Taming deserts, feeding a nation from the wild: Lessons from Israel

“Kamal! The air-condition is not working. I’m baking here one passenger cried.” In no time, there was a chorus of complaints about the steaming heat that has taken over the bus.Concerned about the complaints, Kamal the driver of the tour bus who had earlier released the steering wheel to the tour guide got up to check the state of the cool air turned warm circulating in the bus.
But his touch could not tame the heat, it was beyond him. The temperature was more than 47 degree celcius and the bus was trekking the Judaean  Desert in Israel.
As far as the eye can see, there are a vast stretch of moonscape rock and miles of arid land. But that is not all. In the midst of the heat and sand dunes is a nation’s food basket. Plush green blooms dot a lot of places producing vegetables, crops and horticulture produce including banana, tomatoes, date and  flowers.
For a pilgrim whose homeland still import substantial amount of food in spite of vast swathe of land lying fallow right on the banks of the Volta River, I was stunned by the desert farms that stretch hundreds of acres.
The spiritual journey to the Holy Land offered us the opportunity to trace the footsteps of Jesus Christ from his birth place to the place of his last breath and other places of historical importance.
 While the trip courtesy of One People Travels, Ethiopia Airlines and Krif Ghana gave to me and 20 other pilgrims, a moment of spiritual awakening, it was also an eye opener for how Israel is using agriculture to transform its deserts from doom to bloom.
Desert agriculture
Desert agriculture is one of Israel greatest successes, and an achievement in which the country leads the world.
With the desert wrapping a large chunk of its surface, the Middle East country has had to quickly develop solutions for its lack of arable land and potable water. Israeli research, innovation, accomplishments and education on this topic now span the globe in tackling problems common to all desert dwellers.
Whether it is the Judean Desert or the Negev Desert which covers more than  60 per cent of the country, are the gems of agriculture shrinking the sand dunes over the past century as agricultural activity has turned sand into green fields, the opposite to the desertification trend which much of the rest of the world is battling to prevent.
There is very little rainfall in the deserts of Judea and Negev.
According to experts, the ridge of the Judean Hills, that blocks the rain clouds approaching from the west, permits only a small amount of rain to fall there.
Some of this is soaked up by the superficial layers of the earth of the Judean Desert, while some quickly runs off due to the poor absorptive capacity of the ground and flows east into the low-lying Dead Sea basin.
Power of irrigation
Much of the country’s agriculture success has been lubricated by irrigation and the country’s soil and water scientists have been at the forefront.
Although the country’s mastered hands in irrigation are many, Dr Daniel Hillel recipient of the 2012 World Food Prize for his micro-irrigation technology and i water engineer, Simcha Blass, the mastermind of drip irrigation, have attained cult status in the world’s agriculture circles.
Dr Hillel showed that micro-irrigation could not only conserve scare water resources, but that continuously moist soils increase the yields of many row crops and fruit trees. He went on to personally teach the technology to farmers and governments in advisory missions to many countries.
Blass, on the other hand, founded Netafim which invented modern drip irrigation technology in the 1960’s. This allowed the precious and scarce water resources of the desert to be used at extreme limits to grow crops.
According to the Global Harvest Initiative, the “development of micro-irrigation techniques and technology has enhanced the efficiency of water-use in agriculture, and enabling farmers to produce substantially higher crop yields while reducing their water usage. This has been particularly important for farmers in arid and dry-land regions where water scarcity is a constraining factor to agricultural production.”
Such is the sophistication of the Israeli irrigation technology that the American Society for Horticultural Sciences recently described  Israeli automated desert agriculture technology as ``one of the most significant advances in food production in the past 100 years.''
Today, Israel’s deserts are s home to olive groves, fish farms, plantations of many varieties of fruit and vegetable, and many more unusual crops which are selected based on their performance in  desert conditions.
Solar energy & Afforestation
In Ghana like, most developing countries, people still chop down trees for firewood. This causes desertification from lack of vegetation to hold the soil and its nutrients in place. Rain washes away the topsoil, leaving behind valueless sand.
That is where Israel brings something special. Right from Jerusalem through hot Jericho, a Palestine territory, Qumran where Dead Sea scrolls were found between 1947 and 1956, Israel’s advanced off-grid solar energy power plants for individual homes or villages run on solar, offering a clean, renewable alternative. A relief for trees that otherwise would have been cut down for fuel.
It is perhaps the reason Israel is the only country over the last 100 years to see a net gain of trees.
Using donations from generations of Jews in the diaspora, some 240 million trees have been planted in Israel by the Jewish National Fund since 1901.
The JNF believes that in Israel, the concept of pushing back the desert was accepted long before anyone had coined the concept of 'climate change'.
Over the years, the JNF has invested extensive resources in a broad ecological and environmental programme to combat desertification and to heal degraded land.
Revenue from agric exports
Flowing from that effort and other interventions, the country exports more than $1.3 billion worth of agricultural products every year, including farm produce as well as $1.2 billion worth of agricultural inputs and technology.
The Israeli Ministry of Economy and Industry figures shows that exports of agricultural produce from Israel to the European Union alone totaled $764 million in 2015.
Back home in Ghana, we are losing our water bodies to illegal mining, we are importing agriculture produce and vast stretch of land along the Volta River remains fallow, even years after the Accra Plains Irrigation project was to take off, the Kpong and Ashaiman Irrigation project are on their knees.
If you happen to be in Israel,  after trekking Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, the Dead Sea,  Tiberias (Galilee), Capernaum, Nazareth, Mount Carmel, where the footprints of Jesus is visible, you also want to savour the great strides the country has made in feeding its people from the wild and efforts to turn its miles of deserts into a paradise of bloom.


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