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Dryland agroforestry lessons from Israeli deserts

By Isaiah Esipisu

Image source: World Agroforestry Centre image database

As a result of the fast changing climatic conditions in the world, arable lands have been converted into semi arid, while formerly semi arid regions are now arid. However, the opposite is happening in Israel.

The once arid land has slowly been converted into arable land, producing crops, fish and livestock that are exported to many other parts of the world today.

“It is simple knowledge. All we need is to learn from the past, implement the lessons today, and benefit the future generations,” said Itshack Moshe, an Israeli a soil conservation expert from a nongovernmental organization known as Karen Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF).

“We take our forestry work seriously, we carry out scientific research on how best to plant, care and maintain forests and woodlands,” said Moshe, the KKL-JNF Soil Conservationist, Deputy Director Southern Region, Forestry.

His views are shared by Prof Tony Simons, the Director General World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), who also observed in a separate forum that the world climate is changing to the worst, and that communities must embrace and implement new technologies in order to convert the situation. “Take Northern Kenya for example. The area has for years been known to be semi-arid but today, it has become totally arid,” he said.

To reverse the arid situation in Israel, the government invested in researches based on indigenous knowledge of harvesting runoff water, reforestation and thus rehabilitating the degraded land.

“In some parts of the country, there is evidence to demonstrate that up to four metres of top soil had been swept away due to soil erosion caused by floods,” said Moshe displaying a picture of ceramic outlet pipe that has been left hanging four metres high due to soil erosion.

The Israeli expert was speaking at an event alongside the ongoing United Nations Convention on Sustainable Development – better known as RIO +20 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“We need to review all the mistakes we made in the past, and take lessons from them. For example, instead of assessing damages caused by floods, we need to talk of benefits derived from the flooding water,” said the Israeli expert.

In a typical example in an area known as Karkor in the Eastern part of Jordan, the experts have managed to change the formerly bare land into a green recreation centre just in ten years.

“We sunk 25 dams within the Karkor dry riverbed, after which we waited for the perennial floods. When it rained, all the dams were filled with water, where we planted drought resistant trees on the banks. At some point, we made concrete banks to minimize overflow of the trapped water,” explained Moshe.

After five years, the area turned green, and in ten years, it became a perfect site for recreational activities, and part of it is being used for grazing.

The same technique was used to develop the famous green-belt around the Bersheba town and the Meitar township.

Most of the trees grown in such sites are acacia trees, which are known to survive without run off water in a couple of years. “We are careful with the tree species we select. We select seeds from those trees that are physically growing in the toughest conditions,” he said.

The two major preferred dry land  resistant acacia species include Acacia raddiana and Acacia atlantica.

Through the same method, Arava region located midway between the Dead Sea  is now producing 60 per cent of total Israeli’s vegetables and fresh produce for the export market, and about 15 per cent of the ornamentals.

“This could never be achieved without the innovative research. At the same time, research has developed new crop strains that will diversify the economic basis of agriculture in Israel and the world over,” said Moshe.

Today, trees planted in Israel particularly through the KKL-JNF form some of the largest man planted forests in the Mediterranean Middle East.

According to research data accumulated at the Yatir Forest carbon monitoring station, forests in arid  regions sequester carbon nearly at the same rate as the world average for forests in temperate regions.

In line with one of the themes at the RIO +20, natural resource conservation in urban areas, arid and semi arid areas, mountains, and the existing arable areas is the basis of developing the much desired green economy, and the only way to convert the globe into a suitable place for livelihoods.


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Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist who was contracted by ICRAF to write this story.

Editing and additional links provided By Yvonne Otieno


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