Shani Rohatyn-Blitz

In Israel, the desert isn’t blooming; it’s spreading

With the intensification of global warming desertification still eats away at open lands - but we must continue to take action
Yatir Forest. (Wikipedia)
Yatir Forest. (Wikipedia)

Desertification poses a grave threat to open lands worldwide, including 50 percent of Israel’s land mass. The erosion, declining soil fertility, and loss of flora and fauna in the Negev region are not merely dystopian visions but already a harsh reality exacerbated by the global climate crisis.

It is imperative that we take immediate action to implement sustainable solutions. These include managing water resources effectively, adopting environmentally friendly farming techniques, promoting reforestation, and preserving and enhancing local species. Time is of the essence, and the sooner we act, the better our chances of mitigating the effects of desertification.

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the “Earth Summit,” held in Rio de Janeiro. This historic conference, which took place in June 1992, saw delegates from over 170 countries come together to address the emerging climate crisis. One significant outcome of the conference was the establishment of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, recognizing desertification as a global issue requiring urgent attention. Though we can now identify several important initiatives implemented worldwide, including in Israel, to combat desertification, there is still much work ahead, and complacency is not an option.

In Israel, the arid and semi-arid Negev and Arava regions, comprise more than 50% of the country land area. These regions average 50-250 mm of precipitation annually, and even less than that. With the intensification of global warming, rising temperatures, and increased evaporation rates, the Negev and the Arava face the risk of desertification. This manifests as heightened erosion, reduces soil fertility, and the decline of flora and fauna.   

The United Nations has been advocating a policy to prevent deterioration and combat desertification. While complete eradication of this phenomenon is challenging, the goal is to make efforts to halt and rehabilitate affected areas. However, despite considerable progress made so far, the effects of desertification persist worldwide, manifesting in extreme cold and heat conditions. 

Amidst this concerning landscape, there is reason for cautious optimism. Israel has emerged as a leading country in tackling desertification and has been at the forefront of regional efforts. Notably, Israel recently signed agreements with Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, highlighting the collaborative approach. Additionally, KKL-JNF, in its commitment to combating the climate crisis, entered into a collaboration agreement with the Republic of Chad. These initiatives strengthen ties between nations and aim to enable the sharing of solutions in water management, agriculture, reforestation, training programs, and improvement of local species. 

The Yatir Forest, planted by KKL-JNF in 1996, is a testament to the transformative power of afforestation. It stands as Israel’s largest manmade forest thriving in the semi-arid region that receives approximately 250mm of annual rain. Its location on the edge of the desert makes it an ecological tool of great importance: halting desertification on the plane to the northeast of Beer Sheva. Furthermore, Yatir Forest is among hundreds of sites globally where researchers explore mechanisms of greenhouse exchanges and the interaction between the forest and its surroundings. 

Apart from carbon sequestration, the forest provides various ecosystem services, such as water runoff regulation, preventing open land encroachment, habitat protection, basin management and restoration, improving access to recreational sites, and more. KKL-JNF’s management of this area offers a sustainable solution to pressing ecological crises, including the preservation of open lands and waste disposal challenges.

Without significant intervention, the slippery slope of desertification will lead us into an irreversible free fall. To combat this grave threat, we must continue to preserve Israel’s open lands, expand tree cover, rehabilitate water shades, prevent waste disposal in open lands, and prevent soil erosion and overuse. Only through these concrete efforts can we combat desertification and ensure the continuity of human existence on Earth. 

About the Author
Dr. Shani Rohatyn-Blitz is the Research and Foreign Relations Coordinator, Forests Division, KKL-JNF.
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