Israel's Negev mission to attract scientists from around the world

Israeli desert know-how is not just about turning the Negev green. It’s now being exported globally.


The arid Arava Valley

The arid Arava Valley

It was a uniquely Israeli irony. As Professor Smadar Cohen stood in a seminar room on the Ben Gurion University campus in Beersheva last week presenting a groundbreaking bio-engineered solution to preventing heart attacks, a dull thud rattled the window: rockets from Gaza were hitting the city. A scientist who stood poised to save the lives of millions was herself in the line of fire.

The past two weeks of intensified rocket attacks merely amount to the latest challenge for a city that is flourishing against all sorts of odds.

The story of human activity in the Negev has largely been one of subservience to its harsh desert environment. Before Israel came into being, there was small-scale agricultural and urban development in the Byzantine and Nabataean periods. For the 1,000 years before the Ottomans chose Beersheva as an empire outpost, however, only Bedouin herders scratched a living on the land, establishing few permanent settlements.

Today, Ben Gurion University is at the centre of global efforts to combat land degradation and desertification — according to a 2008 UN University study, “the greatest environmental challenge of our times”. To this end, last week, the university hosted an international conference on the subject, bringing together scientists from around the world.

The aim of the event was to implement an agreement made at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio earlier this year that drylands and deserts are not wastelands, but, according to Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, “critical to food, water, energy and human security everywhere”.

Israel has long recognised this imperative, and has been exporting its life-giving — and saving — know-how on the cultivation and management of arid lands for several years.

Professor Pedro Berliner, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben Gurion’s campus at Seder Boquer, said: “We led a reforestation project in north west Kenya where we developed a forestry system near a refugee camp which provided the people with firewood.

Melon-growing by the Dead Sea

Melon-growing by the Dead Sea

“We ran a similar project in India, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. All these projects were based on research that was done here and transported abroad.”

Two linked Ben Gurion projects have stood out in recent times for their originality and potential to dramatically improve the lives of people living in arid areas across the world.

Fifteen years ago, marine biologist Samuel Appelbaum found that it was possible to farm Barramundi fish in desert ponds. The technique only became possible after the Blaustein Institutes discovered a vast brackish aquifer under the Negev, which was 20 times less saline than sea water. Research indicated that Barramundi would thrive in hot, salty waters, and today, Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh in the Negev produces 200 tons of fresh fish every year.

“These were two really outstanding achievements by our institute,” said Mr Berliner. “We even found that you can grow fish quicker under these conditions than in most other contexts. Our aquaculture techniques have been adopted in several countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia. The Negev aquifer extends right into Sinai, and the Egyptians are showing an interest in using our methods to develop it.”

Another lesson being imparted by Ben Gurion is that it is not enough to cultivate the land; one must also educate the people who live on it.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, founded by professor and leading Israeli environmental activist Alon Tal, is a shining example of how Israel is using science to make peace and, at the same time, create a better environment all the residents of its neighbourhood.

The institute brings together Jews, Israeli Arabs, Jordanians and Palestinians to learn about environmental issues and how they intersect with geo-politics. Students take courses on the sharing of resources across international boundaries, as well as peace-building and community leadership.

Jordanian school teacher Safi Manar, who attended the drylands conference, commented: “We are getting a lot of ideas from Israel, especially their general attitude to the environment.”

Ben Gurion University’s highly involved relationship with its region is unique in Israel, according to university president Rivka Carmi: “You can take Haifa or Tel Aviv universities out of their regions and the effect would be minimal. Here, there would be a huge impact.”

That is partly because Ben Gurion University, with 20,000 students, is one of the big drivers of Beersheva’s economy, bringing people to an area that has traditionally been under the academic and economic radar. It is also due to the university’s outreach work, from organising a 3600-strong volunteer force to meet the needs of the city when facing threats such as rocket attacks, to a unique “pre-medical” programme in which students meet potential patients — including Arabs, Druze and Bedouin — in order to understand their specific cultural needs and beliefs before beginning their medical training. The latter is one element in the university’s programme on international health and intercultural medicine, a course which has been taken to medical schools around the world.

The Blaustein Institutes’ experiments growing melons and bell peppers in the Dead Sea basin are a prime example of the economic dividend Israel is extracting from the poor Negev soil. On land previously considered impossible to cultivate due to its high sand and salt content, scientists have established over 200 hectares of pepper plantations which produce 60-80 tons of amount of well-formed and coloured peppers for European supermarkets from November to April — when they cannot be grown in northern climes.

Years of research have led to a recipe involving correct drip irrigation, pest control, fertilisation and labour management to produce high yields at a quality that can be marketed in Europe.

In the long term, however, there is a question mark over the sustainability of such a project. Alon Ben Gal, an Israeli government agricultural researcher, said that the nitrates that are added to mitigate the salinity of the irrigation water are likely to show up in ground water, and a new solution must ultimately be found.

All cultivation in the Negev raises a further ecological problem: the Negev fossil aquifer provides brackish water too salty for most crops and must be mixed with fresher water from rapidly depleting aquifers along the coastal plain, under the Hebron hills and near Lake Kinneret before it can be used for irrigation. Fresh water can be obtained from Israel’s desalination plants, but the process of turning salty sea water into fresh water is energy-intensive and, on its own, not a sustainable solution.

But Ben Gurion scientists may have come up with the answer: solar-powered desalination. In May this year, a solar-run desalination plant was successfully tested in the Arava Valley, south of the Dead Sea. The system will save water because crops grown with desalinated water required 25 per cent less watering and fertiliser than irrigation with brackish water.

Some Israelis call the cultivation of the desert a “miracle”. At Ben Gurion, they call it science. Whichever you prefer, what is certain that the whole world stands to benefit.

Last updated: 2:45pm, November 23 2012