|Political discussions about the Israel and its future
negotiated borders often focus on the Green Line, the historical border
Israel and Jordan that defines the region known in political terms
as the West Bank and in Biblical terms as Judea and Samaria. The actual
border follows the 1949 armistice line that, the story goes, was originally
drawn on a map by someone using a green pen. But modern satellite images
of the Middle East show that there is a second Green Line, one that
has etched itself into the topography in such a way that it can be
seen in aerial photographs of the region.
This Green Line shows up in contrasts: dark green areas in Israel
where sophisticated environmental programs in forestation, desalination
and dryland agriculture have succeeded in rehabilitating semi-arid
lands that stand in stark contrast to the dark, dry areas of the
West Bank. An even sharper line can be seen along the border between
Egypt and Israel that runs between the Sinai and Negev deserts. Politicians
can negotiate borders and lines of demarcation, but there is complete
agreement that this physically observable Green Line is the result
of Israeli innovation in the field of desert studies
Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, exhorted
his people to use science and technology to “make the desert
bloom.” The early Zionists were heavily influenced by the scientific
movements of the time and saw a clear line between technological
developments and the rebirth of the Jewish State. The goal was to
physically rehabilitate the region, devastated by Ottoman land policies
and centuries of subsistence farming, while maximizing its limited
resources. Necessity and limited resources turned Israel into world-leaders
in fields such as drip-irrigation, dryland agriculture, solar energy
Israel's success is particularly noteworthy given the global situation.
According to the United Nations Convention
to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), "Over 250 million people are directly affected by desertification.
In addition, some one thousand million (or one billion) people in
over one hundred countries are at risk. These people include many
of the world's poorest, most marginalized, and politically weak citizens."
In November 2006 the UNCCD recognized Israel's leadership role in
the field by supporting an international conference dedicated to "Deserts
and Desertification: Challenges and Opportunities." Close to
300 people from over 30 countries came to the Jacob Blaustein Institutes
for Desert Research (BIDR) on the Sede Boqer campus of Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev (BGU) to see first-hand what Israel has done
in and around the Negev desert. They came looking for methods of
research and applied technologies that might work in their own countries.
The choice of location was not accidental. Much of Israel's dryland
environmental research is taking place at BGU, located at in the
heart of the desert. Researchers benefit from the secrets of water
harvesting and of ancient agricultural techniques as revealed by
nearby archeological sites. Part of the famed "spice route," the
Negev was at the heart of the Nabatean-Roman-Byzantine continuum.
At the time, the region included an agricultural network of terraces,
orchards and groves, the produce of which included wheat and barley,
olives and oil, dates and figs, grapes and wine -- all supported
by complex runoff water collection and storage systems. Papyri found
in the ancient city of Nessana includes detailed information on agricultural
produce, water collection rights and other insightful details of
everyday life during this period. Applying carbon dating methods
to archaeological sites has provided insight to into ancient disasters.
This knowledge, combined with modern day observations, has been used
to create policy-oriented studies for drought management in pastoral
societies around the developing world.
In a fragile desert ecosystem, the wrong policies can result in
land degradation and famine. Israeli researchers are using sophisticated
theoretical-mathematical platforms to address environmental questions
relating to biodiversity, which allows them to go beyond limited
empirical studies. Mathematical modeling allows them to isolate trends
and provide insights into the underlying processes that are effecting
the environment. Understanding these mechanisms is necessary for
establishing land management practices for the prevention of land
degradation or for the recovery of degraded areas.
In a region where almost all water sources are transboundary – from
Lebanon and Syria to the North; Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the East
and Sinai and Gaza in the South – joint research and technical
cooperation in water resource management has continued on despite
the difficulties inherent in the current political situation. Behind
the scenes, often through joint projects with foreign universities,
Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are working together to protect
the precious water resources.
Deserts are defined by their lack of moisture and water, but many
of the world's semi-arid regions have access to brackish water which
can be treated and used for a variety of purposes. A unique use of "good
bacteria" has created green technologies for industrial and
chemical cleanup. At the same time, researchers have developed protocols
that allow for multiple users of the same water, hence reducing the
ultimate costs of pumping, desalination and treatment.
Israel has been a world-leader in desalination, with almost 80% of
Eilat's, the country's southern-most city, produced by desalinization.
The new reverse osmosis desalinization plant in Ashkelon – the
largest plant of its kind in the world – demonstrates that
water can be produced by increasingly more efficient and low-cost
methods of desalination.
Modern farmers have abandoned water-intensive crops such as citrus
and cotton for more drought sensitive species that can utilize the
thermal, brackish water prevalent in the region. Growers specialize
in aquafarming or the cultivation of microalgae as natural food supplements.
At the same time, researchers have found that many crops benefit
from the salty water. Groves of olive, jojaba and pomegranate trees
now spread across the region. Vineyards of grapes and greenhouses
filed with exotic fruits for export to Europe have sprung up on kibbutzim
and moshavim. The most famous example is the Israeli cherry tomato,
grown with saline water from underground aquifers, which is miraculously
transformed into what is recognized worldwide as the sweetest tomato
on the market - the increased sugars possibly countering the osmotic
effects of the saline environment
On November 23, 2006, the Israeli Government recognized the importance
of water research taking place at the BIDR – particularly at
the Zuckerberg Institute
for Water Research – and approved
a proposal to establish the National Center for Advanced Water Technologies
in Sede Boqer. The Government plans to invest significant funding
in developing advanced water technologies, to be marketed around
the world. According to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who as
part of his mandate responsible for the Ministry for the Development
of the Galilee and Negev, is promoting the National Center, water
industries worldwide generate approximately $440 billion annually.
Israeli technologies account for some $700-800 million of this figure.
It is estimated that Israel will be able to double, if not triple
these figures if it makes emerging water technologies a national
This is about more than clean water and sustainable agriculture – it
is about hope and the belief that science can still find solutions
to pressing world problems such as drought and desertification. It
is the belief that scientific cooperation can bring together researchers
from around the world to work together and find a common language
for the betterment of humanity.
For further reading:
and Desertification: Challenges and Opportunities Conference. Conclusions
and Recommendations of the Conference Participants. [PDF Format:
36.2 KB / 1 p.] (The freely
Acrobat Reader is required to view and print this resource.)
Dwek, Raymond. Oasis
in the desert. The Guardian,
Nov. 14, 2002.
Dwek, Raymond. The scholarly path to peace. The Guardian,
June 20, 2002.
Kallis, Giorgos and others. Glossing over the complexity of water. Science, v. 314, Dec. 1, 2006: 1387.
Pallant, Eric. Cooperating over water issues in the Middle East.
Science, v. 314, Oct. 13, 2006: 251.
Tal, Alon. Seeking sustainability: Israel's evolving water management
strategy. Science, v. 313. Aug. 25, 2006: 1081-1084.
Yeston, Jake, and others. A thirsty world: an introduction to a
special section on Freshwater Resources. Science, v. 313,
Aug. 25, 2006: 106.
Raymond Dwek holds the Kluge
Chair of Technology and Society at the Library of Congress and is
from Oxford University where he is professor of Glycobiology. He may
be contacted at [email protected].