Israel Environment Bulletin Summer 1997-5758, Vol. 20, No. 3


Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the Israel statement, delivered by Mr. Rafael Eitan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture and the Environment, to the Asian Ministerial Conference on the Implementation of the Convention on Combating Desertification (CCD) in Asia which was convened in Beijing on 13 May 1997.

Asia is a gigantic continent, covering 33 percent of the earth surface of the globe. Nearly half of the area of this continent is 45 percent drylandhyperarid, arid, semiarid and dry subhumid drylands. Already 19 percent of the drylands of Asia are desertified, namelytheir productivity, which is naturally low compared to non-drylands, has been damaged by over-exploitation and mismanagement of natural resources by mankind.

Israel is an Asian country too, with an area of only 24 thousand square kilometers, which are just five-hundredth of one percent of all Asia. But, whereas in Asia 46 percent of the land is dryland, 90 percent of Israel is dryland. Although the area is so small, it is diverse in the types of dryland, and all four types of global drylandshyperarid, arid, semiarid and dry sub-humidoccur within Israel. Thus, most of Israel is dryland, susceptible to, yet barely affected, by desertification.

The above is due to the fact that when Israel set out to develop its natural resources, it identified the risks entailed in the development of drylands, and adopted, from the outset, a policy of development that is sustainable. This development not only did not bring about desertification, namely a reduction in the natural productivity of the land, but rather promoted a persistent, sustainable increase in productivity, to beyond that of the dryland’s naturally low productivity.

Israel has accomplished this first by substantial investment in scientific researchin soil, climate, agriculture, forestry and ecological sciences. Achievements in basic science were then translated into technological advances and applied in the field, thus bringing about sustainable development of the Israel drylands and the prevention of their desertification.

How has Israel translated its research achievements into accomplishments in sustainable development and prevention of desertification? Israel realized that it is difficult to preserve soil productivity when development of the drylands is based on the traditional occupation of the inhabitants of the drylandslivestock fed on rangelands. This is brought about because of the pressures the growing human population and the need to increase its standard of living. Sooner or later, overgrazing and over-exploitation of the range leads to the eventual collapse of their productivity. That is why, these days, most livestock in Israel is fed on croplands-produced fodder, and most Israeli rangelands have been transformed into croplands.

Israel also understood very early on, that it is not feasible to base modern agriculture on drylands, while relying on the low and inconsistent rainfall of these lands. For dryland agriculture to be economically viable, and not lead to topsoil erosion, the soil has to be covered by agricultural growth the whole year round, also during periods of drought, and it should provide the population with a stable source of income, in spite of climatic instability of the drylands. Therefore, dryland agriculture should be irrigated, and there is no other way to provide year-round irrigation than to transport water to the drylands from elsewhere. Thus, the Israeli weapon for combating desertification is sustainable agricultural development of the drylands through centralized national water management, that includes transportation of water from regions of water abundance to regions of water shortage, through storage during years of abundance for use in years of drought, and through raising crops adapted each to a different quality of water and to the specific local climatic and soil conditions of the drylands.

Israel also realized that the greatest risk in the transformation of traditional dryland-rangeland to modern cropland, and in the transformation of rain-fed to irrigated dryland, is soil salinization. Transportation of water to areas of shortage alone will not generate sustainable dryland agriculture, unless irrigation methods and technologies are developed and implemented which reduce water loss by evaporation, and prevent the accumulation of salts on the surface and in the root zone of the crops. Israel pioneered drip-irrigation technologies and practices, and as a result has produced record crops in drylands by developing "protected agriculture" technologies. These desert greenhouses are instrumental in reducing evaporation and preventing soil salinization.

Thus, Israeli dryland agriculture has not caused a gradual loss of soil productivity as development pressures increase. Rather, the crops grown in Israel’s drylands compete successfully with similar crops grown in non-desert regions, and they provide, as exported cash crops, a reliable and respectable source of income to their growers. Israel produces its dairy products from range-independent livestock, thus overgrazing is avoided, especially where elsewhere it brings about destabilization of sand dunes and the consequent desertification.

Therefore, although within its territory, there are many sand dunes and sandy soils, Israel has not suffered from the overlaying of fertile croplands by moving sands, and from other desertification effects caused by moving dunes. Moreover, Israel discovered that in drylands, sandy soils have an advantage over non-sandy soils, due to the water-holding capacity of the sand. Thus, paradoxically, the sandy soils of Israel are not looked upon as a curse, but as a blessing and they are sought after by the farmers. At the same time, Israel has developed means for maintaining the stability of its sand-dunes and helps advance research on sand-dune plants and on the microbial soil crusts of such sands and other desert soils.

Most of Israel is dryland, yet in the historical past, its sub-humid parts have been covered by scrublands and dry woodlands which protected the soil and its fertility. Whereas during historical times these woodlands covered 30 percent of Israel, when the State was established in 1948, only less than one percent remained forested. Israel has developed forestry and forest rehabilitation methods for drylands. As a result, nearly 50 years after its establishment, it increased the forested area from less than 1 percent to nearly 10 percent of its territory. By utilizing methods and practices of run-off harvesting, Israel succeeded in afforestation of regions with 200 mm of rain a year, with trees that normally occur only where rainfall is more than 350 mm. Israel is currently developing afforestation practices for semi-arid and even arid regions, and aims at achieving savannah-like landscapes there. The Israeli afforestation effort is combating soil erosion and thus prevents desertification. At the same time, it promotes the natural dryland biodiversity, and functions as a sink for atmospheric carbon, thus mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming.

While developing large areas of its drylands as agricultural areas and others as afforestation areas, Israel has also allocated much land for conserving its rich biodiversity. More than 3,000 species of wild plants grow in Israel, and many of these are of economic potential, such as relatives and progenitors of cultivated domestic plants used for reconstructing the eroding genetic basis of many food plants. These important plant species of Israel are protected in about 150 nature reserves, which cover about 15 percent of the size of the State, mostly in its drylands. These protected areas are of economic significance and play a role in combating desertification, in that they provide ecosystem services for agricultural areas by their contribution to the recharging of aquifers, later used to irrigate dryland agriculture. These nature reserves are also used for recreation and tourist activities, thus providing alternative livelihoods for the inhabitants of the drylandslivelihoods that do not exert pressure on the sensitive soil resources of the drylands.

Israel has never kept to itself the knowledge that brought about these achievements, but has shared it with all dryland developing countries for yearsin Latin America, Africa, the Mediterranean and Asia. The know-how and the Israeli experience also promoted desert agriculture and means for combating desertification in some of the countries of the Middle Eastindirectly and recently, also directly. Israeli experts have reached every spot on earth to which they have been invited to advise and train. Israeli institutions of research and training were always open for farmers, leaders of local communities, students, trainees, experts and extension officers of many developing countries, including Asian ones. The Israeli approach in technology transfer and the sharing of know-how and expertise was always the bottom-up approachthe training of field personnel and working together with the grassroots level, in the remotest and most problem-ridden places. Israel has never offered developing countries technologies which had been developed in Israel for adoption under different conditions. Rather, Israeli experts worked together with the local people of developing countries on the adaptation of Israeli technologies for specific local conditions at the sites of implementation.

To conclude, by investing in prevention of desertification rather than in combating already prevailing desertification, by stressing science and technology, but at the same time respecting indigenous knowledge, by adopting the bottom-up approach in training and technology transfer, Israel has acted as a party to the Convention to Combat Desertification

(CCS), many years even before the term "desertification" was coined, and before the negotiations on the Desertification Convention had started. It was, therefore, only natural that Israel would be active in the preparation and construction of the CCS from the day the negotiations started, and would contribute to the important and critical deliberation in Nairobi, Geneva and New York, and would eventually be one of the first nations to sign and ratify this important convention.

Israel has concluded, at the beginning of this year, a joint project with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, in which desertification risks in the Arava and Dead Sea Valleys have been jointly explored. Israel is also an active party in a joint project with the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia: the "Initiative to Combat Desertification in the Middle East." The role of Israel in this project is to provide regional support activities in the area of economic afforestation in drylands.

Finally, Israel is currently in the final stages of planning the International Center for Combating Desertification in Sde Boker, at the heart of its Negev desert. For the last twenty years, the Israel national institute for the study of desertsthe Blaustein Institute for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University of the Negevis active in Sde Boker This institute, designed to generate scientific research and technological advances for settling the drylands of Israel, and which nowadays spearheads the collaboration of Israel with its Middle Eastern neighbors in combating the sub-regional desertification, will constitute the core of the International Center for Combating Desertification, to be developed with a loan by the government of Germany.