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Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had a vision of making the desert bloom, and even moved to Sde Boker, where he died 33 years ago.
This week, the Beersheba university named in his honor is hosting the first major United Nations forum in Israel on desertification. And on Thursday, at the end of the four-day conference in Sde Boker, the Israeli delegation will propose that Israel serve as the international desert research center.
According to Prof. Alon Tal of Ben Gurion University's Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, desertification is an important issue because it currently affects some 400 million people around the world, and Israel can play a vital role in helping them.
"We are proposing that we anchor the desert research institute in Israel," Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "Israel has much to offer the international community on desertification, which is an international scourge, and developing countries look to us for leadership."
Tal acknowledged that although Israel had become known around the world for its advancements in combating desertification, there had been some criticism of the country's declining role in recent years.
"The world's top expert, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, called on Israel in a video link-up today to re-commit itself to being the world leader in the field," he said. "And indeed, Israel still commands a leading role in things like water conservation."
Among the participants from over 30 countries attending are delegates from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Dr. Khaled Nasser, a Jordanian expert, was invited to be a moderator.
"There is a nice delegation of Palestinians and Jordanian participants, most working in the field of research and water, but it is a little difficult right now because of the political turbulence to move forward," said Tal.
The UN General Assembly has declared 2006 the "International Year of Deserts and Desertification" and the conference is considering the effectiveness of initiatives employed to combat desertification.
Entitled "Deserts and Desertification: Challenges and Opportunities," the conference is being held under the auspices of the UN and the Jacob Blaustein Institute.
Holding the event in Israel acknowledged the country's leadership role in the international battle against desertification, Tal said.
Participants debated the viability of various ways to tackle desertification and the opportunities for ensuring quality of life and sustainable livelihoods in the drylands.
Whereas an estimated 344 million people live in deserts around the world, 1.765 billion inhabit non-desert drylands, and thus the challenge that exists is to "achieve expansion while avoiding development decisions that can lead to desertification."
Prof. Uriel Safriel from Israel's National UNCCD Focal Point, said desert drylands offer people the chance to "grab opportunities and be daring." One suggestion he offered was to "replace agriculture with aquaculture." Safriel argued that aquaculture industries, such as raising fish, are actually more water-efficient than activities like growing crops.
Whereas plants soak up water to grow, ironically fish hardly use any.
In addition, Safriel said, there is the possibility of ecotourism, as "most tourists are looking for pristine environments," and desert drylands are least likely to be spoilt due to their general unsuitability for development.
Topics discussed at the conference ranged from "traditional Indian knowledge to combat desertification" to the economic impact of climate change on Israeli agriculture.
Multinational cooperation was a focus of the discussion, with one participant noting that environmental problems such as desertification transcend borders and political disputes.
Israeli experts together with their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority have been working for 12 years on a program called the Regional Initiative for Dryland Management, initially launched at the Madrid peace conference. The project involves joint field trips, workshops, meetings and conferences.
The multilateral working group on the environment identified desertification as "the most significant environmental problem of the Middle East and North Africa region."
Efrat Duvdevani, director of the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, sparked some controversy when she said at the opening panel discussion on Monday that while "the development of the Negev represents the future," the situation of the local Beduin is "problematic." She promised 40 percent of the government's NIS 17 billion Negev development budget towards improving their socioeconomic situation.
Dr. Khalil Abu Rabia, representing the Beduin, was frustrated at what he saw as the government's inability to understand Beduin culture.
"The Israeli government's plan to transpose Beduin into modern cities has failed," he said. "The only solution is agricultural villages." Alizo Mayo, representing an Israeli NGO, said she thought the government plan was not sustainable.
"The idea of giving single family farms large patches of land defies the plan's ideal of not spreading out development," she said.
For many of the more than 200 delegates at the conference, the event marked their first time in Israel.
"The Negev reminds me of home, as it is very similar to the Namibian desert," said Bertus Kruger of Namibia. "I would absolutely come again and bring my family with."
An Indian delegate, Anandkumar Somassoundiravelou, said he found Israel "absolutely fantastic." "Israeli brains are the best brains in the world," he said.
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