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In honor of the 50th anniversary of Israeli settlement in the Arava desert, a one-day conference was held on Wednesday, 4th February at the Arava's Sapir Center in the framework of the annual Arava Open Day. The conference was organized by the Yair Northern & Central Arava Research & Development Station, which is funded by KKL-JNF worldwide and by government organizations. Yigal Elad, scientific director of the R&D station, invited speakers to address issues or challenges facing Arava residents today.
Development of Settlement and Agriculture in the Central Arava
"The wilderness and arid land shall be glad, the Arava shall rejoice and blossom like the tulip" (Isaiah 35:1). Amnon Navot presented a brief history of Arava desert settlement, focusing on how persistence and vision have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. "Fifty years ago, a professor of agriculture by the name of Yitzhak Arnon visited the Arava and concluded that it was impossible to settle this region or to farm it. During the first years of the state, there was an army presence in the area, and furthermore, malaria was a problem. In 1958, Shai Ben Eliyahu and Hagai Porat decided that they wanted to found a community at Ein Yahav in the Central Arava. The various government agencies refused to support them, demanding a letter of intent from someone official. So they went straight to Ben Gurion, who turned red with anger when he heard how they had been refused. He wrote them the letter and in 1959, ten families arrived at Ein Yahav.
"KKL-JNF prepared the land and they tried growing tomatoes. In 1962, KKL-JNF prepared another 250 acres for agriculture. The really big breakthrough came a few years later, when Simha Blatt, the "Herzl" of water research in Israel, invented drip irrigation, and harvest yields increased dramatically. Today, over 6,000 people live in the Arava and supply 60% of Israel's fresh vegetables and more for export. I think that the main thing one needs to live here is faith! In another fifty years, I believe the Arava will change even more than anyone today could envision in their wildest imagination."
Producing Food by Modern Agriculture for the Whole World - Global, National and Regional Challenges
Professor Eli Finerman and Dr. Arik Heilig began their talk by asking whether the world was capable of feeding seven billion people. "The answer is yes. The reason that five million children die of hunger every year is that there is an unequal distribution of food resources. For example, if Americans were to cut their meat consumption by 10%, worldwide malnutrition would drop by 10%. It takes five kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. The goal of modern agriculture is to provide humanity with healthy food in a manner that does not harm the environment.
"The high-tech revolution in agriculture has made it possible to maximize yields and to receive a very high return on capital investment. Israel has a unique advantage in terms of its agricultural know-how because it has moved from a "developing" country to a "developed" country. Agricultural markets are very dynamic these days. For instance, in 1993, flower exports were double those of vegetables but now the opposite is true. The Negev and the Arava have been declared top priority regions in terms of agriculture and it is important to remember that without agriculture, our homeland could not exist."
Water and Agriculture - Future Development
"There has not been such a severe deficit in our water reserves since 1932. There has never been so little water flowing into the Kinneret. Even if we were to stop pumping water this minute, the Kinneret's water level will still drop rather than rise - and the situation with the other aquifers is no better." Professor Uri Shani, the head of the Israel Water Authority, painted a very bleak picture of Israel's water economy: "I was in the north yesterday, and the farmers were very angry with me for cutting water allocations. Although 70% of Israel's sewage is recycled, thanks to the efforts of organizations like KKL-JNF, freshwater is used for agriculture, and this will have to stop.
"I am committed to agriculture. It is part of our way of life, along with parks and green vistas. This year we are experiencing a terrible drought so in the future we have no choice but to become less dependent on rainwater - which means more recycling and desalination plants. Water availability in the Arava has until now been dependent on recycling and harvesting floodwaters in KKL-JNF reservoirs. Water will determine to what degree the Arava will continue to prosper and to grow in the future. We are planning a larger desalination plant in Eilat and it is my hope that by the time I leave my job, work on this plant will already have begun."
New Advances in Greenhouse Technology
"Agriculture in the Arava has the advantages of climate and a high temperature in the winter - but mainly, of the people here, who are really a special species!" Dr. Menahem Dinar noted that when discussing agriculture, the factors that determine profitability are manpower, water, production costs and competition." Almost all Arava agriculture is in greenhouses, where water is used to greater advantage than in open areas. In Holland, for example, all water in greenhouses is recycled and there is no reason we shouldn't be doing the same in the Arava. 90% of the water is lost in the air but today there are ways to retrieve it.
"A further innovation that I recommend implementing in the Arava is transforming greenhouses into energy producing units. Today there are technologies that can store the heat of the day for use at night or transform it into electricity that can even be sold back to the electric company. The conditions of the Arava are suitable for adapting many of the recent inventions in greenhouse technologies, with the help of the R&D stations."
Genetic Engineering - Implications for Arava Agriculture
According to Professor Yedidya Gafni, "what once seemed like science fiction is today commonplace thanks to genetic engineering. There are over 250 million acres of farmland in the world today that are being engineered genetically, even though there is some controversy about it, particularly in Europe. It is really amazing to see what can be done with this technology. It is now possible to take the DNA of one plant and transfer it to another - but not simply from plant to plant. It is now also possible, for example, to isolate the gene that makes a particular insect light up at night and to implant it into a flower, which then becomes iridescent and an amazing new market attraction. The genes that make scorpion stings toxic can now be injected into plants thus making them resistant to pests and thus cutting the need for pesticides. Here, in Israel, farmers are growing crops that will provide insulin for diabetics.
"A vaccination against malaria has been successfully introduced into bananas in third world countries. One development that could be of special interest to Arava farmers are genetically engineered plants that signal when they are thirsty, causing a light to turn on, which sets a watering apparatus in motion, thereby saving water. There are also plants that are capable of drawing toxic substances out of the ground after wars. It seems that the only limit on what we can accomplish with genetic engineering is our own imagination, and judging by the results until now, some of our wildest fantasies can become reality."
Future Arava Development within the Negev Master Plan
"Developing the Negev is critical, both for Israel's future and also for realizing our own potential. Israel's central region has one of the highest rates of population density in the world, with a related concentration of the country's industry and strategic sites. This makes the central region an easy target for our enemies and a further problem in terms of sustainability. The future development of the Negev is not a luxury, but absolutely necessary." Haim Blumenblat of the Budgets for Development of Peripheral Regions Division spoke on what he considered realistic and was what unrealistic in terms of future Arava development. "The Negev theoretically holds Israel's greatest land reserves, but in practical terms, almost the entire region is either shooting ranges or nature reserves. Other than developing already existing urban centers, primarily Beersheba, most of the area available for development is along Highway No. 90, that is, the Arava.
"Some people think it would be a good idea to build new cities in the Arava. I am against it. I look at things in terms of their feasibility and the lack of water and harsh climatic conditions are not suitable for big cities. Small communities and villages as has been the case until now are the right blueprint for the future. At present, 85% of the income in the Central Arava is from agriculture. There needs to be greater diversification, for example, tourism, although agriculture will always remain the Arava's backbone. Renewable energy technologies are critical for this region.
"We must think about the future here, about attracting more people and about what is realistic and unrealistic. On considering how to prepare for the future of agriculture, I would say - R&D, R&D, and again R&D! Today you are selling tons of peppers, one day that market might disappear. Your R&D stations should be thinking ten years ahead. When you come to the government to ask for funding, I would recommend taking the approach that you represent a strong and productive sector of the population. And be willing to do your share, invest in research and development. In my opinion, that is what will guarantee your future."
Dr. Arik Heilig summed up life in the Arava: "I often host groups of researchers from abroad. I tell them, 'You are about to see the magic of the Arava.' After seeing what has been accomplished here, they couldn't agree more."
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