More than 60 percent of Israel’s landmass in the country’s southern Negev desert and Arava Valley is arid and semi-arid, with an average annual precipitation ranging between 250 mm and less than 50mm. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in temperature and the rate of evaporation in the Negev.
In Israel, the concept of “making the desert bloom” was accepted long before anyone had coined the concept of “climate change.” As far back as the 1930's, David Ben-Gurion spoke of developing the Negev, and as time rolled on, it became a principal value of national importance. Research has shown that suitable ecological treatment in semi-arid areas can prevent soil erosion and stop desertification. This is demonstrated superbly in the Yatir Forest
in the northern Negev, which is located on the edge of the desert in a semi-arid region, yet it has become the largest forest in Israel.
As a result of Israel’s cumulative experience in this field, many countries view Israel as a professional authority on central ecological issues, of which the primary ones are combating desertification and forest development. Researchers from around the world are very interested in the methods that Israel has developed for desert afforestation and agriculture, and KKL-JNF has held several international conferences on the subject in recent years.
Over the years KKL-JNF has invested extensive resources in a broad ecological and environmental program to combat desertification and to upgrade degraded land:
- KKL-JNF has constructed three LTER (long-term ecological research) monitoring stations that examine data such as carbon sequestration, development of tree species suitable to the particular environment (ecotyping), grazing interfaces and more.
- KKL-JNF has developed agro-forestry and properly managing grazing lands by planting rows of individual trees along earthen ridges to capture surface runoff and encourage the growth of savanna-style steppe.
- KKL-JNF has planted “Liman” tree clusters in banked-up water catchment depressions for shade and greenery.
- KKL-JNF collaborates with the International Arid Lands Consortium, which includes the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service and six American universities, in advancing strategies for sustainable development of desert regions and distribution of the accumulated data on this subject to every interested country and agency.
Savannization in the Negev and its outcome. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
What Does Combating Desertification Mean?
KKL-JNF is committed to combating desertification in the Negev and is highly involved in research on afforestation, agriculture and water issues in desert conditions.
What is desertification?
The original definition was actually "land degradation" and not the spread of natural deserts to new areas, as is the case with the Sahara Desert. However, until recently the term “land degradation” had referred to processes in arid and dry sub-humid regions and processes caused by man. Between 35-42% of the earth’s land mass can be defined as "dry lands" and 35% of the population - about two billion people - live in these areas. In Israel, for example, 95% of the land is considered "semi-arid."
Speaking of the subject, Israel expert Professor Safriel suggested that desertification should be defined by "lack of soil productivity" to enable us to focus on possible solutions for seemingly contradictory situations. For example, in South Africa, in areas with similar rainfall, white farmers evidence higher NPP (net primary productivity) than black farmers. This means that we need to focus not only on climatic conditions, but also on monitoring land usage without destroying its productivity. In fact, overuse of land resources often inspires ingenuity that promotes sustainable use of lands and biological activity.
It has become very popular to speak of “synergies” between the three above-mentioned conventions and the need to implement solutions that jointly address climatic change, biodiversity and desertification when in fact, we still need to understand basic connections between them – for instance, how does climate change actually affect biodiversity?
The "Kyoto Protocol of 1997" gave birth to what is known as the CDM – the Clean Development Mechanism, which means that in exchange for investing in planting forests in developing countries, developed countries receive “carbon credits” that allow them to invest less in their own emission reductions. This of course, also leads to conflicts of interests – for instance, developed countries want to plant large forests in order to receive a lot of carbon credits, while developing countries need smaller, localized tree-planting, which better serves their needs.
Is Afforestation the Solution?
It has become common knowledge that carbon sequestration - processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere - is enhanced by afforestation. Dry lands are ideal for increasing biomass on the one hand, since they are comparatively inexpensive land, but on the other hand, they have serious water constraints. These two factors must be balanced and in fact, carbon sequestration as a result of afforestation alone in dry lands may not always be sufficiently significant to justify planting forests, without the additional evaluation of other factors.
Desertification - A Global Issue
As a country that is largely arid, Israel has met the challenge of managing desert lands and combating desertification. KKL-JNF is the leading body in this field and is more than willing to share its experience and know-how with our neighbors and with countries around the world.
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
In 1992, the United Nations held the "Earth Summit" at Rio de Janeiro, where three conventions converged – the Convention on Climate Change
, the Convention on Biodiversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification. One of the goals of the Summit was to involve developing countries in combating desertification, particularly since they are the immediate victims of this process - a major cause of poverty to the extent that there are now “environmental refugees” who have lost their livelihood due to desertification.
Although there is total agreement on the extent of the problem, there were disagreements on definitions and on causes of desertification. Strategies for solutions have also been hotly debated. Although "dry lands" are less productive, they have the most intensive population growth rate. Consequently, the objective of the UNCCD was to reduce global poverty by combating desertification, which would be accomplished by participation and partnership between developed countries and developing countries.
KKL-JNF takes ongoing part in the work of various international organizations, among them, the following two bodies aimed at combating desertification:
1. International Arid Land Consortium (IALC)
The Consortium was established in 1990 by KKL-JNF, the USA, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and five United States universities. Its aim is to advance research and experimentation in the field of arid area management and to support projects to prevent desertification in developing countries. The consortium approved a range of joint research projects, many of which involved KKL-JNF and Israel.
2. Middle East Research Cooperation (MERC)
Within the framework of this organization, which is part of the US State Department, important projects were carried out in the field of ecology, prevention of desertification and damage to shared and natural resources in the Middle East. KKL-JNF participated and led research to improve the understanding of afforestation activity and soil conservation in semi-arid regions.
3. KKL-JNF's International Seminar on Desertification
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
In December 2008, a conference was held at Sde Boker College for key officials from the ministries of agriculture of a wide range of countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, China, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. The seminar was initiated by MASHAV (the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Cooperation), together with KKL-JNF and the Center for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture (SINDECO).
David Brand, director of KKL-JNF’s Forestry & Development Department, led a pivot of the seminar, which addressed various aspects of open space management, forest management, the propagation of tree and bush species, tree nursery management, forest and forest-product management. He later spoke of the seminar: “The participants in the seminar took part in three concentrated days of lectures about the practical aspects of managing open areas, ranging from methods of establishing forests, collecting and germinating seeds, and managing nurseries, to utilization of the forest for production of by-products that are not wood products such as the honey industry or ecotourism.”
The seminar participants toured throughout the Negev to study the modern application of ancient methods of stopping floodwaters, soil preservation, and the restoration of wadi banks in flood regions. In addition, they also learned how to deal successfully with moving sand dunes that threaten extensive areas on the edge of the Sahara in Africa.
“We never thought about the problems through basic aspects such as those that exist in Israel,” admitted one of the Ethiopian representatives, Atu Fecado, during the concluding discussion of the seminar. “We felt that an annual rainfall of 600 millimeters was the minimum required for afforestation and for expanding forested areas. We were therefore amazed at what we saw here in Israel, particularly in the Negev where there are forests growing under conditions of only 200 millimeters of annual rainfall.”
Many of the delegates requested that the educational and professional training frameworks in Israel for their co-patriots be expanded but Dr. Omri Boneh had better advice. “The most important outcome of this seminar is that new operating methods are adopted in different countries. Each country will have to apply these methods to match its own special conditions. That is why one has to examine whether it would not be more worthwhile and effective to continue the cooperation through suitable training given by Israeli experts in your own countries, after studying the specific data for each state and region. We’ll still be here, keeping in touch with each country and able to give knowledge and advice on an ongoing basis, to provide answers for any special issues that the seminar delegates raise after their return to their own countries.”
And indeed, this proposal is already being put into practice through professional Internet networks set up by the participants of several workshops held in Israel. These international networks constitute a boundless and timeless meeting place for experts from all points of the globe who came to know each other in Israel. They keep up regular, ongoing exchanges of information among themselves and with their friends in Israel, in the same spirit that KKL-JNF imparts in all the international arenas where it participates.
Water in the Desert - Limans
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
The Negev is characterized by a remarkable landscape feature known as “limans,” which are mainly to be found adjacent to roads and railway tracks. These earthen constructions collect floodwater by damming a gully or streambed. The dam slows the flow of the accumulated runoff water, causing it to permeate the soil and thus allow small groves of trees to flourish in areas with meager rainfall.