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    The Other Green Line and the
       Sweetest Tomato in the World

          By Raymond Dwek,
          Kluge Chair of Technology and Society,
          Library of Congress

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Political discussions about the Israel and its future negotiated borders often focus on the Green Line, the historical border between 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 and desalination.

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 priority.

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:

Deserts and Desertification: Challenges and Opportunities Conference. Conclusions and Recommendations of the Conference Participants. [PDF Format: 36.2 KB / 1 p.] (The freely available Adobe 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 on leave from Oxford University where he is professor of Glycobiology. He may be contacted at [email protected].


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   August 23, 2010
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