‘Climate Change’ in Israel—Turning Deserts Green

Reverse Osmosis desalination plant in Spain. Credit: James Grellier Copyright: https://creativecommons.org/licences/by-sa/3.0/legalcode. Information extracted from IPTC photo metadata.

“The well that is most often used gives the purest water,” advises the Jewish proverb. Traditional wisdom, on this occasion however, couldn’t be more wrong. The “well” that has converted Israel from one of the driest nations on Earth to one flowing with abundant water is one never previously used in its long history: the sea.

Israel has constructed dozens of desalination plants which use a process called “reverse osmosis” to convert saltwater to potable water. Seawater is pushed at high pressure through membranes stippled with minuscule pores—less than one hundredth the diameter of a human hair—such that the fresh water is forced through the microscopic openings yet leaving the bulkier molecules of sodium chloride, salt, on the other side of the porous barrier to be flushed back into the sea.

Turning to the endless supply of water in the oceans was only part of the solution though to Israel’s former water woes. No country on Earth recaptures, recycles and reuses water in a capacity anywhere near what the Israelis accomplish today. After all the low-flow toilets and showerheads and inventive water treatment systems have been brought to bear, 86% of the water that would go down the drain in other countries is repurposed in some way, much of it for irrigation of crops. The closest competitor in this judicious use of the world’s most precious liquid resource is Spain, which manages to recycle only some 19%.

More than half a century ago Israel realized however that no level of water conservation could slake the thirst of a growing, vibrant nation and turned to the sea, building the first desalination plant in 1965. Israel now gets close to 60 percent of its water from desalination; in a few decades that figure will rise to 70 percent.  Much of the rest of the Middle East, on the other hand, is drying up and suffering real water stress.  Droughts and increased population demands upon plunging water tables have wreaked havoc on farmland throughout the region, a factor in the collapse of agriculture in Syria and part of the cascading events that has led to the utter ruin of that nation at present. Iran, Iraq, Libya, Jordan and other nations aren’t far behind though insofar as water catastrophes on the near-horizon are concerned.  Israel, however, is hardly succumbing to a water crisis. What was once a desiccated country now has more than enough water.

Moreover, while desertification is the trend throughout the region, Israel’s Negev Desert, which currently covers 55% of the country has shrunk considerably, not grown, in size over the last three-quarters of a century as Israel’s water, forestation and agricultural projects have converted arid wasteland to lush fields and forests. The Negev now produces tomatoes, olives, dates, grapes, peppers, melons, cotton, peanuts, eggplant, wheat, asparagus, avocados and many other fruits and vegetables.

Yet it isn’t just desalinated and recycled water that irrigates the Negev and accounts for such abundant crops. Hundreds of feet below the Negev lay vast aquifers of brackish waters with a salt content nowhere near that of seawater but hardly of the quality necessary for agriculture. Israeli scientists have solved the problem of accessing this resource not only by desalination but by simply developing unique strains of crops—“desert designer crops”—which soak up water while avoiding the salt. Crops are then watered by drip irrigation, making certain not to waste a single drop, assuring that this underground reserve should last a couple of centuries into the future.

Aside from diminishing its deserts, Israel is simultaneously creating its own forests as well. Since 1900 more than a quarter billion trees have been planted across Israel. When the Jewish state was founded in 1948 2% of Israel was covered in trees; that figure is now over 8.5%. The Yatir Forest, for instance, is man-made, the result of planting and watering over four million tress on the edge of the Negev Desert, an immovable roadblock to halt and push back the desert sands.

Trees’ effect on the landscape, aside from acting against desertification, is to create shade and in the Negev Desert that sunscreen can significantly modify the microclimate beneath the tree canopy and within the immediate vicinity. This shade can be a benefit to plants, animals and people, offering some measure of protection from the sun.

All these positive attributes of Israeli stewardship of the land are powerful rebuttals to the inexplicable volte-face that so-called “progressive” politics, formerly the champion of humanism, now strangely embraces as nothing less than an article of faith—that mankind is little more than a scourge on the planet, leaving destruction in its wake.

Someone who knew the Negev Desert and other parched and barren regions of Israel seventy-five years ago would have a hard time recognizing great swaths of it today. And those changes are hardly to be categorized under anything resembling blight.

About the Author
David Nabhan is a science and science fiction writer. He is the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three other books on seismic forecasting.
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