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Israel is fulfilling a unique role as a laboratory for combatting growing desertification, offering hope to countries around the world that a dire UN prediction of mass emigration from drylands and wars over scarce water resources may yet be avoided.
While 95 percent of Israel and some 40% of the Earth's land cover - home to more than two billion people - face desertification, including eroded soil, reduced biological productivity and less biodiversity, Israeli researchers have vowed not to stand idly by and watch the vast Negev desert spread to the coastal plains of the Mediterranean, said Nir Atzmon of the Volcani Center in Beit Dagan.
Moreover, as global temperatures increase, the north of Israel will also constitute a challenge, said Atzmon, since it will become drier, and some plant and animal species will be at greater risk of extinction.
Making efficient use of water conservation methods, including the now globally used drip irrigation system, improving soil conditions and synergistically planning communities and parklands were some of the ideas Atzmon and others shared at a recent "Forests to Combat Desertification" conference in Jerusalem, attended by scientists, foresters and government representatives from around the world.
Participants in the conference traveled to a Jewish National Fund nursery in Gilat, northwest of Beersheba, where they saw exotic species of trees, shrubs and plants from all over the world nurtured by JNF staff ahead of planting in the harsh desert environment.
The perfect Negev plant is resilient to droughts and requires little soil, and JNF staffers keep an eye out for those best suited to the environment. "Over here, every tree has to struggle for survival," said Elisha Mizrahi, Western Negev forest manager. "Foresters have a personal relationship with the trees - they are still nursing them in the field."
The trees get one-on-one attention from the foresters for the first two years, including protective sleeves to keep off hungry animals, said Mizrahi.
The largest effort to afforest the desert, and the pride of the JNF, can be found east of Beersheba, in the 30-square kilometer Yatir Forest, planted on the southern slopes of Mount Hebron in 1964.
In 2000, scientists installed a monitoring station deep in the forest, and they use it to analyze the trees' effects on radiation, humidity, temperature and carbon uptake, a critical function for preventing desert expansion. Results show the forest consumes as much carbon dioxide as forests in much wetter regions of Europe, and also plays a part in trapping radiation.
Yatir's success is especially remarkable considering its dry conditions, said Uriel Safriel, professor of ecology at the Hebrew University, noting that a project of this scale was unlikely to recur because of the enormous effort it took to plant the forest.
Today, instead of taking on massive projects, foresters are focusing on conserving soil and fostering existing trees and vegetation in the northern border of the Negev.
In the region's Wadi Assaf, for example, much is done to protect gullies, which act as natural gutters to collect scarce rain water and deposit fertile soil for resilient desert plant life. The JNF is working to maximize these natural functions, using techniques to prevent or at least hinder erosion by creating gentler slopes, enabling vegetation which conserves the soil.
Work on the gullies is complemented by efforts to curb wildfires, while the landscape is speckled with eucalyptus, cypress and Aleppo pine trees planted 16 years ago.
The fate of the Negev flora boils down to one thing, however: water. While most modern countries dump their recycled sewage water into the sea, Israel transports it from the Tel Aviv area to the northern Negev, said Yosef Mizrahi, head of the Institute for Agriculture and Applied Biology at Ben-Gurion University.
All of the western Negev relies on this recycled sewage water, which is treated in Rishon Lezion and pumped through red pipes into Negev fields. "This water is the source of water for all agriculture,' said Mizrahi, "and is good quality."
Israel currently uses 250 million cubic meters of recycled water, but hopes to up that number to 450 million.
Israel also looks to its own natural reserves for water. A salty spring has been discovered in a reservoir as deep as 1,000 meters below ground, extending as far as Saudi Arabia. This brackish water, along with its saltier counterpart, ocean water, is used in limited quantities in the Negev for fish farming and to grow hearty crops like melons, flowers and olives. Part of the JNF's work includes finding just those species resilient enough to use brackish and salt water, and the limited amounts of soil necessary to thrive in the Negev.
Although rain in the area is scarce, rarely exceeding 200 millimeters a year, farmers and foresters do their best to use it wisely. In places like the Besor riverbed, rainwater that would normally flood a 3,500-square kilometer area is pumped into fields using a state of the art reservoir system. Sensors in the reservoir detect when there's an excess of water and pump it to nearby fields.
Visiting participants from the Jerusalem conference left the Negev saying they were impressed by the "blooming" of the desert, which offered hope in the uphill battle against worsening arid conditions elsewhere.
"The JNF has really invested in preventive measures against wildfires and desertification especially," said Dr. Dan Neary of the US Forest Service, who is leading a project to collect data from regions which are similar in Israel, Spain, and Arizona.
The work done in Israel, particularly the use of satellites to scan the Earth every two weeks to see how much land cover is being lost to erosion, he said, could be applied to all arid areas.