April 29, 2007, Updated September 19, 2012

Through planting trees in the Negev, the JNF has been able to reverse the process of desertification and cultivate forests in what had previously been barren desert.When Mark Twain visited Israel in 1867 he described it as a “desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse… we hardly saw a tree anywhere.”

“Making the desert bloom” has been a core component of the Zionist ethos throughout the decades and visitors to Israel in 2007 witness a landscape much changed over the 140 years since Twain’s sojourn. Today, what was once desert is now forest and where barren landscape once marred the horizon, flora and fauna now fill up the landscape thanks to the Jewish National Fund.

Globally, however, fertile soil is rapidly turning into desert. Desertification – the degradation of land and the expansion of desert – is a significant global environmental concern.

Caused by natural climate change and human action, desertification results in biodiversity loss and causes significant ecological damage.

Desert presently covers approximately 36 million square kilometers (22 million miles) of the earth’s surface area. It affects a combined population of 1.2 billion in more than 100 regions and has become a global problem looming over human subsistence and development.

In an attempt to combat the overall damage, scientists convened in Jerusalem this month to learn Israel’s techniques for making the desert recede.

The international conference – ‘Forests to Combat Desertification’ – was sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and the Agricultural Research Organization of Israel, The US Forest Service and two international consortiums of forest scientists.

Over 150 researchers and foresters from Israel, the United States, Spain, Hungary, France, Japan, Germany, and Australia held discussions, worked together and attended lectures in Jerusalem and the Negev to learn more techniques to combat desertification.

Aside from Israel, the only country succeeding in “shrinking the desert” is China.

“We’re not the only ones to [combat desertification] but we definitely are the ones who really started it much earlier than anyone else,” said Dr. Nir Atzmon of the Volcani Center and chair of the conference’s scientific committee.

Topics covered during the conference included: ‘Joint Efforts of Research and Demonstration in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands’; ‘Nursery Techniques and Forest Establishment in Arid Zones’; ‘Trees in Towns Improving the Quality of People’s Lives’; and ‘Livestock Grazing Management Tool vs. Desertification Agent’.

“We all agree that the main cause for desertification is human activity – the pressure on the land, the expansion of the population,” Atzmon told ISRAEL21c.

He explained that land abuse causes land degradation which leads to desertification. Due to human activity, land that used to be productive becomes barren. Consequently, expanding swathes of land are needed in order to produce agricultural yield or vegetation. Most desertification and forestry researchers are committed to the principle of sustainable development.

“We are trying to find ways that, on one hand, allow people to live and exist in this area but on the other hand don’t allow them to abuse the land,” said Atzmon.

Following lectures and practical classroom application, conference participants visited several reforestation sites in the arid Negev. On their journey from Jerusalem to the desert, the transformation from fertile farmland to dryland was apparent as soil and foliage grew sparse.

An hour into the ride, however, participants witnessed vast expanses of farmland and greenery. The guide told the group that prior to 1948, the area out had been dry desert. “Negev means desert,” he said, “but today this entire area is green.”

The secret to Israel’s success, Atzmon claims, is as it is with many other “success stories” in Israel: there is no alternative.

“We are a small country. We don’t have much land. We know that we must take very careful care of it because we don’t have anything else. This is what we have to live with so we should take very good care of it.”

In 1965, Joseph Weitz, then-director of land and forestry for the JNF, stood in the Negev looking out over surrounding desert and envisioned a vibrant forest. Those in his vicinity thought he was mad.

‘How can you build a forest here in the desert?’ he was asked. Today his vision is called Yatir Forest – Israel’s largest forest.

According to Professor Dan Yakir of the Weizman Institute of Science the Yatir is the driest and harshest forest in the world. But despite the challenges the Yatir is one of Israel’s most beautiful forests.

“This is aforestation, not reforestation,” Professor Uriel Safriel, a professor of ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told conference participants. “There has never been a forest here. There has never been a woody ecosystem.”

Because deserts lack water the question of water supply plays a key role in reversing the tide of desertification and harvesting agriculture in arid regions.

One of the major sources of water for the Negev is recycled wastewater piped in from Tel Aviv. Whereas many other countries pour reclaimed water into the sea, in Israel the water is used for agriculture and irrigation.

In addition to treated wastewater researchers are also using saline water from an underground reservoir for crop irrigation – although high level salt content makes it useable only for certain crops and plants. Flood water, diverted via a unique system of pumping and canals, is also used to water trees.

“The 21st century is going to be the water century for everyone in the world. Places have water shortages,” said conference participant Dr. Dan Neary, a researcher with the United States Forest Service in Arizona.

According to Atzmon Israel is a global leader in water harvesting and often sends experts abroad to teach others how to conserve and manage water. “Israel has a lot of a lot of experience which we can really teach many others,” he said.

Neary concurs, saying he has gained a great deal of knowledge from visiting Israel. “I’m just immensely impressed with your agriculture system, the way you’re utilizing the desert,” he told ISRAEL21c. “I mean, you have a small land area. We have a huge land area. I’m impressed with the conservation issues with your water – the use of different wastewater practices; we don’t tend to do that as much.”

“A lot of people in the US have read about Israel and its history but until you see it, you just don’t understand it,” he said.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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