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Reclaiming land from sand: Israel’s response to land degradation

Reclaiming land from sand: Israel’s response to land degradation

By Anita Krishan

In November 2010, I attended a conference on ‘Drylands, Deserts and Desertification’ at Ben Gurion University, Sede Boqer campus, Israel. The conference brought experts, officials and lay people concerned about land degradation from all over the world on a common platform. The minds were put together to find practical solutions for sustainable and prosperous livelihoods in the drylands. The rich variety of perspectives created a stimulating, interdisciplinary and compelling meeting.

The campus is a part of the unlimited desert that stretches beyond the reaches of the vision. Israel is a country where 97 percent of the land is arid, and the problem of further desertification looms large. But the people of Israel are engaged relentlessly to fight the desert.

250px-Mashabei_Sadeh_Aerial_ViewOur stay was arranged in Mashabei Sade, a Kibbutz, one of the many self-contained communes in Israel. The moment we entered through the gate, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief at the sudden change of the stark desert into a lush green landscape with sprawling grass lawns, verdant trees and blooming flowers in immaculate beds. Apart from a comfortable living space, we had access to recreation facilities, green nooks, sports courts and a roofed-open swimming pool, all enhancing the beauty of the desert through the sheer contrast.

Beersheba is the closest city to Mashabei Sade and the Sede Boqer campus. I took a bus ride to the city with ninety-percent of the passengers barely out of their teens donning army fatigues and guns. They reminded me of the continuous wars and skirmishes that the country has been engaged in with its neighbours ever since the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948. The city of Beersheba, in the heart of the Negev desert, is like any other modern city of the world and has its share of skyscrapers, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and striking gardens. But the moment you leave the precincts of the city, you only conjure images of sand, scrub and vast uninhabited expanses.

It is only when one gets exposed to the various aspects of the development that realization dawns at the wonders that the Israeli people have accomplished in the ruthless desert.

This region has a semi-arid climate with hot summers, cool winters and few rainy days. With scarce water resources, Israel has developed various water-saving technologies, including drip irrigation. Israelis also take advantage of the considerable sunlight available for solar energy, making Israel the leading nation in solar energy use per capita (practically every house uses solar panels for water heating). Despite limited natural resources, intensive development of the agricultural and industrial sectors over the past decades has made Israel largely self-sufficient in food production.

Over the past several decades, Israel has not only “made the desert bloom,” but has also invested major resources in learning how to keep dry lands from overtaking fertile soil.

Over the past several decades, Israel has not only “made the desert bloom,” but has also invested major resources in learning how to keep dry lands from overtaking fertile soil. Green patches of olive tree plantations are oases in the hostile landscape of dry sandy regions, and stand witness to man’s ability to reclaim land from the deserts. In one of the plantations, that also have inbuilt processing units, I got to try freshly extracted virgin olive oil. It was one of the best I had ever tasted. Olive oil is exported from this desert land to various European countries. I was told that these olive plantations have expanded considerably in the past few years. If the trend continues, the day is not far when the vast desert may get swallowed by an unbroken green belt of these trees.

The major struggle to reclaim land from the merciless desert has been to get sufficient potable water.

The major struggle to reclaim land from the merciless desert has been to get sufficient potable water. And, like all deserts, water is the most deficit source in Israel. Rainfall has dropped by half in the 65 years of Israel’s existence, while the country’s population has grown 10 fold. This raised serious water issues not only for agriculture, but also daily personal use; for sustenance. The enterprising experts of the country have superbly overcome this problem.

Today, Israel is recognized as a world leader in agriculture and irrigation technologies. The basis of these technologies goes all the way back to Israel’s kibbutz movement, the socialist communes, which were focused on agriculture, and which made up the backbone of Israeli society in its founding years in the 1940’s and the 1950’s. The technology in recycling, in desalination, in deep drip irrigation, has resolved major water issues. Over eighty percent of the purified sewage goes back into agricultural use. Drip irrigation, which was subsequently developed by Simcha Blass in Kibbutz Hatzerim in the 1960’s, has solved the problem of water availability for agriculture to a major extent.

The university exclusively arranged a trip for the delegates to their specialty greenhouses. It was amazing to see healthy, rich fruits and vegetables growing either out of plastic trays or from just a few centimetres deep narrow beds of cocopeat. The coconut husk is imported from the Indian state of Kerala and from Sri Lanka. I got to taste cherry tomatoes, which had a wonderful sweet flavour. “It is because of the high salinity in the irrigation water. The salt reacts with the fruit molecules, rendering them sweet,” an agricultural expert informed us. These tomatoes are in very high demand in Europe, selling at almost ten Euros a kilo. Rows of such greenhouses stretch across the land, harbouring everything from apricots to mangoes, avocados to pomegranates.

The water preservation methods used were simple, practical and sustainable. The “Super Frogger Sprinkler” system, which was indigenously manufactured, has helped solve extreme climatic problems. This new climate control system uses one of the world’s most advanced irrigation controllers that help to lower greenhouse temperatures when conditions of extreme heat prevail. The water in the system creates a kind of mist that reduces the temperature and the humidity accordingly, all for the benefit of the crops. It is a kind of insurance policy for preserving the crops in this region’s unpredictable climate that is characterized by extreme variations in day and night temperatures.

DSC_0283-copyThe R&D centre in Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet has developed a product that provides a number of benefits for greenhouses. The product offers excellent insulation, so the heat doesn’t escape, together with high transparency enabling eighty percent of light to penetrate the plastic roofing. The product enables the grower to save around forty percent in heating costs, which is quite significant. The technology also includes a unique layer, which also enables maximum transparency and prevents water drops from dripping onto plant leaves, thus preventing any harm to plants.

Too much salinity in the water again has adverse effects on the crops. Israel has long sought solutions to the threat of drought. Commercial desalination began in the 1970s in the city of Eilat, on the Red Sea. The first desalination technology used there, in a short-lived pilot project, froze water to remove the salt, and then melted it to make fresh water. But Israel seriously embraced desalination in the late 1990s, after a particularly bad drought. The government decided to build a few plants along the Mediterranean, as fast as it could. The first large desalination plant had come online in 2005 and now there are five desalination plants providing about one-quarter of the country’s water supply.

Another field that has progressed rapidly is fish-cultivation, carried out in brine water. At a time when ocean fish populations are threatened worldwide, Israeli fish farmers are developing innovative new technologies and breeding methods that are revolutionizing their industry. We visited a few fish farms. Carp, tilapia, grass carp, flathead mullet, striped bass, silver carp and rainbow trout, as well as many species of ornamental fish, were flourishing in their artificial habitat. More than 10 super-intensive fish farms have been constructed in various parts of the Negev.

From the Indian prospective, where 53.4% of the land is arid and semi-arid, along with the changing climate patterns and erratic precipitation threatening to further extend the arid regions, the problem needs to be dealt with equal intensity.

We need to exchange the know-how, and share Israel’s initiative, innovativeness and enterprise to be able to easily feed our increasing population.

This will not only bring prosperity to our farmers, but also prevent them from taking the extreme step of committing suicides when faced with droughts.

Anita Krishan chose superannuation, after a tenure of 25 years as a teacher of English, to confer time to her passion of writing. She is a published author of the fictional and autobiographical works: ‘Tears of Jhelum’ and ‘Running up the Hill’. Also an ardent poet, educationist, and environmentalist, her humanitarian side is well revealed in her literary works. She has extensively travelled around the world. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences, and another in Education, and a Masters in English Literature.

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