Back To The Desert

At the start of the year I spent 2 months in southern Israel on Kibbutz Ketura as part of a a unique environmental science and peace building program with the Arava Institute. The program saw a handful of international students join students from Israel, Jordan and The West Bank to undertake academic courses and workshops which explored the environmental challenges of the region and how they interwove with social and political factors. While I was in the area, I went to visit the local agriculture research and development centres, to see what areas they were exploring in regards to desert farming systems. I found myself at the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Centre, and lined up an amazing opportunity to join them on a research program exploring desert micro-algae production. So I am back in Israel for the next little while and will be sharing some yarns about desert agriculture and how they turn their challenges into opportunities.

The Negev desert region covers more than half of Israel. Stretching south from Tel Aviv it forms an inverted triangle shape, whose western border lines the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and whose eastern border forms the Arava Valley. The Arava Valley describes an area around 180km long which forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan. Starting just below the Dead Sea basin and extending south to Eilat, the brown, rocky, dusty mountains are interrupted by deep craters and wadis (dry riverbeds that occasionally flood with rain).

I am living in Moshav Idan, one of the most northern moshavim in the Arava Valley. 30km north of me is the Dead Sea and 2km east of me is the border of Jordan. A moshav is a type of cooperative agricultural settlement. It’s kind of like living in small town in the middle of the desert. There are clusters of houses which span outwards from community infrastructure like a tiny convenience store, tennis courts, an oval and a swimming pool. The closest supermarket is in another Moshav, a 30 minute drive south along a road called The Peace Route which follows the Jordan border, it was built in 1994 after the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty was signed.

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Apparently almost 300 people live here on Moshav Idan, with most of them farmers involved in greenhouse vegetable production or who work in the date palm plantations and packing houses. This region (the Arava Valley), receives about 30ml of rainfall a year yet produces 60% of Israel’s exports of fresh vegetables and 15% of the flowers picked for export. It’s pretty incredible to see agriculture thriving in such a harsh environment, and to see a type of farming system that doesn’t rely on waiting for the rain to come. In saying that, irrigation brings a whole new basket of challenges. Especially when the irrigation source is a mix of both fresh and salty water coming from desalination plants and an underground brackish aquifer (saltier than fresh water, but not as salty as sea water). The brackish water is used to dilute desalinated water, which is void of all minerals, to make a slightly salty water mix that still contains essential minerals like sulphur, magnesium and calcium. Desalination is still a big cost, so some farmers band together to install desalination in partnership with others, but there is still a very big problem with what to do with the brine that is the by-product of the desalination process.

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I am here as part of a research program, spending time at the Central and Northern Arava R&D Centre, which was established back in 1986 to serve the growing needs of farmers along Israel’s southern borders. It now supports close to 600 farmers in the Arava region and focuses on vegetables, flowers, plant protection, fish farming, microalgae and quality control. What I like about the R&D centre here is that there is a strong focus on applied science, really trying to extend research and ground test findings to suit the unique conditions that farmers face in the Arava.

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