By Patricia Golan
Nearly 47 percent of the earth’s land area is drylands, and this percentage is growing due to poor farming practices, deforestation, changes in weather patterns and climate change. How can the world's leaders and scientists deal with the planet's looming, terrifying environmental crises?
The concept of “zero net land degradation” – restoring as much land as has been impoverished – is an approach that was discussed by international experts at the fourth biannual International Conference on Drylands, Deserts and Desertification (DDD), held at the Sde Boker campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in November.
The concept was introduced and approved last June at the major United Nations global climate summit, the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, in Brazil.
The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), one of the Israeli conference's sponsors, has a goal of achieving zero net land degradation by 2030.
One of the major results of desertification and land degradation in general is hunger and poverty, explained Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of UNCCD, speaking on the first day of the conference.
“Land degradation is one of the major causes of food insecurity,” he stated. “The concept of 'zero-net land degradation' provides the opportunity to frame land and soil degradation as global issues and to ensure that sustainable land management and restoration are reflected everywhere at every scale. Policy action should build and capitalize on grassroots-level success stories on land restoration.”
‘The orphan of global environmental challenges’
“The desert is one of the places least affected by desertification on Earth,” explained Prof. Uriel Safriel of Hebrew University and BGU's Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. “We have to look at areas that are not desert and be careful not to make them desert.”
“We admit that it is difficult to achieve zero net land degradation," continued Safriel, who heads Israel’s UNESCO Man and Biosphere program. "Not only do people need to reduce the rate at which land is being degraded every year, but they also need to offset the amount that has already been degraded by restoring now unusable land."
Desertification has for a long time been "the orphan of global environmental challenges,” says BGU’s Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research Prof. Alon Tal, one of Israel’s leading environmentalists, and co-chair of the event.
"Unlike climate change and biodiversity, which have hundreds of international gatherings every year, unfortunately people just don't deal with desertification much. For too long the world has seen this as a problem of Africa and Asia and one that doesn’t affect all of us," states Tal.
Papers delivered at the conference covered topics ranging from reforestation of croplands, to satellite remote sensing research on soil, to ecologically appropriate desert architecture. There was even a session with Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli researchers on conflict resolution through the creation of environmental "peace parks."
Attendees had a choice of eight day trips, which included desert architecture in the Negev, forestation projects in drylands, eco-tourism in the desert milieu, agriculture in the Dead Sea area, mine rehabilitation in the Ramon Crater and the National Solar Center at Sde Boker.
A walk through the desert landscape of the Negev.
Photo by Wolfgang Motzafi-Haller/BGU
‘Israel is leading the way’
DDD conferences have earned global distinction as the only such interdisciplinary gatherings in the world. This year's event drew more than 500 participants from 60 countries.
The delegates included some of the world’s top researchers, government officials, activists and members of international development aid agencies, who spent four days exploring theoretical and practical ways of combating the ever-increasing threat of desertification on formerly fertile lands, and living sustainably in the drylands.
The conference hosted a delegation of Italian researchers who, together with Israeli scientists, are carrying out a range of research initiatives such as an agricultural development project in Senegal to eradicate hunger by providing farmers with technological know-how.
DDD delegates arriving at Ben-Gurion University’s Sde Boker campus.
Photo by Wolfgang Motzafi-Haller/BGU
Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, led a delegation of six water experts from Arizona and Colorado.
"Israel is a fascinating place to be, to learn about what they're doing in terms of water management and environmental issues and trans-boundary water issues," says Megdal, a frequent visitor to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. "Israel is leading the way in water resources and management from some very specific areas – for example, desalination of brackish ground water, not only sea water, and also efficient use of water in agriculture."
In the opening plenum, prominent American ecologist and demographer Prof. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University declared that Israel, "as one of the most scientifically advanced countries, can play a major role in bringing all of these problems to global attention. But its great experience in combating one major element in the deadly nexus - land degradation, especially desertification - gives it an ethical duty to not only help other nations to prevent and reverse the damage, but also to be sure it deals properly with relevant local and regional aspects."
Conclusions from the event will be published next year in the Journal of Arid Environments.