WMC: Food Security & Renewable Energy in the Southern Arava

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 2:57 PM

“Solar energy has become the new industry of the local kibbutz communities.”

Day 3 of the KKL-JNF World Marketing Conference was devoted to special tours all over Israel where participants got a close look at a variety of KKL-JNF projects in different fields: populations at risk in central Israel, life on the border in the Gaza perimeter, multi-cultural co-existence in northern Israel, ecotourism and agriculture in the central Arava, and renewable energy and food security in the southern Arava.

WMC working group in the southern Arava. Photo: Yoav Devir

The different teams did not just go on excursions. They had work to do. They were asked to study the assorted projects, gather material in order to prepare marketing campaign presentations for the following day and gain practical experience as part of the conference. Who knows, maybe these campaigns will generate new initiatives and turn visions into reality, as in previous conferences.
“A trip to the Arava is always an amazing experience,” said Rafaele Sassun, President of KKL Italy, who took part in the tour of the southern Arava. “The desert inspires action, and the people who live here are the pioneers of today."

The Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport

The southern Arava team began their tour at the Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport, which KKL-JNF is helping to build near Timna. It is an international airport intended to replace the Eilat and Uvda airports, facilitating international and national flights, and is to serve as the arrival gate for southern Israel.

Samuel Willner, Udi Gat and Anat Gold at the Arava R&D center. Photo: Yoav Devir

The participants met Udi Gat, Mayor of the Eilot Regional Council, who said, “KKL-JNF and its friends worldwide are our main partners in developing the Arava. Thanks to this partnership we are developing agriculture; residential communities, tourism and renewable energies, and we are thereby drawing new residents to the region. We couldn’t do this without you.”

The airport is to include modern operations and support areas, and a spacious passenger terminal for 1.8 million passengers a year with high-quality service covering an area of 28,000 square meters. Plans include duty free shops, an energy center, parking lots and modern infrastructure for a new road system.
Southern Arava R&D

The group proceeded to the Southern Arava Research & Development station in the southern Arava in Yotvata, where they met Gigi Strum, the director of the R&D station. “Our aim is to develop desert agriculture that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable,” said Strum. “We don’t want to conquer the desert but to live alongside it and ensure that future generations will also be able to benefit from it.”

The extreme climate in the southern Arava constitutes a major constraint for agricultural development, with very high temperatures in the summer, scarce precipitation (15mm average annual rainfall), intense radiation, low humidity and brackish water for irrigation. The R&D station has the unique function of improving existing crops and developing new technologies and cultivars for desert agriculture, and it focuses on using water efficiently, increasing the profitability of existing crops, reducing the use of pesticides and developing new products and cultivars.

Garlic fields with water sensors. Photo: Yoav Devir

An important part of the R&D activity is aimed at improving food security in arid climates in other places in the world. “Our knowledge is serving many other countries that are trying to maintain agriculture in arid regions,” said Strum.

The R&D station is located in the heart of the cultivated fields of the local kibbutz communities, right on the border with Jordan. R&D scientists conduct many collaborative efforts with Jordanian scientists, and Israeli knowhow is also benefiting farmers on the other side of the border.

The visitors were taken on a tour of the site and were very impressed by the agricultural research being done in the fields of soil, water, orchards, flowers, vegetables, plant protection and agro techniques. Two of the special experiments being undertaken at the R&D are the irrigation of date palms with high-quality water in order to use less water and increase yields, and the cultivation of garlic using sensors that provide feedback in order to produce high-quality yields using minimum quantities of water.

With vegetables produced in the Arava R&D fields. Photo: Yoav Devir

“The main question in food security is how to produce a greater quantity of nutritious food with less input,” said Strum, “and the reduction in water used for irrigation can contribute significantly towards food security.”
“I’m amazed by what’s happening in the Arava,” said Sandra Fayerman from Canada, at the end of the tour. “Now I understand how Israel has become an international leader in desert agriculture.”
The Regional Center for Renewable Energy R&D

In the afternoon, the group visited the Regional Center for Renewable Energy next to Yotvata, which was founded with from the support of JNF USA and JNF Australia, as well as other contributors. The new building of the energy center is under construction at present and is expected to open in a few weeks. It is to include R&D laboratories and a visitor's center.

The building is being constructed on the basis of environmental principles. The doors are made of glass, in order to provide natural light and save electricity, and they are double glazed for insulation, in order to prevent heat and use less air conditioning. Solar panels will be producing electrical energy from sunlight and providing for most of the energy consumed at the center.

Inside new Energy Center, under construction. Photo: Yoav Devir

“The Arava is the silicon valley of solar energy,” said Udi Gat.
Dorit Banet, Director of Renewable Energy Initiatives in the Arava, said that the new center is expected to benefit the environment and the economy, create new employment opportunities and bring energy experts to the region.

“Solar energy has become the new industry of the local kibbutz communities,” said Banet. “There are 25 solar energy stations operating in the area at present, and additional stations are under construction.”

Samuel Willner from JNF Finland, who is completing his doctorate at Haifa University and residing in Kibbutz Ketura, is very interested in renewable energies. “The Arava lacks many resources, but one thing we have a lot of here is bright sunlight,” he said. “We have seen an Israeli initiative at close range that is benefiting the whole world. The challenges presented by the desert lead to innovation and creativity.”
Tourism, Ecology and Nature

The group’s next stop was Kibbutz Lotan, where they toured a playground constructed with recycled materials, an ecological residential neighborhood and an organic garden, and heard about methods for saving water, urban gardening and making organic tea at the teahouse.

They then proceeded to Kibbutz Ketura, which is inhabited by both native Israelis and new immigrants from all over the world. At the Center for Environmental Studies they heard about this unique learning center, where Israeli students, Arab students from different countries, and foreign students from all over the world, meet one another.

Energy center auditorium under construction (with the support of JNF Australia). Photo: Yoav Devir

At Ketura they are presently developing an ecological village, which is to present lo-tech technologies using alternative energies without electricity. These innovations will be useful for different places in the world where there is no access to conventional energy. Courses and seminars will be offered here in the field of renewable energy.

The fascinating day concluded in Timna Park, a site that was a copper mine in ancient times. Today it is an amazing nature site that offers hiking routes, cycling trails, boating on a lake, camel rides and desert style crafts and refreshments. It is a major tourist site in the Arava, drawing many visitors and contributing to the regional economy. Many of the projects at Timna Park were developed with support from Friends of KKL-JNF in the USA and in Germany, and KKL-JNF is involved at present in developing a new visitor's center here, as well as an amphitheater and a camping site.

“All day long we have been seeing many practical expressions of creativity in diverse fields of activity,” concluded Arther Shorr from the USA at the end of the day.

Tomatoes harvested in Arava fields. Photo: Yoav Devir