interview with me that “I am quite satisfied with the diversity and quality of the participants and from the feedback am confident that the … goals were attained above my wildest expectations.” Those goals, he said, included introducing local researchers to the development and needs of countries affected by desertification and sharing Israeli expertise with other professionals in the field.

On the latter point, he wrote, “the next step is to get Israel’s government to make a more meaningful commitment financially and politically to sharing local technologies and expertise with the developing countries that can benefit so greatly from it. There has been a retreat in the Israeli involvement and engagement with Africa and we hope that the conference’s success will raise the profile of the issue and the acuteness of conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, inducing a more meaningful institutional involvement already in 2007.”

Vonshak, the Blaustein Institutes director, e-mailed to say that “part of the Blaustein Institutes’ mission is not only to carry out research but to address societal needs.” Through the conference, he said, Israelis hoped to induce developing countries to see the Jewish state not only “as one involved in conflicts and war but one that can help in development and improving the quality of life of people in the drylands.”

Tal struck the same note in an article when he wrote that “ultimately it is important to remember that Israel is not only internationally newsworthy as a focal point for Middle Eastern turbulence. Ours would be a better world if it could acknowledge that the tiny Jewish state has tackled one of the planet’s key ecological problems and succeeded like no other country in the region.”

And noting that the conference took place just a few hundred meters from David Ben-Gurion’s grave on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wilderness area, Tal concluded that the event offered a “living memorial to the Old Man’s ideals.”