Israeli researchers seek ways of fighting back the deserts

BY VITA BEKKER, THE MEDIA LINE LTD.

As he tours the Wadi Mashash experimental farm near the Israeli desert city of Beer Sheva, researcher Pedro Berliner points to one of the dry area’s few signs of life: a grassy plot of some 2,500 shrub-like Australian blue wattle trees.

The trees, separated from the surrounding dryland by a low wall made of firmed-up soil, were grown when the runoff of floodwater was collected and channeled to the plot. Their successful growth despite the scarcity of the area’s rainwater, says Berliner, is being duplicated in rural dryland regions such as in Africa, where it could help improve life.

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“Growing trees is one of the cheapest and simplest ways to fight desertification,” says Berliner, a professor at the Beer Sheva-based Ben-Gurion University and an expert on irrigation. He refers to the degradation of soil in drylands, typically at the edges of deserts, through human activities such as cutting down trees. “The trees could serve the immediate needs of a growing population in Third World countries, including firewood for cooking and fodder for animals.”

Berliner teaches such techniques to students not only from Israel, but also from developing countries facing the threat of desertification. Walter Zegada, a 37-year-old Bolivian who is researching ways to combat desertification as part of his post doctorate, says he plans to use his new skills to help alleviate poverty, hunger and other effects of the problem in his country.

Calling desertification a major threat to humanity, the United Nations declared 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. The experiment in Wadi Mashash — implemented abroad in regions including Mexico, northwest Kenya, and India’s state of Rajasthan — is one of numerous advancements being made by Israeli researchers like Berliner as they look for ways to fight desertification globally. The Israeli research, mainly in the planting of trees, the treatment of sewage and the removal of salt from water, is attracting more attention as the effects of desertification are increasingly being felt by both developing and developed countries.

“What Israel has learned on its own flesh, it teaches others in places where the information is more urgently needed,” says Uriel Safriel, an ecology professor at Hebrew University who serves as Israel’s representative to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification.

Desertification, experts like Safriel say, is receiving insufficient international attention despite its growing contribution to global poverty. Unlike deserts, which are a natural phenomenon, desertification is the man-made erosion of dryland caused by overgrazing and other human activities.

The effects are far-reaching. Drylands make up 41 percent of the earth’s land area, and between 10 percent and 20 percent of the drylands are already desertified, the U.N. says. Land degradation is a threat to the livelihoods of more than one billion people in more than one hundred countries, it adds. Furthermore, each year desertification and drought cause an estimated $42 billion in lost agricultural production.

Developed countries, while not as affected by desertification as are developing regions like Africa, may find themselves suffering the consequences. According to the U.N., some 60 million people are expected in the next 20 years to move toward northern Africa and Europe from countries at the southern end of the Sahara.

But Africa isn’t the only developing region affected. In Bolivia, for example, about 40 percent of the country of some nine million people is facing problems of desertification in different degrees, says Zegada. So far, very little has been done domestically to combat it, he adds.

Though almost all of the state of Israel consists of drylands, the country itself suffers little from the effects of desertification because only a small part of its economy is based on agriculture. Still, Israel is seeking to export its scientific knowledge and perhaps boost its image abroad — where it is more widely associated with involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Israel has developed a strength in advising other countries on desertification,” says Safriel.

Israel already has a proven record in the invention of agricultural techniques, which eventually became commonplace globally. Among the most prominent was drip irrigation developed for growing crops as well as greenhouse technology created to suit desert conditions.

Israel has taken steps to advance research on the issue. The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, part of Ben-Gurion University, is considered as one of the best such institutes in the world. Additionally, within the Blaustein Institutes Israel has established an international school for desert studies — the biggest of its kind and the only such institution to be based in a dryland region, and where most attending students are from developing countries. Furthermore, Israeli researchers are organizing an international conference on combating desertification in November to attract public awareness to the issue.

Aside from afforestation, Israeli researchers’ efforts are being felt in areas such as water, where they are focusing on quality improvement, waste-water treatment and desalination.

The biggest water-related research project being conducted in Israel is seeking ways of minimizing the effects of low-quality water on soil, as well as on finding alternate sources of water in cases where local sources are polluted. Low-quality water — polluted by salt or other substances — may bring on desertification because it could damage crops and therefore hurt farmers’ income. It could also reduce the soil’s capacity to hold water and provide crops with nutrients.

The project, involving seven senior researchers from Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University, is tracking how far the central coastal aquifer of Israel has been contaminated by industrial substances like detergents.

The project’s findings have already resulted in some sections of the local sources of groundwater within and into central Israel being replaced by imported clean water from the Sea of Galilee, says Professor Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben Gurion University.

Zegada, the student from Bolivia, is looking into another aspect of water. He is researching how crops planted side by side in rows compete for the water supply in a dry environment where water is limited. He says the findings could determine how to reduce crops’ competition for water by changing the types of plants grouped together or by preparing the soil for planting in a different way.

In one of the biggest efforts to combat desertification, researchers are also exploring ways to improve the removal of contaminants from water following human use — a process known as waste-water treatment. As growing populations in dryland areas on the edge of deserts use up more fresh water at home and leave little for irrigation, waste-water treatment provides farmers with a new source of water. This also helps fight desertification by allowing the growing of plants all year round on land that may have otherwise not been cultivated during the dry parts of the season, running the risk of erosion.

Today, as much as 35 percent of all the water used in Israel for farming is treated waste water, says Jorge Tarchitzky, who heads the department of field service for water and soil in Israel’s Agriculture Ministry. That compares to just one percent in the United States, he adds.

“Waste water is a new and important source of water which has existed but hasn’t been taken advantage of,” says Tarchitzky.

The ministry regularly carries out field experiments on the effect of waste water on soil and plants, according to Tarchitzky. Additionally, he says, the ministry conducts surveys that compare the effects of treated waste water with the effects of fresh water on the soil and plants of 160 agricultural plots throughout the country.

The experiments’ findings have already led to the application of methods that would help reduce soil erosion. For example, concluding that the treated water consisted of high levels of the chemical boron — which became detrimental to soil and plants — steps were taken to reduce its concentration. Those included imposing new standards on companies to lower the levels of boron in products such as washing powders, Tarchitzky says.

Israeli researchers are also working on finding new ways to desalinate, or remove excess salt, from treated waste water, a costly process which already exists in countries including the U.S. and Singapore but not in Israel.

But Israel is already ahead of other countries in the removal of salt from sea water, a practice that has become commonplace in the U.S., Europe and some Persian Gulf countries. Last August, Israel began operating the world’s largest desalination plant in the southern city of Ashkelon. Israeli researchers are working to develop new procedures that would help recover larger amounts of water from desalination plants, says Yoram Oren, head of the Department for Desalination and Water Treatment at Ben-Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute, which is part of the Blaustein Institutes.

Their findings may make the process less expensive and more energy-efficient, Oren adds. They may also contribute to the Israeli government’s goal of producing 400 million cubic meters of water per year from desalination by 2010, up from about 120 million currently, says Oren.

But perhaps the cheapest way to combat desertification, experts say, is through afforestation, or the planting of trees or their seeds to convert open land into forest. Drylands are increasingly short on trees, which are commonly cut by inhabitants for use in heating and cooking.

Israeli researchers such as Berliner are looking into how to use the little water available in drylands in order to grow trees. Israel’s biggest and most successful afforestation project is the Yatir pine forest, located in the low-rainfall area in the northern Negev desert. Researchers found that the water consumption of trees planted in a desert area do not damage the local water supply more than the plants already naturally growing there.

With desertification threatening to become an even bigger problem in the future, Israeli researchers are increasingly exploring new ways of combating it. An example is the relatively new practice of growing fish in the northern Negev desert.

Zegada says developing countries like Bolivia, facing the threat of desertification, could benefit immensely from the research.

“Year by year, desertification is increasing,” says Zegada, who arrived in Israel a week ago and plans to complete his post doctorate in two years. “Israel is making a very important contribution to improve the skills of people like me, who will deal directly with the problem when they go back home.”