Behind the Headlines Making Deserts Bloom
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Behind the Headlines Making Deserts Bloom

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A remedy to curtail starvation among millions of people in the Third World countries is being explored in Israel: desert development. Training for this task is now going on at the Jacob Blaustein International Center for Desert Studies, where students and scientists from around the world are seeking ways to make deserts bloom. The Center for Desert Studies at the Ben Gurion University Sde Boker campus, a branch of the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, has for the past year, its first, been holding workshops, seminars and conferences on arid land research, development and settlement, Dr. Shabtay Dover, executive director of the Blaustein Center, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The Center, he said, provides a wide range of information and knowledge on “how to develop an arid zone, how to provide services in sparsely populated areas,” and how to change the ecosystem of desert areas to make them fertile and life-supporting.

This is the technical element in the fight against starvation. But there is also a social element involved in the transformation of deserts, and that is to assure that the identities and cultures of the local indigenous inhabitants are not destroyed in the process. Integrating the ecological and the social elements is basic in the fight against starvation, said Dover, who is also associate director of the desert research institute.


For example, Navaho Indians from Arizona were taught how to utilize spring water to irrigate and grow their own food. “The main success was that it enhanced their self-sufficiency and their pride” in that they no longer had to rely on government food stamps and canned food donations, Dover said.

A group from Thailand, financed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, spent two months at the desert studies center to study Israeli technology on how to raise algae as fish food in artificial ponds. Another two groups, from Kenya and Peru, were recently at the Center to learn how to trap run-off water from desert flash rainstorms for commercial farming.

Two scientists from the People’s Republic of China’s own desert research institute came for six weeks to work with the Center’s desert ecology group. And currently, a scientist from Nigeria is studying how to heat homes with solar energy.


Despite the impressive number of students and scientists from Third World countries, most of the visitors to the Center are from Western Europe, Canada and the United States, Dover said. While he feels that it is “fruitful” to have these technologically advanced scientists and students for consultatations and exchange of opinions, Dover said that “the original idea was to have more students from the less developed countries because we feel that our research is relevant to countries in which desert development is crucial.”

Countries like Australia and the United States have desert regions, but they don’t feel compelled, nor do they find it necessary to develop their deserts, Dover said. On the other hand, Third World nations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia have the imperative need to cultivate their deserts but they lack the technological skill, he noted. Israel, however, has the combination of technological know-how and a history of having transformed its own desert areas into fertile land.

“We believe that our knowledge should be transferred to those countries,” Dover said, and that is a primary aim of the desert studies center.


Other projects in which both the Center and the Blaustein Institute are involved include integrating desert development with the settlement of nomads. “We believe that in an era of desert development, there is no place for nomadism,” Dover said. He noted that Bedouin society in the Negev is now in transition “and we are helping them to become integrated in the development of the desert and yet keep their own identity and culture as much as possible.”

The Social Studies Center of the Blaustein Institute is studying the process of urbanization and economic change among the Negev Bedouins and ultimately hopes to intensify pastoralism through the use of modern methods.

Also at the Institute is the Marco and Louise Mitrani Center for Desert Ecology, a unit concerned with the effects of desert development and industrialization on the desert ecosystem. “We must develop industry and tourism in the desert as well because agriculture is not the natural solution for the desert,” Dover said.

In response to this need, the ecology unit has 12 scientists researching three basic areas: ecophysiology, aimed at protecting desert plants and animals; understanding the position and function of the desert ecosystem for teaching as well as research; and ecotoxicology, studying toxic materials used in desert industrial parks.

One result cited by Dover is in the town Ramat Horav where a large chemical industry produces toxic wastes. “We found a way to segregate toxic material and to neutralize the water so the water can be used for irrigating ornamental plants around sand dunes,” Dover explained.


While the main purpose of the Blaustein International Center for Desert Studies is outreach and implementation of projects researched there, Dover revealed that “we don’t put too much effort to contact the people in the less developed countries mainly because of the political obstacles. In many cases we don’t have political relations with these countries and in other cases they are defined as our political enemies.”

But the Center does reach Third World nations, Dover said, “because we publish our work in international journals and we lecture in many international meetings,” such as a recent conference in Tucson, Arizona, where 600 scientists worldwide participated.

According to Dover, the Israeli government has offered generous support for the International Center and Desert Studies Center despite Israel’s difficult economic situation. If the economic situation improves, he said, the Blaustein Center may expand its research and include units on human physiology and genetic engineering of desert plants and animals.

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