International Conference in Sde Boker: Combating Desertification Together

Thursday, November 20, 2014 4:59 PM

The 5th International Conference on Arid Regions, Deserts and Desertification.

The 5th International Conference on Arid Regions, Deserts and Desertification opened on November 18th on a Tuesday morning at the Sde Boker campus of Ben Gurion University. The theme of this year's conference is Healthy Lands, Healthy People.

Left: KKL-JNF's Dr. David Brand. Right: Audience. Photos: Y. Devir

Desertification: A Holistic Issue

View from Sde Boker. Photo: Yoav Devir

Desertification is a phenomenon in which arid regions become unproductive and useless for humankind. Scientists agree that the reduction in the fertility of the soil is influenced by a combination of soil preservation policies, management of water and energy systems, agricultural practices, global warming and climate change.

Over 500 people from 60 countries are attending the conference this year, including research scientists, representatives of government ministries, industrialists, NGO executives, diplomats and students. Among the main topics being addressed at the conference are: desert afforestation, sustainable agriculture, economic development for rehabilitating arid regions, forestry and grazing in arid areas, public health in deserts, rehabilitating ecosystems, rehabilitating water systems, soil rehabilitation and environmental education. In addition to presentations, workshops and discussion forums, field excursions have also been scheduled.

KKL-JNF is involved in many of the above enterprises and has earned international acclaim for the knowledge it has acquired in the fields of combating desertification; such as afforestation of arid regions, water source development, agricultural development and residential development. KKL-JNF shares its accrued knowledge with neighboring countries in the Middle East and other countries in the world, some of them in Africa and Asia.

A special forum at the conference dedicated to afforestation of arid regions was led by KKL-JNF.

Prof. Alon Tal. Photo: Yoav Devir

The opening greetings at the conference were presented by Prof. Alon Tal from Ben Gurion University, who serves on the KKL-JNF board of directors and is a member of the conference organization committee, who said, “Desertification is a holistic issue that requires holistic solutions. We believe there are solutions for the problem of desertification, but we are aware that we are still in the midst of experimentation as far as treating it.”

Prof. Rivka Carmi, President of Ben Gurion University, said that the aim of the conference was to introduce people from all over the world to one another to brainstorm and collaborate in searching for new ways to deal with the phenomenon of desertification.

The Italian Ambassador to Israel, HE Francesco Maria Talò, said that the goal of the conference was to listen, learn and network. “Agriculture is not a thing of the past but a key to the future. We must guarantee food security in the quantity and quality of food,” said Talò.

Special Advisor to the UN on combating desertification, Sergio Zelaya, said that one of our main challenges is how to feed the world’s increasing population. “The competition for landholding is growing, and climate changes are requiring agricultural adjustments,” stressed Zelaya.

Prof. Colin MacDougall. Photo: Yoav Devir

The first lecture was presented by Prof. Colin MacDougall from Flinders University, Australia, who specializes in health policies and the effects of climate changes on health issues. He noted several major points in the field of public health and the effects of climate change on health issues. He said that some of the main points related to public health are: infrastructures, social support, disease prevention, health promotion and preservation of the ecosystem.

“We want a nice place to live, so we have to live in harmony with the environment, taking global responsibility,” said Prof. MacDougall. “If we wish to reduce gaps in health, it is not enough for scientists to discuss things with one another. We have to have a dialogue with the public at large.”

Afforestation of the Desert

Later on during the conference there were parallel sessions, one of them a KKL-JNF session on the topic of afforestation of arid regions, chaired by Dr. David Brand, Director of the KKL-JNF Forestry Division. Other sessions dealt with topics such as efficiency in energy utilization, environmental education, agro-ecology, public health and long distance sensing for monitoring desertification processes.

Susan Braatz. Photo: Yoav Devir

Brand opened the session with a short video showing the work of KKL-JNF towards creating a better and greener future. Afterwards, Susan Braatz, from the US Forest Service spoke about the importance of forests in arid regions for assisting in nutrition support, biodiversity preservation and positive influence on climate change, among other things.

“It is important to share information on what is happening in different countries regarding the afforestation of arid regions and sustainable development,” stressed Braatz. “We have to gather data, analyze it and develop guiding lines for the rehabilitation of forests in arid regions. We must look beyond the borders of the forest and understand the mutual effects between the forest and other areas,” she concluded.

Patrick Kariuki. Photo: Yoav Devir

Deputy Director of the Forest Authority in Kenya Patrick Kariuki presented the efforts in afforestation and combating desertification t in his country. Among the causes of desertification in Kenya are: unsustainable agriculture, inordinate use of wood, excessive grazing and wildfires.

“We are educating the farmers to switch to sustainable agriculture, developing methods for harvesting water and collaborating with international organizations for combating desertification,” said Kariuki.

Dr. Orna Reisman-Berman from Ben Gurion University said that it was customary, in the past, to search all over the world for tree species resistant to aridity, whereas the contemporary approach emphasizes indigenous species. She described research about whether the Pistacia Atlantica is suitable for afforestation of arid areas in Israel. The study examined various populations of this tree and discovered that trees from southern Israel displayed higher resistance to drought. She concluded with a recommendation for foresters. “Choose the population of trees that is suitable for the conditions in the areas you wish to plant trees.”

Dr. Rakefet David-Schwartz from the ARO Volcani Center spoke about the connection between resistance to drought, hydraulic parameters and anatomic characteristics of the Aleppo Pine. “Planting trees in the desert seemed like a crazy idea,” she said, “but KKL-JNF started planting Yatir Forest notwithstanding. The vision proved itself, and Yatir Forest became the largest planted forest in Israel.”

Excursions in the Field

Interior of David Ben Gurion's cabin. Photo: Yoav Devir

After the sessions, there were short tours of the vicinity: a visit to the home of Ben Gurion in Kibbutz Sde Boker, stone sculpture in the Negev, ancient Nabatean agriculture in Avdat, a tour to become acquainted with Bedouin culture and tradition, and a hike in the Karkash streambed.

Conference participants who chose to visit the cabin of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, were impressed by the life story of a man who transformed a personal ideal into leadership capabilities. The site, which has been developed with the participation of KKL-JNF, features letters, documents and various exhibits connected to Ben Gurion's life and work. In the heart of the cabin is Ben Gurion's office and part of his library.

The site offers educational presentations on the subject of Ben Gurion and his vision for the development of the Negev. In the courtyard there are activities to choose from: a topographical map, a sand map of the Negev, and a matching game with ropes.

Drip Irrigation: Using Every Drop

Dr. Alon Ben-Gal. Photo: Yoav Devir

Later in the day there were more parallel sessions, one of them on the subject of drip irrigation, [a method modernized by Israel] a field in which Israel is considered a world leader. Dr. Alon Ben-Gal from the Israel Agricultural Research Organization said that drip irrigation could play a significant role in solving the problem of desertification. The question of “why it is not happening as fast as we thought it would” was raised by Dr. Ben-Gal for discussion.

Prof. Ram Fishman from George Washington University, USA, said that the increasing scarcity of water, and the need for more food, underscores the importance of efficient use of every drop of water. “Nevertheless, in many developing countries, the use of drip irrigation has not yet become widespread,” he said.

He presented India as an example, where irrigation in most areas is still done by flooding the fields, even though the government gives farmers subsidies if they implement drip irrigation. In the Gujarat Province, however, there has been impressive success, with hundreds of thousands of farmers who have adopted drip irrigation, but unfortunately it is the smallest and poorest of the farmers who have not yet implemented this method.

Dr. Roshitashu Kumar. Photo: Yoav Devir

Dr. Roshitashu Kumar from India spoke about efficient use of water for irrigation and said that there are many farms in the Kashmir region where small facilities for storing rainwater have been constructed, and he noted that it is possible to save up to 80% of the quantity of water used via drip irrigation, depending on the type of crop.

Dr. Adam Abramson from San Diego University spoke about the use of drip irrigation in developed countries, compared to developing countries, and spoke about his experience in Zambia and Zimbabwe, Africa. “In developed countries,” he said, “the main goals of drip irrigation are saving water, increasing yields and economic efficiency, whereas in developing countries there are other considerations, for example whether money should be invested in drip irrigation or should we continue working hard and drawing water in a pail from the well.”

Tammy Erann-Soussan spoke about the Papsen program, a joint venture of Italy, Israel and Senegal for training farmers in Senegal. “Technological initiatives are a tool for promoting poor populations,” she said. “The farmers in Senegal are required to adopt more advanced agricultural methods, such as irrigation methods and selection of profitable crops. Our aim is to help farmers become entrepreneurs,” she said.

Climate Change

Yeshayahu Bar-Or. Photo: Yoav Devir

The whole world is dealing with climate change and its ramifications, and a session on this topic was chaired by environmental consultant Yeshayahu Bar-Or. “This topic is especially relevant in Israel, which is very sensitive to climate change,” said Bar-Or.

Dr. Hanan Ginat from the Dead Sea and Arava Research Center focused on irregular precipitation in the southern Arava. He said that in the last few years there has been an increase in summer temperatures and a decrease in winter temperatures.  There have also been more extreme rainfall events with large quantities of precipitation, after many years of drought.

Prof. Sharon Megdal from the University of Arizona, USA, spoke about the connection between climate change and aquifer management. She said that in Arizona there has been a drought for the last fifteen years, which has dictated the manner of water interface management. Scientists are trying to build models for predicting how climate changes will affect the water system in the future.

Dr. Vijay Kumar from the Desert Ecology Research Institute in Gujarat, India, spoke about the uncertainty caused in arid areas by climate changes. “These changes have harmed agriculture and grazing areas for livestock,” said Dr. Kumar. The government is trying to deal with the effects by developing water sources, new irrigation systems and adjusting agricultural branches to the changing conditions.

Dr. Martin Baumgart. Photo: Yoav Devir

Dr. Martin Baumgart from Germany presented a project for restoring the fertility of agricultural lands in Burkina Faso, which is being funded by the German government. He explained that due to a dearth of income sources other than agriculture, there has been excessive use of land for agricultural purposes resulting in decreasing productivity of the soil. “Our goal is to work together with the community in order to help adjust the water management and the agricultural methods,” said Dr. Baumgart.

The first day of the conference ended with a poster exhibition by students conducting diverse research studies related to the desert, such as rehabilitating ecosystems, environmental conditions in urban areas, the importance of dew for desert flora and the effects of climatic conditions on water scarcity.

During the four days of the conference, participants will continue to attend lectures and discuss ways to cope with desertification. One can only hope that the joint work of academics, decision makers and representatives of organizations from different countries will enable us to meet the challenges of the future.