Australian ambassador to Israel amazed at development of the Arava

At a special tour to the Arava, Ambassador James Larsen praises the long-term vision, personal involvement and clever water management

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January 26, 2009 15:00
Australian ambassador to Israel amazed at development of the Arava

arava water reservoir. (photo credit: Courtesy)

At first glance a trip through the Arava appears to be nothing more than a monotonous drive through a dry, yellow desert landscape. That first impression is deceiving. South of Ein Yahav the landscape changes to the greens, blues, and browns of the agricultural communities and water reservoirs built by KKL-JNF along the entire length and breadth of the Central Arava. We joined an excursion to the Negev and the Arava that KKL-JNF conducted for James Larsen, the Australian Ambassador to Israel. We began the tour at the Faran Lookout point where KKL-JNF has built a terrace overlooking Moshav Faran located at the broad Nahal Faran riverbed. A recognition center has been established at the lookout point in honor of friends of KKL-JNF from Holland, Canada, Mexico, and the United States that KKL-JNF has invested their generous contributions in the development of the communities of the Arava -from preparing the ground to the construction of water reservoirs that enable unique agriculture in the area. The head of the Arava Regional Council, Ezra Rabins, explained the complexity of agriculture in the Arava to the Australian ambassador, and presented his vision of doubling the population in the area. "Our vision is to develop the Arava and its population while emphasizing the preservation of the area's unique character and its untouched native landscape and desert expanses. We believe that we can attain a rate of demographic growth of 10% each year." James Larsen, the Australian ambassador to Israel, wondered how people are able to make a respectable living from agriculture in the region, and compared their situation with that of farmers in Australia who must cope with the same problems faced by farmers in the Arava: little water and a sparse population in an arid region. The ambassador was amazed at the panorama visible from the lookout point. "As a first-time visitor to the area, I look around at the rocky, dry landscape and ask: 'How have people succeeded in developing and making a living in such a place?' There is a long-term vision here, and hard work was needed here to find the way to develop this area in the future. It's astounding how impressive it is." "Water and the desert are a winning combination," answered Ezra Rabins. "That's the secret of success of the Central Arava settlements, which have learned to develop advanced agriculture and unique ecological tourism." Settlers in the Arava understood that the desert is a Garden of Eden for growing vegetables and delicacies. The extreme heat and sunlight throughout the year make vegetables ripen early and the early-ripening produce can be marketed throughout the world in the middle of the winter. The area is relatively free of pests and diseases because of the dryness and isolation from agricultural areas in the center of the country. The network of KKL-JNF water reservoirs and research performed in the research and development stations in the Arava allow crops to be grown in this dry region. This is how farmers in the central Arava attained tremendous yields of twenty tons of tomatoes per dunam (quarter acre) and eight tones of cucumbers per dunam - twice the yield obtained in the center of the country. Today there is an amazing variety of crops grown in the central Arava, including peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, many varieties of flowers, cantaloupes, watermelons, grapes, dates, mangoes, and many other crops. The central Arava functions as the largest vegetable storehouse in Israel and a large portion of the crops are designated for export and are highly profitable. Today the central Arava serves as an important international center for developing desert agriculture, and its farmers have gained expertise. International experts - including those from Australia - have been coming here for years to learn about the wonders that are taking place here.    Water in the Desert: "I will make a lake of water in the desert." (Isaiah, Chapter 41) The central and northern Arava contain no permanent sources of water, and the few wells that exist here yield little water. The KKL-JNF, with the help of its friends worldwide embarked on a huge project to provide water for the settlements of the Arava. Dams were built on the rivers of the Arava: the Eshet in the Hayun River, the Nikrot Reservoir, the Hatzeva Reservoir, the Idan Reservoir, and the Neot HaKikar Reservoir. Some of the floodwaters are trapped by the large dams, and the water penetrates into the underground reservoirs from which the Mekorot Water Company draws water for the local communities. We visited the Eshet Reservoir in the central Arava that was built by KKL-JNF as part of the network of 202 reservoirs scattered throughout the country to help solve the problem of the water crisis in Israel. The purpose of this reservoir is mainly to enrich groundwater. Not far from it there is the Hatzeva Reservoir located approximately 600 meters east of the Peace Road. The reservoir accumulates floodwaters that are used to irrigate the fields of Moshav Hatzeva. The water is also used to dilute saltwater that is pumped from wells drilled in the area. If the reservoir is full, the excess water continues to flow downhill into two additional reservoirs - the Idan and the Neot Tmarim Reservoirs overlooking the fields of Kikar Sdom. The three reservoirs also provide water for enriching groundwater. Ambassador Larsen planted a tree at the Iden Reservoir against the backdrop of the desert landscape and noted that Australia and Israel have a great deal of understanding, cooperation, and empathy towards the problems that they must cope with in the desert - particularly those of water management and developing new sources of water. Shalom Norman, representative of KKL-JNF Australia in Israel, noted that the visit of Australian ambassador Larsen in the Arava took place in light of the large influence of KKL-JNF activities in Australia, mainly those having to do with water. This issue is very significant today in Australia and the State of Israel has much to contribute to Australians from the aspect of accumulated knowledge. Ecological Tourism In the community of Zukim in a quiet and isolated area in the Arava we met Gil Slavin, head of the local projects. Gil showed us the ecological tourism project that has been built at the site. The project is a private initiative of the local residents, and consists of vacation cabins built from straw and mud. Meals are served around a campfire and tea is prepared from locally grown herbs. The site also offers desert excursions and workshops in crafts using earth such as preparing furniture from mud. The project is built and operated according to the ecological concept that is characteristic of the lifestyle of the residents of Moshav Zukim. People can learn how to build ecological vacation lodgings from straw and mud and how to use ecological systems that fit in with nature and preserve the landscape. Park Sapir: "What makes the desert beautiful…is that somewhere, it hides a fresh water source" (From "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) Park Sapir - also known as "The Hidden Valley" - extends over an area of 150 dunams. There is a beautiful lake in the center of the park whose water drains into a topographical depression. When the foundations for the settlement of Merkaz Sapir were dug, ground water was discovered that needed to be drained. The solution that was found was to drain the water into a depression, create a lake and "oasis" around it for the enjoyment of the local residents and the many visitors to Eilat and the Arava. KKL-JNF added lawns, trees, and garden plants to the natural desert vegetation, as well as leisure facilities in natural surroundings, ecological restrooms, a playground, and picnic tables that are accessible for disabled. The park also has a Thai-style hut that was brought to Israel especially for the park. A special corner was built for children as a representation of the story of "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with baobab trees and a small airplane. To the left of the entrance to the park is a cultural site known as "Life in the Desert" - an ecological initiative that was built by the Youth and Cultural Center Company in cooperation with KKL-JNF, the Central Arava Regional Council and the Government Tourism Authority. The living spirit of the initiative is a sculpture group called "Women in the Desert", by artists and students from the Shittim School. They created a short circular path along which they placed sculptures that express the spirit of the desert and life in the wilderness, including Bedouin couple preparing coffee and statues of desert animals such as an owl, a jerboa, a wolf, and a caracal. The objective of the initiative, which was dedicated in June of 2002, is to draw the public closer to art and to familiarize visitors with the landscape, fauna, and flora of the Arava, and to present the cultural history of the desert communities. An area in the park with palm trees that is known as the "Dikliya" was planted with help of friends of KKL-JNF Australia. The "Adopt an Acacia Tree" Project One of the other wonders in the Arava that we encountered on our excursion with Ambassador Larsen is the "Tree for Every Resident" - a project shared by the regional council and KKL-JNF for returning acacia trees to the Arava. Settlement and development, pumping ground water, and decreased rainfall have resulted in the death of a significant number of acacia trees. The program is needs funding for a gardener/guide who will teach children in the Arava about how to find seeds and germinate them so that saplings can be planted in the area on the edges of fields and other locations. The gardener will also care for the trees after they are planted and keep track of their growth. There has been an overwhelming response by farmers and residents who are interested in adopting several new trees as well as existing trees that are in need of rehabilitation. Peace Road and Lookout Point The Peace Road is an amazing road for vehicles that extends along the border between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Ambassador Larsen and the group enjoyed the sight of the fields of the moshavim of Idan, Hatzeva, and Ein Yahav, the lookout point overlooking Nahal HaArava, the mountains of Edom, and the water reservoirs that irrigate the fields of the Arava. The border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan was first drawn during the British Mandate (1922). In the section of the border where the Peace road runs the line runs through the center of Nahal HaArava. When the peace agreement with Jordan was signed in 1994 it became apparent that some of the fields of Hatzeva and Idan were on the other side of Nahal Arava. However, when peace is the objective nothing stands in the way. The Jordanians received alterative plots of land in exchange for the fields belonging to the Israeli communities that remained in Israeli hands. At the Shalom Lookout KKL-JNF built a terrace that blends into the landscape and the group paused to admire the magnificent view of Nahal HaArava and the mountains of Edom. The Yair Research and Development Station Ben Gurion's dream has been fulfilled at the Yair Central Arava Research and Development Station with the help of KKL-JNF friends worldwide. The soil of the desert yields colorful and flavorful fruits and vegetables that have won international acclaim thanks to research that is conducted here. What has made this miracle possible? Ambassador Larsen received answers to that question during a tour of the Yair R&D Station. Elon Gadiel, head of R&D conducted us on a tour among hothouses filled with brightly-colored orange, red, green and eggplant-colored peppers. Tiny peppers, as well as elongated and round ones, grow in the closed hothouses, protected from insects and pests. There are 2,500 dunams of organic farmland in the Arava that are free of insecticides. The hothouses are referred to as "growing houses." The sight is amazing and the produce has an authentic, home-grown taste. The center also has pools for breeding tropical fish. Each year during January the station is open to the general public for a day. The "open day" that includes an agricultural exhibit, exhibitions of research in vegetable cultivation, flowers, delicacies, the hatchery, recycling, and saving water, and biological control. There is also a colorful farmers' market where visitors can purchase arts and crafts made by local residents and food products made by local producers. One of the objectives of the center is to attract the younger generation back to the Arava. Young people who return with academic degrees and professions and who integrate themselves into agricultural research are those who will make breakthroughs in the various branches and crops and will introduce new ideas. Accelerated research and development is needed to expand communities and absorb new residents. Emphasis needs to be placed upon preserving nature in the Arava region and retaining its natural landscapes that are one of the greatest treasures of the area. This needs to be done through properly combining the factors of agriculture and tourism. At the end of the day after an impressive and exciting tour of the expanses of the Arava, the Australian ambassador summarized his impressions of the region. "My visit to the Arava was amazing and left me deeply impressed. It is amazing to see how a small population is coping so successfully with the challenging difficulties posed by lack of water. I was impressed with the energy, the vision, and the personal involvement of the people in developing and advancing the area." For more information, please visit our website at www.kkl.org.il/eng or e-mail ahuvab@kkl.org.il Sponsored content


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