Spread of deserts No. 1 crisis of planet, Israeli says in S.F.

Uriel Safriel may be on a mission to save the planet, but he still has trouble getting out of bed each morning like every other working stiff.

"I struggle," joked the director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University. "Who likes to get up in the morning?"

The 61-year-old Israeli is driven by the desire to combat what he calls the No. 1 environmental crisis facing the earth: desertification. And even though his bed beckons in the morning, and retirement age looms near, he has no intentions of deserting his job.

"I want to work as long as I can," Safriel said during a summer visit to San Francisco. "The institute is a very exciting place."

The Blaustein Institute is the leader in Israel — and among the most important research institutions in the world — in developing ways to combat desertification, the process whereby semi-arid land prematurely becomes desert.

"All deserts of the world are a result of the process of desertification. It's a natural process that occurred millions of years ago," said Safriel, who earned a Ph.D. in ecology from Oxford University in 1967. "Nowadays, man is causing desertification. Not intentionally, but due to mismanagement."

The transformation begins in the edges of the desert, which are semi-arid. Overpopulation in those areas causes the already-fragile soil to become less productive. "When more livestock enters the area, what happens is over-grazing and the pastures cease to be renewable," he said.

Third World countries such as India and China, he said, are experiencing the most dramatic effects of desertification.

According to the institute's research, desertification impacts 30 percent of the globe and about 1 billion people. Approximately $40 billion per year of income is lost due to eroded soil.

Its rippling effects are devastating. Once a reduction in agricultural productivity occurs, Safriel said, famine and malnutrition set in. Migration follows, resulting in refugees.

"There's social strife, political struggles, wars and interventions from other countries," he said. "It is the most significant environmental problem because it immediately crosses social, economic and political lines.

"Somalia — that's what happened there," he added.

Many nations are taking the problem seriously, as evidenced by the environmental agreement (to combat desertification) ratified by 130 countries at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The United States, however, did not join the coalition and is still dragging its feet on the issue, said Safriel. "Affluent countries view the awareness of environmental problems as a luxury. It's something you deal with when all other problems are solved.

"The reluctance of Congress and policy makers is about concern over the expenditures in international agreements," he added. "A major concern is using taxpayer money to support issues outside America."

U.S. politics aside, the Blaustein Institute continues to give top priority to tackling this worldwide problem. "It's definitely a race against time because desertification is very difficult to rectify," he said.

"All we can do at the moment is try to halt the pace of destruction of the soil."

Even though Israel has been successful in developing its semi-arid land and sustaining its productivity over time, making the desert bloom is not the focus of the institute. "You can fight with nature, but it is not economical," said Safriel. "You have to learn to walk with nature."

The philosophy is to discover what useful things the desert has to offer. In other words, said Safriel, "How can you make the curse into a blessing?"

Results include advances in solar energy, and discovery of medicinal and cosmetic uses of desert plants.

The institute has also made a number of potentially important discoveries concerning algae, which grows well in desert environments, Safriel said. For example, the institute is testing one type of algae to determine its effectiveness in combating herpes.

Such research will mean little, however, unless desert populations embrace the discoveries and create "alternative occupations and livelihood," Safriel said. "Instead of growing crops, subsistence food or raising sheep, the desert people can grow algae, produce cash crops and export them."

The institute wants to assist developing countries in creating a "marketing infrastructure," he said.

"Our research now is not agricultural. It's in the social sciences — how to change the social structure in these countries so that they can develop their infrastructures and market the crops that have a competitive advantage."

In November, Ben-Gurion University will open the first international school for desert studies. "We would like to provide not only the know-how but the training," Safriel said.