Most of Israel is dryland and 60% of it is the Negev Desert. MASHAV, the Center for International Cooperation of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, places special emphasis on the critical issues of desertification and developing the desert by introducing international cooperative programs of training, project development and research; these relate to land and water limitations, yet always aim at identifying comparative advantages that may be inherent in specific dryland locations.
Programs are coordinated with the Israeli Ministries of Agriculture and Environment and the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) - the country's largest NGO dealing with land amelioration, water conservation and afforestation. This document was prepared by an inter-agency professional committee representing the institutions engaged in research and development.
We hope and believe that international cooperation in this important subject will gather momentum through mutual networking aimed at sharing accumulated knowledge in different countries for the welfare of their peoples and for ecological sustainability.
Desertification: What is it? Where is it? How Big is the Threat?
Desertification is nothing new. Traces of ancient lakes are found in the midst of the Sahara; relic plants of tropical origin are found in the Negev. Once, many eons ago, these lands were very fertile but as the climate changed the regions became arid, leaving behind reminders of ancient productivity. Desertification was part of the natural development of our planet.
There are indications that in more recent times a slow warming of the climate may have dried up previously fertile areas - but the advent of humanity played a more dramatic role. Salinization of productive land caused by over- irrigation may have hastened the decline of ancient Babylon. Hills and plains in Asia Minor and the Middle East were denuded of forests for wood to build fleets of ships, army camps and the machines of war. The consequences of one war were described 1,900 years ago by the historian Josephus Flavius, who wrote that in the Galilee "hilltops were stripped of trees and cleared of stones, and in the hills around Jerusalem "where there had been a lovely vista of woods and parks there was now nothing but desert."
Today desertification is spreading at the rate of some half million hectares each year - an area the size of the state of Kansas. Defined in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification as the degradation of marginally productive drylands (arid, semi and and dry-subhumid), it is happening in North and South America, southern Europe, Asia and Australia; in Africa over one billion hectares are affected by desertification. It is primarily caused by human mismanagement, which is intimately linked to the exponential growth of the world's population overtaxing the fragile resources of dryland ecosystems.
Dryland ecosystems cover about 47% of the earth's land surface. There is, however, a considerable amount of difference between them. Some of them, covering 7% of global lands, are hyper-arid. These are barely productive and provide a meager existence to small populations, usually nomadic, who depend upon water sources in oases and wells. Hyper-arid regions include the Sahara-Arabian deserts and the Gobi desert.
Other types of drylands are consecutively more productive: Arid lands, about 12% of the earth's landmass, have some precipitation and are marginally productive. These produce enough growth to feed the livestock of nomadic pastoralists. If they are not overpopulated, they are not normally overgrazed.
Semi-arid lands occupy 17.7% of the earth's land surface and can sustain pastoralists and subsistence agriculture without irrigation if they are not overpopulated.
Dry-subhumid areas, covering some 10% of global lands, can support a limited amount of rainfed cropland in valleys and plateaus and pastoralism on hillsides and slopes.
It is these last three types - arid, semi and and dry-subhumid - that are in danger of becoming desertified. Their fragile resources are drained by too many people making heavy demands of land only marginally suited for agricultural purposes. large herds over-graze, thereby damaging vegetation and exposing topsoil to erosion; farmers over-cultivate, depleting the soil of its fertility, and over-irrigate, lowering water tables and salinizing the soil. Extensive areas are denuded of trees and shrubs in the quest for fuel and fodder. As more trees are felted to clear more land for cultivating crops to feed more people, ever widening bands of barrenness are sown.
Desertification is not generally caused by willful exploitation; it is a consequence of the need to survive in areas which cannot support large populations. One sixth of the world's population, some 900 million people in 100 countries on six continents, are threatened by desertification.
However, not at[ desertified areas are irrevocably lost. Desertification can be hatted, dryland productivity can be increased and these lands can sustain growing populations by careful management and by making optimal use of delicate resources.
Desertification in the Mediterranean Basin and Middle East
Most of the Mediterranean Coast and the Middle East is covered by dryland and all nations in the region have suffered desertification. The intensive development of the Mediterranean coast and the burgeoning population are putting tremendous stress on delicate, dryland ecosystems. In the Middle East, where the rate of population growth is 3% annually, there were 76 million people in 1950. The figure is now approaching 200 million.
The heightened demand for fresh water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use is depleting or polluting limited reserves of fresh water; virtually every country bordering the Mediterranean suffers from salt-water intrusion into its coastal aquifers. The development of resort areas and the growth of cities along the coast is accompanied by another water problem - unregulated sewage dumping which pollutes sea water and beaches and percolates into fresh water aquifers.
Over-irrigation, an age-old practice, and the use of chemical fertilizers and weed control agents have caused salinization in marginally productive drylands throughout the region. Even areas with ample fresh water resources and fertile land suffer salinization and waterlogging; it is estimated that over 30% of the Nile Delta and Valley is so affected.
Soil erosion is a problem of vast proportions. In the past 25 years the increased cultivation of marginal [and and poor management of rangeland nave contributed to the loss of two million hectares of agricultural land in North Africa. The land, however, is not entirely "lost"; storms carry tiny particles of dust and sand across the sea. Some 6% of them reach the northern and eastern Mediterranean coasts where, during severe storms, the concentration of particulates in the air may be as high as 6,000 micrograms per cubic meter, some 200 times more than normal.
About 35% of the Middle East experiences soil erosion of between 5 to 50 tons per hectare annually as a result of over exploitation and over 130 million hectares of rangeland have degenerated. In many areas overgrazing destabilized sand dunes, causing them to drift and lose their productivity.
However, it is not erosion alone that has caused the loss of productive land. It is also gobbled up by rapidly expanding urban and industrial sprawl.
Similar problems of environmental degradation and desertification are shared by all countries in the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East. Water sources are shared by two, three or even four countries; deserts ignore international boundaries. Each country has indigenous knowledge and new technologies under development. Cooperation in combating desertification will benefit the entire region.
Geography, Climate and Ecology in Israel
Israel is on the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe. The Implementation Annexes of the UN Convention for Combating Desertification relate to four regions of the earth that suffer major problems of desertification; three of the four meet in Israel. The southern part of the country joins the African Sahara-Arabian desert belt. The central part is an extension of the Asian steppes, and northern Israel borders the northern Mediterranean region.
A small country, just 24,000 km in size, nearly all of Israel is dryland and within its borders lie all four of the world's distinctive dryland types: hyper-arid, arid, semi-arid and dry-subhumid.
The rainfall in the country at sea level varies from 800mm in the north to less than 50mm in the south - a distance of just 420 kilometers. Virtually all precipitation occurs in the cool months between October and April, while high evaporation rates typify the hot summers.
As land values in the north and central parts of the country rise because of the thickening population density (93% live in those areas, particularly along the coast), irrigated and rainfed agricultural land in the dry sub-humid region is dwindling, replaced by increasing cultivation in the drier Negev. While there are farms even in the hyper-arid regions of Israel, it is the semi-arid northern Negev that is being developed most intensely for agricultural production with fresh water transported from the north of the country, brackish water from vast aquifers that lie under the desert, recycled wastewater and collected run-off water.
Some 60% of the country is covered by the Negev, which is comprised of three out of the four dryland types (hyper-arid, arid and semiarid). It is a tiny desert by world standards but its empty areas are Israel's open frontier for sustainable development.
The semi-arid northern Negev, with a mean annual precipitation of 200-350mm, supports rangelands, rainfed winter wheat sometimes supplemented by irrigation, and other irrigated croplands.
The arid Negev highlands, with up to 200mm of rainfall, are characterized by vast barren areas, some irrigated agriculture and rangelands.
The hyper-arid southern Negev and Arava Rift Valley, with up to 50mm of rainfall, are mostly barren, with some irrigated oasis agriculture.
The Israeli Experience: Agricultural Development vs. Sustainability
The six-fold increase in population over the last 50 years led to the rapid and intense development of the country. Israel's geography forced agriculturists and scientists to overcome the challenges presented by drylands - at first by trial and error, and later by developing more scientific approaches. The development of agro-technology led to a per capita decrease in the amount of land used for agriculture but an increase in agricultural productivity per unit area of land. The consequences of this intensive cultivation, however, often cause soil erosion and salinization.
The Development and Use of Water Resources
Israel uses virtually 100% of its fresh water resources; most of them are in the north. The water is transported to the center and south of the country by the National Water Carrier and allocation of fresh water is strictly regulated. Since it is barely sufficient for domestic, industrial and agricultural requirements, the search for new water sources and implementation of conservation measures are national priorities. The development of drip irrigation in Israel in the early 70's revolutionized dryland agriculture because it dramatically reduced the amount of water needed for irrigation. It also allowed farmers to use poor quality water; the salts in brackish water do not damage the leaf canopy as would be the case with sprinkler irrigation, and when using recycled waste-water health problems are minimized by targeting certain crops (such as cotton) and directing water to the roots. Protected agriculture is another technique that conserves water since it reduces evaporation.
New Water Sources
Brackish and geothermal fossil water - The discovery of lakes of brackish water under the desert along with the advent of drip irrigation led to the proliferation of agricultural enterprises. Use of this resource must be carefully monitored to prevent soil salinization, but it is a prime factor in aquaculture as well as conventional agriculture.
Recycled wastewater - Effluent from the heavily populated central part of the country is treated and piped to the south where it is used for agriculture. Recycled waste-water is rich in nitrates and phosphates so it saves on fertilizer. Use of this resource is carefully managed and monitored.
Harvesting flood water - There are a variety of ways to harvest run-off water - all based on know-how once common in the region, but enhanced by technological and scientific advances. On a broad scale, water from very extensive watershed areas is collected into large reservoirs and is piped to nearby farms for irrigation or used to recharge aquifers. These reservoirs can also be developed for recreational purposes. Simpler harvesting schemes convey water directly to crops planted in low-lying areas or wadi beds, employing ancient methods which are very practical for small agricultural enterprises and in areas without highly developed technical infrastructures.
Introduction and Preservation of Plants Tolerant to Drought and Desert Conditions
Carefully managed dryland agriculture has produced surprisingly diverse results, but it is not a simple matter; overcoming the difficulties has given birth to agro-technology systems in the desert. The effect of extreme temperature variations has been ameliorated by the widespread use of geothermal water and mulching; greenhouse technology has been developed to suit the special needs of desert conditions; irrigation methods are designed to suit specific crops in specific locations. Throughout the Negev new crops are tested in experimental fields and a special synergy has developed between farmers and scientists.
Developing saline-resistant crops - Certain varieties of tomatoes, melons, and grapes respond well to the stress of salinity, providing sweeter and firmer fruit which makes them ideal for export. They bring high prices due to their out-of-season availability - an important factor, as desert agriculture is an expensive business.
Introducing and adapting new species - Many crops indigenous to countries with warm climates can be adapted to conditions in the Negev. It takes several growing seasons to determine the viability and marketability of exotic fruits, flowers and ornamental plants; successful varieties are very profitable.
Preserving biogenetic resources and promoting biodiversity - The threat of global warming makes the conservation of indigenous plants a very significant issue. Ecosystems on the edges of dryland zones withstand a considerable amount of fluctuation in climatic conditions, and therefore are natural assets for ensuring future global food security. The biogenetic resources of these transitional areas are being preserved as repositories for the restoration and rehabilitation of ecosystems suffering from desertification and global warming.
Management of Grazing Lands
Even fairly simple conservation techniques can turn an overgrazed, barren land into a desert pasture that will sustain sizable herds of livestock. Israel has averted the risk of desertification from overgrazing in the semi-arid northern Negev by regulating the number and type of livestock and limiting grazing to specific areas during specific seasons.
'Savannization' is the effective management of an entire watershed, which is divided into runoff contributing and runoff collecting areas where indigenous and exotic trees are planted. Man-made savannas on previously barren slopes prevent soil erosion, promote biodiversity and restore limited productivity. Grasslands sprout around the widely spaced trees, providing pleasant scenery and limited grazing land.
Run-off agroforestry directs rainwater from a large watershed area into a lower receiving area which is planted with orchards intercropped with fodder. It provides food, firewood and fodder with a minimal investment in infrastructure.
Undergrazing can be as harmful to biodiversity as overgrazing. Controlled grazing on forest undergrowth promotes the diversification of species, while reducing the danger of fires from accumulated dry undergrowth. The careful management of agricultural and pastoral land provides a fine balance supporting livestock while promoting biodiversity.
Increasing Production While Reducing Desertification - Mission Impossible?
In Israel efficient water distribution methods permit irrigation of secondary soils; brackish water is used for irrigating an increasing number of salt tolerant species; treated effluent is used for irrigation. All this sounds like a recipe for desertification, threatening to salinize soil and aquifers.
A number of methods counteract the potential hazards; protected agriculture and drip irrigation, of course, minimize the amount of water used, reducing the danger of salinization. Organic materials from urban and agricultural waste tend to enrich sandy soils, which act as a filter for poor quality water, purifying it even further before it percolates into the aquifers. Compost, used as bed material in greenhouses and as fertilizer in unprotected fields, is also used to rehabilitate saline soils.
Drippers with fresh or brackish water can be used to [each saline soil in the root zones of plants. Lowering the salinity in the root zone makes agriculture possible in previously barren areas and avoids salinization of aquifers. This technique is suitable for certain areas and makes agriculture possible even in the salt encrusted Dead Sea Valley.
Awareness of risk sparks careful monitoring and continual research to improve productivity and preserve or increase biodiversity, while avoiding the danger of desertification.
Living in the Desert: Sustainable Dryland Development
Drylands harbor marvelous resources plant and animal life, hidden springs and large aquifers, solar and wind energy, open horizons and natural beauty. When used in a sustainable manner these resources can provide creative avenues of enterprise to dryland residents, bringing a measure of economic stability and a fine quality of life.
Aquaculture - The abundant brackish and geothermal waters in aquifers under the Negev provide an ideal environment for fishfarming - an enterprise which is proliferating. Warm temperatures promote growth rates far higher than those of similar enterprises in the northern part of the country. Some settlements have opened fish restaurants on the 'shores' of their fishponds, and retail outlets to supplement their successful wholesale businesses.
Another aspect of aquaculture is the cultivation of micro-algae, which thrive in brackish water and high solar radiation. These microscopic organisms are used as fish food, making their cultivation a complement to fish breeding. A natural product, their use in health foods, vitamins, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals is sparking new developments in biotechnology.
Solar Energy - Drylands are blessed with an abundance of solar radiation and free, open spaces to absorb it - prerequisites for the development of solar energy. Research programs are dedicated to developing solar radiation as an energy source for local and regional consumption and for export. This technology can provide a viable economic enterprise which does not jeopardize natural resources.
Tourism - The Negev is rich in natural beauty, geological wonders, home to a wealth of plants and wildlife and liberally sprinkled with historical sites. There are also health benefits which attract tens of thousands of tourists. Tourism is a source of income, but it must be carefully controlled, as over-development can degrade the environment. Careless concern for resources in sensitive areas such as the Dead Sea region and Eilat is self defeating when it degrades the environment which is the very reason for their attraction.
Value-Added Industries - Many agricultural enterprises serve as the basis for industries which provide economic diversity to residents of the region. A dairy on a kibbutz in the south, now exports a wide variety of products to the entire country. Grapes grown in saline water are the basis of a fledgling wine industry. Other new industries are also based on locally grown crops or other regional resources.
Biosphere Reserves - Every part of the country has suffered the loss of biodiversity and the disappearance of precious biogenetic resources. Biosphere reserves promote indigenous agriculture, pastoralism, ecotourism, and make nature conservation compatible with sustainable development. The Mt. Carmel Biosphere Reserve in the dry sub-humid north has recently opened and a biosphere reserve is being established in the Negev.
Afforestation - Limited, creative afforestation in drylands is sustainable and there are several benefits; most directly it prevents erosion. New forests also sequester carbon dioxide, mitigating the "greenhouse effect" and global warming. Several methods of afforestation such as savannization are particularly well suited to drylands. Others include planting green belts around towns using indigenous and exotic species and creating limans - small oases of indigenous trees planted in low areas. These provide welcome shade, pleasant scenery, and limited forage for livestock.
National Program for Combating Desertification and Achieving Sustainable Development
As a party to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the Government of Israel has formed a National Steering Committee for Combating Desertification which is planning the country's National Action Program. It includes: a) measures to prevent soil erosion in the irrigated croplands of the northern Negev and in the rangelands of the central Negev; b) increasing the use of treated wastewater for dryland agriculture while minimizing the danger of soil and aquifer contamination and salinization; c) promotion of alternative livelihoods to desert residents through ecotourism, aquaculture, sustainable and environmentally friendly industries, etc.
The Program also calls upon universities and research institutions in the country to redirect research efforts toward combating desertification. All of these have programs that are relevant:
Tel Aviv University: Plant genetic resources and biodiversity.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Quality: Basic and applied research and extension education on and zone agriculture and related areas including animal sciences, water and soil sciences and ecology.
The Technion: Water resource development and management and agricultural engineering.
Haifa University: Plant ecology and genetics, biodiversity, socio-economic and water issues.
Weizmann Institute: Solar energy, plant genetics and water resources.
Bar-Ilan University: Dryland soil biology and agricultural biotechnology.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Institutes of Applied Research and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research: Basic and applied research, education and training programs in most aspects of desert studies.
Agricultural Research Organization: Basic and applied research, extension education in agriculture, water and soil sciences.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Science Regional Centers for R&D: Applied research tailored to local needs in various areas of the country.
Israel and the World - Joining Forces to Combat Desertification
The Center for International Cooperation (MASHAV) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the initiator of many of the country's international cooperative programs, demonstration projects, training courses and research activities. Working with the country's institutes of higher education and research organizations, it also has agreements with USAID, UNDP, UNESCO, FAO and the European Community for cooperative programs in many fields, but the emphasis is on agriculture. MASHAV works with countries in the Middle East and on six continents, conducts courses in Israel and abroad, and provides consultants on specific problems.
Many international funding organizations, government agencies and private foundations, working with local academic and research institutions, finance cooperative research, development and training programs. Some cooperative programs include studies of watershed and salt water intrusion with countries bordering the Mediterranean; rangeland and livestock management with countries in Africa and the CIS; establishing regional germplasm banks; irrigation techniques, protected agriculture and crop development with countries around the globe; and regional solar energy projects.
Israel and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification
Since the very first session in Nairobi, Israel has taken part in every meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Desertification (INCD), and contributed to the final text of the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).
It took part in the first meeting of Asian countries in Bangkok, and chaired the committee that drafted the Implementation Annex for Asia, which was later adopted by the INCD as the final Annex to the Convention. Israel took part in the governmental and non-govern mental meetings of the Asian African forum, and participated in the New Delhi meeting, contributing to the regional action program to combat desertification in Asia. At the Ministerial meeting in Beijing, Israel was represented by Mr. Rafael Eitan, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture and the Environment.
In April, 1997, under UN auspices, Israel hosted a three-day meeting on synergies between the Rio de Janeiro Conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and the non-legally binding Forest Principles. The meeting took place at Ben-Gurion University's Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research where 40 scientists, decision makers and legal specialists from around the world gathered to recommend measures for implementing the Conventions.
As part of its commitment to the CCD, Israel is creating the International Center for Combating Desertification at the Ben-Gurion University campus in Sede Boqer. The International Center wilt initiate activities in 1998 and be fully operational by 2002. It wilt include:
The Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, which will be expanded to provide research facilities for about 100 scientists engaged in four research programs: The Dryland Environment (physical and biotic), Man in the Drylands (socio-economic research), Water Resource Management and Agriculture in Drylands.
The School for Continuing Education and International Cooperation, which will give short training courses to community leaders, technical experts, extension officers, etc. from around the world.
The Computer Mediated Information Center, which will employ advanced technologies to collect store, analyze, interpret and disseminate information on regional and global desertification and on programs and technologies to combat desertification.
The Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies will award M.Sc. Degrees in Desert Studies with specialization in agrobiology, ecology, hydrology and social sciences. The School will open in the autumn of 1998 and will accept 100 new students from affected countries each year.
For further information contact:
Center for International Cooperation (MASHAV)
Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs