For decades, Israel has been perfecting desertification solutions. With increasing soil erosion, salinization and groundwater mismanagement, it’s time to share them with the world. Prof. Alon Tal: "If you do nothing about desertification, people will starve and die."
By Avigayil Kadesh
In a country where 97 percent of the land is arid, the problem of desertification looms large. Over the past several decades, Israel has not only "made the desert bloom," as the saying goes, but has also invested major resources in learning how to keep dry lands from overtaking fertile soil.
Israel’s aridity index, showing the most arid areas of the country in the south
Many other countries were slow to understand the significance of this global crisis. Now that problems such as soil erosion, salinization, climate change and groundwater mismanagement have heightened awareness of the devastating effects of desertification, Israel is honing its expertise and offering it far beyond its own borders.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s (BGU) Prof. Alon Tal describes desertification as "the orphan of global environmental problems on our planet" because it was not high on most nations’ list of priorities. But today it is acknowledged as one of the main reasons why more than 200 million people around the globe are threatened with poverty and hunger.
A catalyst for cooperation and collaboration
Tal, a desert ecologist at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes of Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) and founder of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, organized the November 8-11 third annual International Conference on Drylands, Deserts and Desertification: The Route to Restoration.
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The conference will be hosted at BGU’s Sde Boker campus in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is the second conference in Israel on the subject. More than 500 government officials and academics from 50 countries, including Palestinian and Jordanian delegates, will participate.
"We believe that by bringing a diverse group of academics, professionals and policy-makers together to confront the myriad critical issues of desertification, the BGU conference can serve as a meaningful catalyst for cooperative and collaborative projects in the future at the global level," says Tal.
Attendees will discuss the public health aspects of desertification; sustainable building in desert environments; remote sensing to assess how flora are responding to anti-desertification attempts; grazing and the Bedouin community; the future of the Dead Sea; environmental education and dry-land agriculture; and soil and water restoration.
The Israel triangle
Two years ago, forestry experts from several African countries participated in a three-day seminar on desertification. The event was initiated by MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, together with Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael – Jewish National Fund, and CINADCO, the Center for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Participants gained pointers on establishing forests, collecting and germinating seeds, managing nurseries, and fostering forest-related industries such as honey production and ecological tourism, according to David Brand, head forester for KKL-JNF.
Israel also excels at wastewater management, a crucial aspect in fighting desertification. About half the water used for agriculture cycles through 240 KKL-JNF-built reservoirs. Israel reuses about 74 percent of its wastewater; in comparison, Spain, the second-most efficient country in this area, reuses only 20%.
Government agriculture officials from nations including Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, China, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso learned how Israel structures its efforts in a ‘triangle’ of research, advising, and fieldwork, Brand relates.
Tal strongly endorses this sort of information sharing. "If you do nothing about desertification, people will starve and die," he states. The UN, as well, encourages developed nations such as Israel to provide assistance to developing countries in fighting desertification.
Israel’s moral obligation to provide expertise
What Israel has to offer is its proficiency in restoring marginal lands, and protecting its dry lands from further deterioration. Parts of the Negev desert have been transformed into a productive breadbasket, actually reducing the desert’s size significantly since 1948. KKL-JNF planted forests are thriving and salt- and drought-resistant crops are flourishing thanks to advanced agricultural methods. The desert is dotted with commercial fishponds and with healthful algae used for manufacturing pharmaceuticals and health foods.
In fact, says Tal, algae grow better in dry areas. This is one example of how the desert setting offers advantages. Arid spaces are also perfect settings for solar and wind power, as well as trails for hiking.
Tal, a North Carolina native, works closely with Israel’s neighbors. He co-authored a model for an agreement on environmental cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and represents Israel at UN conferences on desertification alongside Dr. Uriel Safriel, professor of ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and – according to Tal – a "true hero" who is the world’s leading authority on desertification.
"Desertification is not, as it’s often perceived, about vast sand dunes expanding and overwhelming villages," he says. "Although this happens in some places, it is simply a loss of soil fertility due to many factors whose long-term impacts are far greater in dry lands. This manifests itself in the scenes you see on television of millions of hungry people without food. Israel is recognized as a country which for some time has taken on the challenge of reversing these trends. Now, we have a moral obligation to be a light unto the nations and offer our capabilities."