Israelis harness sun, saline water to transform desert

BEERSHEVA — Although Israel has the resources to pave the Negev with industry, it's transforming the desert's worst liabilities — a harsh sun and undrinkable salt water — into vital assets.

In the heart of the Negev, Israelis are turning the glaring sun into a hot energy commodity and irrigating the sand with overabundant underground seas of saline water. They're also unearthing other natural resources to improve the quality of life in a country in which 60 percent of the land is covered with sand.

"There is no need to fight the desert," said Professor David Feiman, who heads Ben-Gurion University's National Solar Energy Center in the tiny desert village of Sde Boker.

Instead, the current trend, led by established scientists, young students and developers in the Negev, is not to clear or demolish the desert, but to use its untapped resources.

Speculations of a great empire in the desert already abound.

"The Negev in the future will be more dense than the Singapore of today," said Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva.

Indeed, there seem to be more construction cranes than trees in Beersheva, Israel's third-largest city and an outpost for developing the Negev. Former Knesset member turned developer Stef Wertheimer built one of his multimillion dollar, Silicon Valleyesque industrial parks just outside the city.

Driving through the Negev, one occasionally comes across large plantations and long greenhouses that seem to have sprouted from nowhere. Scientists say the desert has more than enough water for such agriculture oases — if the vast underground reserves of water can be utilized.

Professor Dov Pasternak, director of Ben-Gurion's Institute for Agriculture and Applied Biology, claims to have found a way to "change saline water into a blessing."

Since 1971, he has been leading the world's first and only saline irrigation research team, seeking ways to use the water without desalinization.

Researchers have isolated a group of crops that can grow with salt water. Working closely with farmers, the institute now helps lush tomatoes grow in the desert's mild winter for export to the United States. Researchers have also discovered that olive oil tastes better when the trees have been watered with a saline solution.

The salt water does not contaminate the drinking water supply, which is deeper underground, or poison the soil, since the sand's high concentration of calcium neutralizes the toxicity of sodium.

"Today you could say there is plenty of water in the Negev, only a lack of people," Pasternak said.

Inspired by Israel's research, UNESCO is teaching other desert countries how to tap into their abundant saline water supply for agriculture. Saline water now flows among crops in some areas of the Sahara Desert, where "some people are starving simply because they don't know how to irrigate," he said.

The desert is also plagued by another relentless enemy. But in the Negev town of Sde Boker, the endless glare of the yellow sun and surrounding dusty orange landscape are the color of gold for scientists at Ben-Gurion University's Albert Katz School for Desert Research.

Indeed, the dream of converting the sun's rays into gold soon may not be just a mirage to physicist Feiman, who controls a large fleet of solar panels and dishes in Sde Boker.

Using photovoltaic cells composed of materials that are cheaper than the usual silicon and a large satellite-like dish that concentrates sunlight, Feiman said the center is poised to make solar energy profitable.

In fact, the cost will be significantly less than of fossil fuel, said Feiman.

"We are about to crash through what people call the mythic price barrier of being able to generate electric power from solar energy for less than 10 cents a kilowatt hour," he said. "So far, most people get solar energy at 30 cents."

Feiman already raised eyebrows two years ago at a U.N. conference, when he said that the expansion of the desert was actually a boon. He suggested that the solar power generated in a 100-square-kilometer patch of desert could be harnessed to meet all of Europe's energy needs. A similar-size patch in Arizona could do the same for the United States, he said.

But Feiman doesn't expect his research will end global dependence on oil. "I think this discovery means a cleaner environment, but I don't think it will end up saving fossil fuels," he said.

Saline water and solar energy aren't the only resources that scientists at the desert research institute are tapping. They have also discovered rich potential in the natural habitat.

Some projects include growing spirulina, an algae used as a protein supplement. Even the school's architects are taking part, creating buildings that not only use the sun's energy, but also capture the cool air of night to provide comfort during hot summer days.

Other countries with desert land are taking note, sending students to Israel to learn how to improve their countries' food and energy supplies.

Genlin Giao, a student from Beijing, works on plant physiology to find new ways to maximize crop output. "The biggest problem in China is making enough food," he said. "I want to study how plants grow faster so I can increase the yield of crops in my country."

Osama Sourkhr, a young Palestinian from Jerusalem, is looking for practical applications to help his people improve their agricultural skills. "Since we only have a small area mostly in the desert to live, our society needs the knowledge of how to grow more out here," he said.

On the sociopolitical front, students at Ben-Gurion's main campus in Beersheva also are digging in to help improve the standard of living for those who call the desert home.

Ben-Gurion launched a program in which students live in rent-free dorms while participating in the only community action program in an Israeli university. Students are required to work eight hours a week with local underprivileged families — primarily former Soviet Union immigrants, Ethiopians and Sephardim.

Students teach parents and children how to use computers, and they play games with kids and help them with homework. Many say in the few years the program has existed, it's had a positive effect on life in the area, for both students and residents.

Said Bat-Sheva Levi, director of the program, "There is also a human desert out here. We need to help the distressed people in this area to promote solidarity in our future."