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Combating desertification

by: Alon Tal - Last updated: 2006-11-02



"Making the Desert Bloom" is one of the axioms in David Ben Gurion's remarkable legacy which has fired the imagination of Israeli farmers, international donors and a Zionist movement for over half a century.  Israel's founding Prime Minister stunned the entire Jewish people in 1953 when he left his head-of-state position to move to a remote kibbutz, Sede Boqer, in the Negev desert. There he would live out his days trying to bring about Isaiah's prophesy: "The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom."

On November 6, Sede Boqer will once again be the focus of attention when Ben Gurion University's Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Studies co-hosts a major international conference entitled, "Deserts and Desertification – Challenges and Opportunities." Its partner – the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) – is the key international mechanism for addressing one of the planet's most egregious ecological scourges.  This constitutes the first conference in Israel under UN auspices. Dozens of leading scientists, field workers, academics, environmental activists, government officials, UN and NGO representatives --  from Nigeria's Minister of Environment to diplomats from Jordan and Turkey -- will come to Israel to talk about the state of the world's drylands, and how to address the direct and indirect drivers of desertification. They will also draw upon Israel's experience in restoring its degraded drylands.

The gathering is hardly an esoteric academic exercise for there is desperate cause for concern.  Desertification, or the degradation of soils in the drylands, is a global problem of enormous dimensions. A recent report sponsored by the World Bank estimates that 10-20% of the world's drylands suffer from significant degradation. That represents  6-12 million square kilometers of lands that can no longer produce yields according to their natural potential .Some 400 million of the world's poorest people are negatively affected.  The symptoms are often seen in the nightly news: famine, illness, refugees, pervasive poverty and even violence. Sadly, international efforts to address the myriad causes have been patently inadequate and in many regions desertification is expanding. 

What makes desertification especially tragic is that it is one of the few global ecological problems for which clear solutions exist.  Israel serves as a living proof that when a country makes soil conservation, irrigation, and sustainable desert agriculture and forestry a national priority – trend need not be destiny.

Indeed, when Israel achieved independence, the Negev desert extended up to Gadera, today a suburb of Tel Aviv. Due to centuries of overgrazing, deforestation and poor soil stewardship, the northern Negev -- once a highly productive region -- had largely turned into a wasteland. When Jews read this week's Torah portion about Abraham's journey through the desert to the Promised Land, what emerges is a nomadic lifestyle that was based on an equilibrium with the region's harsh environment. This equilibrium was lost for many centuries.  In a sense, in 1948 the Jewish people had to quickly relearn how to live in harmony with their arid homeland.    

Even with its meager resources as a nascent developing country, Israel set about to reclaim their desert heritage.  During the 1950s, water infrastructure projects were built that delivered water from the rainy north to the desiccated south.  Settlements were established that first invented and then expanded drip irrigation technologies to produce prosperous, local, agricultural economies. The Jewish National Fund succeeded in planting trees on dry and salty lands that professional forestry literature had long since written off.  Grazing was organized, with seasonal allocations made to ensure that the land's carrying capacity was not exceeded.

The Israeli experience was not without its mistakes.  Aquifers were overpumped.  Sometimes the wrong crops were planted. For too long a paradigm of "conquering the desert" rather than "living with the desert" prevailed.    But the impulse of transforming the degraded heartlands of Israel remained a central national commitment and the trial-and-error process began to produce results. Today, Sede Boqer hosts international students pursuing graduate degrees in Desert Studies, researching topics from climate sensitive agriculture to algae cultivation in the deserts and who bring their know-how back to their own countries where they can become leaders in their field.

It has long been noted that humanity's most acute problems do not rate coverage in the media, presumably because people are too weary to hear about the pathologies of starvation, poverty and ecological devastation.  The solutions to these problems have an even harder time generating headlines.  In response to the severity of the situation in much of the world's drylands, the United Nations declared 2006 to be the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, charging all countries in the world to raise international awareness about the issue. But the declaration hardly made it onto the back pages of the world’s newspapers.  The Conference at Sede Boqer will send a message to Israelis and to the 35 countries represented: with ingenuity, collaboration and respect for ecological constraints, the drylands can be a source of economic opportunity and spiritual edification.

Israel is not only internationally newsworthy as a focal point for Middle Eastern turbulence.  It would be a better world that acknowledged that the tiny Jewish state has tackled one of the planet's key ecological problems and succeeded like no other country in the region.  The conference in Sede Boqer is taking place a few hundred meters from David Ben Gurion's stark and powerful grave on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Zim wilderness. Yet it offers an even more compelling, living memorial to the "old man's" ideals.

Alon Tal is a professor in the department of desert ecology in the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Studies at Ben Gurion University.  He is the Chairman of the Organizing Committee for Israel's upcoming Conference on Deserts and Desertification and is the 2005 winner of The Charles Bronfman Prize for Jewish leadership.