The bright rays of the morning sun hits the dunes in the Negev, while in the distance the yellow and orange mountains are waking up to a new day. Close by, the lively desert communities are thriving, whereas a bit further away, the builders are constructing new homes, solar fields, a new state-of-the-art airport and upgraded water, electricity and road infrastructure. A new day in the Arava has begun.

Pumpkin field in the Arava. Photo: Samuel Willner
Pumpkin field in the Arava. Photo: Samuel Willner

In Israel, a major task is to settle the desert areas of the Negev and the Arava, while providing its residents high quality living, including affordable housing, adequate infrastructure and employment opportunities. In the region of Arava Valley in southern Israel, a major limitation to demographic development is the availability of affordable water resources, which in the regions of Israel’s north, has been tackled by building gigantic desalination plants. These new plants are there to serve the water needs of millions of Israelis.

A major breakthrough in water source development in southern Israel, on the other hand, was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in December 2013. According to this plan, the countries would develop their water resources together. When it materializes, the water agreement can trigger a major boost in demographic growth and economic development in the Arava and Eilat.

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Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) together with the Government of Israel have started to make plans on how to make the best out of the agreement for the benefit of the people of Israel.
Israel’s future competitive edge will greatly rely on its ability to nurture creativity and innovation. According to the plans, the Arava region could become a hub of international tourism, innovation, expertise, research and development - the ‘Sun Valley of Israel’ - a vision nurtured by  Udi Gat, the Mayor of Hevel Eilot regional council. 

Once on the periphery, Eilat and Hevel Eilot are currently striving to become a hub of renewable energy innovation. Nevertheless, renewable energy itself is not the answer but rather a piece of the entire puzzle. It all starts from the demographic development which allows the region to reach its full potential. Both Eli Lankri, the Deputy Mayor of Eilat, and Udi Gat emphasize the importance of promoting renewable energy and other high-tech initiatives in the region. In order for the city of Eilat to improve its demographic situation, the emphasis in the urban planning is to have more sources of employment outside tourism.

However, the limited water resources are a major challenge to the strategic development of Israel’s south. Currently the water in the Arava is drilled from deep aquifers, which is an expensive process, and limits the possibilities of bringing more water this way. If the proposed water project is implemented, it would “solve the water quality issues; it would be a revolution for agriculture. With more high quality water we can grow more dates, peppers, water melons; everything would be better,” says Udi Gat. With more high quality water more people could live in the region. For Eilat, additional water supply provided from Aqaba would be a great advantage.

Both the city of Eilat and the regional council of Hevel Eilot, just north of Eilat, have made strategic plans to encourage population growth, which require much more high quality water. The city of Eilat would have to double its annual water supply from the current of 14 MCM (million cubic meters) in order to reach its demographic goal of 150,000 residents by 2030. The water agreement, which would allow water to be transfered from Aqaba, would permit a great deal of new development in the next thirty years. The city has a plan to build multiple tourist attractions including a water park, a ski park, a golf course, and even casinos. All these development projects require increased water supply. The Hevel Eilot regional council aims to increase its population from the current level of 3,300 to 11,000 in the coming twenty years.

Eilat’s demographic development requires national plan to upgrade the entire southern region: turning its port into the ‘Southern Gate’ – a strategic land bridge of import and export – connecting Europe to Asia and Africa competing with the Suez Canal as a transport route. The entire ‘Southern Gate’ project is part of the government’s national development plan and it is set to be constructed within the next ten years. Eilat’s development is planned in three simultaneous stages: the first stage where the new ‘Southern Gate’ is constructed and where the new port is connected to the planned Eilat rail link, which is currently in advanced planning stage.
“We believe that the port itself would provide employment for at least 500-600 more people than what the current port is employing”, explains Eli Lankri.
Power station under construction in the Arava. Photo: Samuel Willner
Power station under construction in the Arava. Photo: Samuel Willner
 
“We need to become a place of high quality living. We need to be economically independent, and thus be a better place to live,”  Eli Lankri continued. However, one of the most important aspects is to have a comprehensive strategic plan that would take into account sustainable community development. In these demographic plans the government of Israel together with the local municipalities, businesses and KKL-JNF should emphasize the value of high-quality living, and long-term economic independence.

All these innovative projects will employ thousands of people by changing the demographic reality while increasing the competitive edge of the region. The future of the entire Arava looks bright. However, as Eli Lankri puts it, much of the future success of region depends on the geopolitical situation. “If it will be quiet and stable in the south, the future looks very bright. If the geopolitical situation is stable then we can make it, because we have immense development potential; not just in tourism but also in other fields; in fields we have not yet fully explored.”

This whole process is a positive cycle and will bring more prosperity. The desert will become green; full of life. It is like the dry riverbeds which after a spring rain will become flourishing, beautiful, and full of life -for native born Israelis, and for new and veteran immigrants, young and old - for the future of the entire Israel. This is where the KKL-JNF comes into the picture: With its long history of building the State of Israel, it can transform the demographic vision into reality. As Theodor Herzl once said in 1902, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

This blog posting is a summary of an article published in the KKL-JNF Karka (land) magazine 71/2015. The full article “Arava and Eilat: From Vision to Reality” can be read in both Hebrew and English.



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