Israeli scientist shares understanding, vision for desert

The problem of desertification — the loss of soil fertility due to erosion — barely makes a dent in the consciousness of most North Americans. Although terms such as "global warming," "greenhouse effects" and "emission standards" have been in the popular lexicon for almost two decades, little has been written about desertification in the Western press.

Uriel Safriel, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, called the lack of knowledge "surprising," given that desertification affects 30 percent of the globe, resulting in roughly $40 billion per year in lost income. It's also surprising given that desertification has already occurred in America — with disastrous results.

Safriel, the director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion, said the infamous Dust Bowl that swept through Oklahoma during the 1930s was a result of desertification. That disaster, which resulted in widespread loss of life, housing and agriculture, produced a dust storm so fierce that it was possible to see the floating particles as far away as New York.

Safriel, who was in the Bay Area recently for a lecture series sponsored by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said it was imperative to understand the conditions that led up to the Dust Bowl. He noted that when a serious grain shortage erupted in Europe during World War I, farmers in the Midwest planted extra crops to keep up with demand, thereby using a much greater share of water than was actually available, and removing almost all the natural vegetation. The result was parched earth with nothing to keep it moored.

This process, which has contributed to impoverished conditions in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Asia, also has the potential to occur in areas from central California to Latin America, Safriel said.

Over the past two decades, the Blaustein Institute has studied the phenomenon of desertification. Its findings include the radical notion that the desert, often associated with barrenness, may actually be an ideal location for economic prosperity.

The 64-year-old professor posed an analogy of two flower merchants — one living in Los Angeles, the other in New York. The merchant in Los Angeles would be able to grow flowers at half the price of the merchant in New York, who must construct and maintain an expensive greenhouse to combat the harsh winters.

"Now imagine how cheaply a flower merchant could grow geraniums with 400 times more sunlight," said the professor with a trademark chuckle. "That flower merchant would be doing pretty well for himself."

The only places that have the amount of natural sunlight Safriel referred to are the arid desert lands found primarily in impoverished areas. But geranium production is not what Safriel has in mind.

Sea bass is more like it.

The professor pointed out that areas such as the Sahara and Gobi deserts are natural reservoirs of brackish water, which, although not potable, is perfect for fish.

Not only do fish not need to consume fresh water, but the land in the desert is much cheaper than in more affluent areas, thereby making it even more lucrative for "fish farmers."

But first, according to Safriel, a complete shift is needed in the on the role of desert research.

"For many years all the research went exclusively into technology," Safriel said. But that research and the resulting innovations failed to consider the differing political and cultural climates of desert countries, according to Safriel.

He gave the example of a highly efficient solar-energy powered oven that would be perfect for people in a sub-Saharan African country. The only problem is that the people in that region cook mainly at night, rendering the oven useless. Safriel and his colleagues hope to avoid such scenarios by carefully studying the sociological and political climate of countries, in addition to a region's geographical concerns.

Safriel knows, for example, that generations accustomed to herding goats or sheep will be hard pressed to give up their only known means of income, unless they can adopt an "entrepreneurial mindset."

"In Israel, many people move to more arid areas not because of patriotism or seclusion, but because the land is cheap, and it can make them a lot of money."

Perhaps the most monumental change in the financial fortunes of desert inhabitants might be in solar energy. The Blaustein Institute has been testing a solar-powered device called the "Big Dish," which transforms solar energy directly to electricity, without the intermediary of water and steam.

Thus, he noted, as fossil fuels are rapidly being depleted, poor people living in desert areas may become the purveyors of natural energy.

Safriel said work focusing on the desert's resources could also promote peace. As a result of the Middle East peace talks held in Madrid in 1991, the Blaustein Institute has participated in collaborative efforts to control land degradation.

The Israeli institute is working to curtail soil erosion with representatives from Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority. Despite the conflicts of the past year and a half, the group has been meeting regularly to concentrate on turning arid lands into economically viable centers of productivity.

The theory, as Safriel noted, is that "business, science and technology can promote peace — and that peace promotes business."

The Israeli scientist hopes that's one theory that will yield great results.