Borderline Views: Saving the world’s drylands

Israeli expertise pushes political conflict aside, as experts from all over travel to the Negev to learn.

November 8, 2010 22:06
4 minute read.
Borderline Views: Saving the world’s drylands

desert. (photo credit: DR)

Conference season has come to the South.

This week and next, major conferences will take place in Sderot, Sde Boker and Eilat – the sort of places normally missed in favor of Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

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Two major conferences will be taking place this week. One, focusing on Drylands, Deserts and Desertification, is being held at the Sde Boker campus of Ben-Gurion University, and will be hosting hundreds of leading international scholars who will be coming to a leading center of research in this important field.

The other will be the annual Sderot conference, hosting hundreds of Israelis from the public and governmental sectors who will come for only a few hours to focus on social issues. Unlike the Drylands conference, the Sderot gathering is an internal affair – one of a host of so-called policy-making conferences which have sprung up in recent years as the poorer sister of the Herzliya conference on national security, and which includes public addresses by both the prime minister and president, held every January. To this can now be added the Caesarea annual economic conference and the Jerusalem conference on defining national agendas. But these are largely public-relations stunts; the same public figures will be attending all of them in what is fast becoming an annual circuit of short, superficial presentations and long cocktails – places to be seen, but which will have no lasting impact.

Given the political and social situation in Sderot, the funding being poured into the Sderot festival by a large group of NGOs and other public institutions (each of which sponsors a particular session or event) could have been put to better use bolstering social services there, or in other development towns, eradicating some of the poverty and inequality to which this conference is supposed to be dedicated.

And next week will see a three-day meeting of the annual Media and Journalism conference in Eilat, at which most of the country’s journalists and broadcasters will again mingle with public figures who will fly or drive down to discuss the status of the world’s media. Organized by the Tel Aviv Journalists Association in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University, some 1,500 participants will discuss the uncertain future of the news industry in a rapidly changing technological environment.

Of the three, the most significant in scientific terms is the deserts and drylands conference. It is to the credit of the organizers that, despite the poor international image of Israel at the moment and the continued attempts to implement an academic boycott, more than 500 people from 50 countries are expected to participate.

The conference is jointly organized by the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University, in cooperation with UNESCO. The event will be held in the presence of Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

ISRAEL IS recognized worldwide as a leader in protecting drylands from further deterioration.

The diverse range of topics to be covered has huge relevance to other arid zones in the world’s poorest and most remote regions, and will include sustainable building in desert environments, remote sensing, grazing among desert tribal communities such as the Beduin, restoration of the Dead Sea, environmental education, dryland agriculture and the interface between ecological and health sciences.

Combatting aridity is of major worldwide concern. In an era of global warming, increasing numbers of people are having to struggle for basic subsistence in large parts of Africa and Asia. These issues have been raised at major conventions in recent years, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention to Protect Biodiversity and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

This is an area in which Israeli expertise pushes political conflict aside, as experts from all over travel to the Negev to learn and to bring ideas back to their own countries.

It is, however, strange that despite the country’s skill in exporting its ecological expertise, internally we do not always put our knowledge into practice. We continue to overuse our depleting water resources, destroy the remaining sand dunes, plant the wrong kind of trees in desert conditions, and generally treat our fickle environment in such a way that the ecological balance is getting worse rather than better. It is true that Israel has one of the most efficient water usage systems in the world (drip irrigation was invented here), but a lot remains to be done before we put into practice the lessons we will be showing our international visitors this week.

Sde Boker is mostly associated with David Ben-Gurion. Tourists and visitors are usually brought here for a quick visit to the Ben-Gurion grave site overlooking the impressive Ramon Crater, and the museum which has been created in the hut where he lived. Many are unaware that a few meters away is one of the world’s leading centers for desert research, and that it hosts people from countries and foreign governments seeking to learn from the rich work going on here.

It seems somehow appropriate that the conference is taking place just a few days before Ben-Gurion Day on November 14, as though the specter of the nation’s father figure can conjure up the image of a country which, at least in some areas, continues to be a beacon to poorer and less fortunate regions.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben- Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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