Desert Brainstorm

Turning drylands into hotbeds of sustainability in Israel. By Stephanie L. Freid

Drylands cover about a third of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and some of the world’s poorest people live in these arid and semi-arid regions. The challenges that drylands present are formidable: Overfarming and unsustainable development often lead to erosion, soil salination and vegetation cover loss. The result is ever-widening swaths of desert.

“If current climate scenarios of change, growth demographics, consumption, and poverty continue, the fight in the 21st century will be over water, not oil,” United Nations Ambassador Gregoire de Kalbermatten warned hundreds of environmental experts at the four-day United Nations International Conference on Deserts and Desertification Sde Boker, Israel in November.

But in Israel, researchers have found that drylands hold hidden potential.

For decades, Israel’s scientists have been at the forefront of environmental technology development aimed at working with limitations the desert presents. They have pioneered the use of drip irrigation (a method used to apply water slowly to the roots of plants by depositing the water either on the soil surface or directly to the root zone), planned desert-friendly architecture aimed at maximizing solar energy use in homes while minimizing damage caused by desert heat, and developed inexpensive water desalination technology. But their work didn’t stop there.

Scientists at the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research are cultivating practical technologies like fish farming in the desert—and teaching those techniques to local farmers. By filling fish tanks with geothermal, brackish water pumped from beneath the desert floor, farmers are able to produce 35 times more fish than they do in traditional outdoor ponds in this area. The brackish water is then recycled to irrigate surrounding olive groves.

In winter, tilapia is scarce in many parts of the world. High European demand and low market availability make it a valuable export for Israel. Farmers raise the fish in the Negev desert and export it to Belgium, Italy, and Spain, where it commands high prices.

“As I tell my students, fish live in water but don’t drink water. Plants live on land but drink a lot of water. So when you grow fish you’re just recycling the water,” Blaustein Institute director Avigad Vonshak explains. 

Looking to the future, Israel’s scientists plan to expand aquaculture to vegetables and dual cropping techniques.

“Sustainable development of dryland can go all the way from the human issues of organizing education systems in remote societies to soil type used for blending and growing tomatoes in brackish water,” says Vonshak. “The awareness arises from being located here, in the desert. The solutions come from practical necessity.”

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