Barren desert to fruitful farmland: Lessons from Israel
Negev desert in Israel

The tale of Israel’s agricultural miracle is one of a rose growing through concrete. It is a scintillating narrative of a barren desert that was transformed into a most fruitful farm land.

Fifty years ago Israel was one of the most arid places on Earth, but today it stands head and shoulders above all as a symbol of 21st-century ingenuity in technological advances in agriculture.

Israel is the only country in the world today that has fewer desert lands than it did 50 years ago. How did this country, with all its natural and geographical disadvantages for farming, manage to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to become the world’s greatest agricultural success story? And better yet, are there lessons that Jamaica can learn from the tale of Israel?

Israel lies to the north of the equator around 31°30’ north latitude and 34°45’ east longitude. Southern Israel is dominated by the Negev desert, covering some 16,000 square kilometres (6,178 sq mi), while the north of the Negev contains the Judean Desert. To put this into context, more than half of the country’s land area is desert and the climate and lack of water does not make Israel naturally conducive to agriculture.

However, in spite of all these obvious barriers, Israel is today a very wealthy nation. It is a powerful agricultural hub that has become a key player in agri-food export on the global stage, even more fascinating is Israel’s abundant supply of water, to the extent that Israel even provides its neighbours with water.

On the surface, this astonishing success is intriguingly perplexing to comprehend and demands a thorough historical study of Israel’s early development to identify the seeds that were sown, which have since blossomed into the charming rose which grew out of concrete.

THE HISTORY OF PRE- AND POST-INDEPENDENT ISRAEL AND ITS AGRICULTURAL JOURNEY

To demystify the situation, it helps to look back to a time before Israel gained independence in 1948. Economists and agricultural experts who were providing advice to the British Government who colonised the territory at the time were the harbingers of unsustainable population growth all throughout the 1920s and 1930s. As such, British politician Sir John Hope Simpson was tasked to investigate the land of Palestine. His conclusion was profoundly grim: Palestine was so densely populated that there was “no room to swing a cat”. Consequently, immigration of more Jews to Palestine was not feasible as water resources were so limited that the situation was becoming chronic.

It was this stark reality that led the Israelis to recognise that their survival as a nation hinged on their ability to consistently source water for drinking, farming, and all their other needs. The Israelis also knew this would be a daunting task as most of the country was desert and the water that existed was concentrated in the north, not in Tel Aviv, where most jews settled.

Tel Aviv, at the time, was burgeoning into a central city and water was an absolute necessity to sustain this growth. It was evident that a brewing crisis, which demanded urgent attention, was imminent.

Simcha Blass, a renowned hydro engineer was therefore commissioned to formulate a national water plan to tackle this conundrum. Blass was creatively fecund and embarked on an illustrious and successful plan that has served as the catalyst for the incredible growth that Israel has achieved over the past 50 years.

Blass would invent the drip irrigation system that changed the world of agriculture forever. He found a tree that seemed to be growing without a trace of water; however, he later found out that there was a small leaking pipe feeding it small amounts of water. He perfected this concept and patented an efficient drip irrigation system which was widely implemented across Israel and adopted by the world.

Blass would go on to outline a three-tier plan that entailed water extraction from subsoil by deep boreholes; pumping water from the Jordan River to the Negev; and construction of a national water carrier. This was a plan of massive proportions that required a huge budget, and in 1953, Israel began construction of a water carrier to take water from the Sea of Galilee to the populated centre and agricultural south of the country.

At the core of Blass’s proposal was the idea of creating a complex water supply system that would supply fresh water throughout the entire country. These systems of pipes and canals are often cleverly dubbed by admirers as the arteries of Israel’s water economy.

According to Mekorot, the national water company of Israel, in the course of the construction of the national water carrier, approximately 2.5 million work days were invested; over 4,000 workers were employed; about seven million cubic metres of dirt were dug up; about 1.7 million cubic metres of rock were quarried, approximately 500,000 cubic metres of concrete were poured; about 75,000 tons of steel were sunk; and 15,000 concrete and steel pipes were laid. It is about 130km in length.

Upon becoming operational, about 80 per cent of the water transferred was for agricultural use and about 20 per cent for drinking water. By the beginning of the 1990s the “National Carrier” already supplied half of Israel’s drinking water, from the north to the edges of the Negev.

Agricultural water scarcity is expected to increase in more than 80 per cent of the world’s croplands by 2050.

DEEP COMMITMENT TO NATION-BUILDING BY POLITICAL LEADERS PROPELLED ISRAEL’S AGRICULTURAL GROWTH

All these actions and measures reflected Israel’s original thinking and incredible commitment to supply water across the country. Without this deep commitment to nation-building by Israel’s policymakers, the breathtaking progress we now see in Israel wouldn’t exist.

It is critical to highlight that the ostensible achievement of Israel’s agricultural sector is not limited to technological innovation and should never be narrowly viewed as such. It was inseparably intertwined with political policies and institutional frameworks, without which it could never have been realised.

It is also important to emphasise that this success can be implemented in other countries. Ram Fishman, director at Nitsan, Tel Aviv University’s sustainable development lab, speaking to ISRAEL21c, an American online magazine focused on technological and scientific advances made by researchers in Israel, said that, “Many farmers around the world look to Israel as a model of how to manage and flourish in conditions of water scarcity and a hotter, drier climate.”

This is especially relevant to the Jamaican agricultural sector as these conditions are like those being faced locally. Water scarcity and droughts plague the leading farming parishes of the island and contribute every year to huge losses of crops and livestock that tally well into the billions of dollars. This issue holds even more significance within the current contemporary context of worsening signs of water scarcity and food shortage.

To the casual passer-by, the pressing nature of this global crisis may be shrugged off as unimportant on the basis that water covers 70 per cent of our planet, and as such, it is easy to assume that it will always be ample. However, to the studious, overwhelming evidence reveals that fresh water, that which we need for drinking, showering, and farming, are incredibly rare.

According to Worldwide Life, only three per cent of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, during his historic January 2017, three-day visit to Israel where a bilateral meeting was held with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, explained that Jamaica has long admired Israel’s advances in technology, cybersecurity, agriculture, and other areas.

“The potential for cooperation between our two countries is great, and Jamaica is very interested in exploring those areas of cooperation. We would want to also pursue with Israel economic cooperation. I believe that in building strong economies we can build a peaceful world,” Holness said.

The prime minister articulated a viable approach then, which holds even more importance now; however, we are still awaiting the realisation of these words, and the current local and international atmosphere is again highlighting that this subject must be brought to national attention. The amazing success of Israel amidst all its disadvantages behoves our leaders to take an introspective look at themselves and in good conscience repent of their sins of self-seeking leadership and accept full responsibility for our current plight.

Imagine a country, which was once a desert, that now produces over 90 per cent of its own food requirement while supplying food to seven different parts of the world. Think about a nation that irrigates plants with salt water; a country that uses technology to defeat heat and soil infertility; one that was once barren, but through creative, responsible leadership is now fruitful, producing oranges, grapes, grapefruits, apples, apricots, peaches, lemon, mangoes, plums, dates, pears, and cacti.

Israel produces greenhouse tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and melons at the highest international standard. They are even growing wheat and producing fish in the depths of the Negev desert. They are leading in reversing desertification and pioneering desalination technology. Today some 585 million m3 of water per year are desalinated in the State of Israel.

Israel is a pioneer in desalination technology.

FOOD PRODUCTION WILL GET HARDER AS NATURAL CONDITIONS WORSEN

Agricultural water scarcity is expected to increase in more than 80 per cent of the world’s croplands by 2050, according to a new study in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal Earth’s Future. Additionally, experts have long since been warning the world that soon there will be no more water. The logical conclusion is a no-brainer: When the water runs out, so will our food.

It is an undeniable fact that all the food we consume requires water. Interestingly, the world at large are meat eaters. On average, 86 per cent of people surveyed for the Statista Global Consumer Survey in 39 countries said that their diet contained meat. Producing 1 kg of meat consumes 17 times more water than consuming 1 kg of corn. Will the world go vegan to curtail this crisis?

This simple fact is enough to confirm food security will be a serious issue soon. Plant scientist Tamir Klein, principal investigator at the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Tree Lab in Rehovot, Israel, specialises in dry-land forestry. He posits, “If the world is becoming hotter and drier and we’re already hot and dry and have success in agriculture in those conditions, the world can look at our successes and mistakes and decide how to go forward.”

Jamaica needs to learn from the tale of Israel. The Government needs to invest in water innovation. Veritable water laboratories should be established with the main purpose being to create innovative methods to solve the water scarcity issue on the island. This issue, by and large, has been left solely to the National Irrigation Commission to solve, but more investment and incentives need to be made available to foster creative ideas to fix this perennial issue.

Drip irrigation systems need to be made widely accessible across Jamaica, and an education drive should be launched to encourage farmers to embrace new technological methods of farming.

Fertigation is another area that should be taught and implemented. Fertigation is a method of fertiliser application in which fertiliser is incorporated within the irrigation water by the drip system. In this system, fertiliser solution is distributed evenly in irrigation. The availability of nutrients is very high; therefore, the efficiency is more.

Most recently, farmers in Israel have adopted the nutrigation method in which they combine nutrients with the irrigation system, which basically applies a mixture of nutrients and irrigation water.

It is overwhelmingly clear that desert agriculture in Israel is one of the country’s greatest successes and something at which Israel leads the world.

Jamaica is far more naturally conducive to farming than Israel, and if Israel has overcome such dire straits to transform the desert into a fruit land, how much greater is the potential for Jamaica to revolutionise our agricultural industry if we manifest the same political acumen, resolute discipline, and innovative resourcefulness?

Fredoy St Aubyn Morgan is a theology graduate of the Northern Caribbean University. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or staubyn200@gmail.com.

FREDOY ST AUBYN MORGAN

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